Chesterton Comes of Age

William Oddie offers the most ground-breaking work on him since Maisie Ward’s seminal 1944 biography.

From early in his career critics compared G.K. Chesterton to Dr. Johnson, perhaps rightly so. Both were largely self-taught yet revered men of letters—neither had earned university degrees—who unashamedly professed orthodox Christianity in a literary and philosophical culture that alternately scorned and disdained it. Both were large, eccentric, oddly-kempt men whose reputations were only enhanced by their oddness.

Indeed, both vault off the pages of history, Johnson refuting Berkeley’s idealism by kicking a stone—“I refute it thus!”—while Chesterton, swordstick and cigar waving, declares that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but found difficult and left untried.” A little knowledge of Johnson and Chesterton will stand one through innumerable dull parties. And yet there is a serious difference between them.

Samuel Johnson is not much read anymore. While universally quoted, it is not from Rasselas, the Rambler, Lives of the Poets or any of his writings. He is quoted, as I have done, from Boswell’s magnificent biography. While there is a sizable enough group of academic specialists who actually read his writing, it is the table-talk of Boswell’s Johnson that survives in the popular mind.

By contrast, G.K. Chesterton, unhappily for us, had no Boswell. His best lines, even if their origins were in his table-talk, can be found in his many volumes, which are still read and republished— more so now than even 20 years ago. But even as Samuel Johnson studies are a living academic field, “the academic embargo against recognition of Chesterton’s stature remains in place, for reasons which remain a matter of speculation,” writes William Oddie.

Those experienced in contemporary academic orthodoxies will have little trouble speculating. Oddie’s new biographical study, published by the prestigious Oxford University Press, signals, Deo volente, the beginning of the end of the embargo. The first of two volumes, Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy, is the most ground-breaking work on Chesterton since Maisie Ward’s seminal 1944 biography. Despite the hefty hardcover price, it should be on the shelf of everyone interested in Chesterton.

Oddie thinks ranking Chesterton with contemporaries like Beerbohm, Wells, Shaw, and Galsworthy is a fundamental mistake. Rather, he cites Wilfrid Ward’s 1908 assessment that Chesterton’s company is with “such men as Burke, Butler, and Coleridge” and Ian Ker’s more recent view that he “can be mentioned in the same breath as Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and especially, of course, with Newman.”

Further, Oddie asserts that by the tender age of 34 Chesterton’s mind was completely formed. “By 1908… the intellectual journey was largely completed; and when he came into full communion with the Holy See 14 years later, there was to be little or no further theological development from the position he had arrived at in Orthodoxy.”

As this last quotation shows, Oddie’s study is not a conventional biography, concerned simply to chronicle Chesterton’s life. Rather, his task is tracing Chesterton’s philosophical and theological development from his dictating stories at the age of three to what Oddie calls his “early maturity.”

Oddie doesn’t ignore Chesterton’s external life. He actually did a great deal of footwork, tracking down uncollected Chesterton articles and mining the more than 200 of Chesterton’s notebooks now in the British Library, allowing him to correct various mistakes, especially chronological, in previous Chesterton biographies. But this is all in service to understanding how this youth raised in the pleasantly vague intellectual confines of Victorian liberalism and the Unitarian sermons of Stopford Brooke became, in the title of a previous biography, “The Man Who Was Orthodox.”

Liberal though it was—and there is no doubt he imbibed and accepted many of its views—Gilbert Chesterton’s home had a presiding genius in his father, the enormously talented Edward Chesterton, whose gentle ways and fertile intellect instilled in his son “the permanent anticipation of surprise” that was “at the root of his religious apologetic” and “the driving force of his almost unconscious tendency toward the unearthing of paradox in apparently unfruitful soil.”

Combine this with the lessons his father, an omnicompetent amateur artist, taught young Gilbert about “the necessity of frames and limits,” and one can already see the elements that would come to fruition in the first years of the 20th century.

Oddie’s search through the Chesterton notebooks and his examination of the publications of the Junior Debating Club (JDC) at St. Paul’s School, shows that with these bare imaginative and philosophical ideas, the teenage Chesterton was already producing some writing that might have been written by his much older self. Not that his teachers knew much about it; Chesterton’s determination to hide his intellect and imagination rarely failed. While his JDC pals prepared for Oxford Gilbert spent a year taking courses at the University of London and traveling with his father, then entered the Slade Art School.

Much has been written about this time at the Slade, most of it implying that Chesterton had some sort of complete breakdown. Indeed, A.N. Wilson, reviewing this volume in the Times Literary Supplement, complains that Oddie doesn’t explain what it was at the Slade and in the Decadent movement that caused the “near breakdown.”

But this is because Oddie doesn’t think that Chesterton had a near breakdown. Instead, Oddie claims that Chesterton suffered “intermittently” from “morbid depression.” And this depression was caused by Chesterton’s perception that the Decadents’ philosophy wasn’t just empty, but was a vacuum being filled with “positive evil.” Chesterton’s beginning trek to orthodoxy in the early 1890s started with the step of recognizing the Devil at work.

The next step was his recovery of the elements he had found as a child in his father’s house. Whereas the hatred of limitation and boredom with the world led the Decadents to a joyless pessimism, Chesterton embraced the love of limits, now found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s work, and a sense of wonder, found in Browning and Whitman, and rediscovered the “optimism” of the life of gratitude.

Gratitude for life led him on the romantic quest to find out the one to whom he owed that gratitude. Though his old JDC friends testified that as a teenager he had been “looking for God,” his search now began again in earnest and some of his poetry testifies that Chesterton’s search had been prodded by the sense that God was nearby, looking for him.

Have you ever known what it is to walk Along a road in such a frame of mind That you thought you might meet God at any turn of the path?

The search was not easy, but George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which he had so loved as a child, was a great help to him. In it, says Oddie, he had learned the paradoxical nature of religious discernment, namely “the way that the eye of faith so often leads in the opposite direction to that suggested by merely human instinct or reason.” Chesterton’s sense that God was near led to a renewed interest in the one in whom God came near, which showed how seriously he took this lesson of relying on faith even against his inclinations.

While heretofore he had embraced the Unitarian minister Stopford Brooke’s version of the “historical Jesus,” there are signs that already by 1896 Chesterton was moving toward a belief in the human and divine Jesus of Christian teaching. Nearing the turn of the century Chesterton was to encounter a number of people who believed in the Jesus of Christianity and, indeed, in Catholic Tradition. They would serve as catalysts for his continued development. The first such person was Frances Blogg, a devout Anglo-Catholic whose real, intellectual, and practical piety was a shock to him. He determined to marry her soon after meeting her.

Through her he encountered a group of intellectual Anglo-Catholic clergy, including Charles Gore, Henry Scott Holland, Percy Dearmer, and Conrad Noel. Oddie argues persuasively, using evidence from Chesterton’s uncollected works in the Anglo-Catholic journal The Commonwealth, as well as the diaries and letters of Frances Chesterton, that Chesterton’s explicitly Christian and self-consciously Catholic writing in the early 1900s was due to the influence of these men—not Belloc, as often supposed. Chesterton imbibed their basically Catholic theology while rejecting their socialism and their anti-Rome arguments. Likening him to Newman, Oddie notes that from this point “Chesterton’s theological Odyssey was conducted with an Anglican map and guided by post-Tractarian charts.”

Chesterton found his way rather quickly. By 1900 he had embraced not only a belief in Christ’s divinity, but the reality of miracles, though he remained uncommitted as far as the differences between Protestant and Catholic views. While Chesterton “always maintained an uncommitted posture whenever he could,” at a certain point this “neutrality” between the two was abandoned. “[B]y 1903 (and probably sooner),” writes Oddie, “the connection had been made: ‘orthodoxy’ now meant the Catholic tradition as it was understood from within a particular Anglican perspective.”

From this point even Chesterton’s anti-imperialist political arguments were increasingly argued in specifically Catholic sacramental language and, in situations where he thought it appropriate, he could reveal that he “saw Protestantism as being in a kind of alliance with the unbelief of Huxley and Blatchford.”

Oddie’s volume will challenge many: those who see Chesterton’s orthodoxy as simply Protestant “mere Christianity,” those averse to the idea of attaining to full Catholic truth by Anglican means, and, of course, those academics responsible for the “embargo” on Chesterton study. Its conclusions even break down the comparisons with Dr. Johnson. The former was a wise man and a wit, while the latter, as Gilson said, was “one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed.”

 


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About David Paul Deavel 26 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is forthcoming from Notre Dame Press.