“G.K. Chesterton: A Biography” by Ian Ker. Oxford University Press (New York, 2011). 688 pp., $65.
Catholic News Service
Any adjective denoting great size — gargantuan, titanic, huge — seems to apply aptly not only to the literary output of G.K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton but to his physical appearance as well. Chesterton, best known today as the author of the Father Brown stories, was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. He usually wore a cape and walked with a sword in his hand and a cigar in his mouth.
In his writing career, which spanned the years 1895 to 1936, he wrote 80 books, hundreds of poems, 200 short stories and more than 4,000 essays. He wrote literary and art criticism, detective novels, political commentary and Christian apologetics. Chesterton could dictate without hesitation a complete essay to the exact word count required by the newspaper or magazine’s requirements.
Ian Ker’s new biography of Chesterton is the first in several decades. It is a scholarly biography with perceptive analysis of his major works of apologetics — “Orthodoxy,” “The Everlasting Man,” “St. Francis of Assisi” and “St. Thomas Aquinas” — but it does not ignore the quirky humanity of Chesterton. Chesterton could produce penetrating criticism of Dickens, but he frequently lost his way on trains and would have to telegraph his wife to find out where he was and how to get home.
For a man who became one of England’s most famous Catholics, Chesterton had little religious life in his youth. Born May 29, 1874, Chesterton was baptized as an Anglican as an infant, but his mother’s increasing agnosticism stopped any regular church attendance. Like many in England’s middle class, the Chesterton parents believed in liberalism, the political and social movement that saw human progress moving inevitably toward a just and happy future. To many, Darwin’s theories of evolution and, later, Marxian philosophy made belief in religious doctrine irrelevant. Nonetheless, G.K. developed a childish but ardent love for the Immaculate Conception when he was a boy.
Chesterton enjoyed the happiest of childhoods and he was irritated as an adult that so many chose to blame their parents for their adult miseries. His parents encouraged him to become an artist and were unconcerned about their elder son’s lack of success in school. From St. Paul’s School, he studied at the Slade School of Art for two years but left without a degree. Chesterton’s interest in drawing waned and he was increasingly passionate about writing. He was lucky enough to get hired by a publishing company in 1895. In 1902, he was given a weekly column at the Daily News and then was hired by the Illustrated London News three years later and he worked for them for 30 years. He also made money by making long speaking tours of Europe and the United States.
With his 1901 marriage to Frances Blogg, a devout Anglican, he was reintroduced to Christianity. He identified closely with the Anglo-Catholic side of the Church of England. While he increasingly saw the most authentic, truthful expression of Christianity in Catholicism, he did not become a Catholic until 1922. Chesterton was well aware of how controversial a step he was making, knowing the lingering hostility felt by most of the British toward Rome. Chesterton’s principal concern was that his wife not be angered by his decision or feel forced to follow him. Indeed, Frances did not join the Catholic Church until several years later.
Chesterton’s marriage was a happy one, but not an easy one. Frances endured periods of deep depression and had a horror of sexual contact. But she brought order to her husband’s chaotic life, managing both his domestic life and his public life. Unsurprisingly, the Chestertons had no children of their own, but, nonetheless, G.K. had an extraordinary rapport with children, delighting them with his stories and drawings. He had the same respect for children as he did for adults, basing his behavior on Jesus’ special regard for children.
There are two major elements of Chesterton’s thought that permeate both his religious writing and his literary criticism. First was a rich sense of wonder in the most ordinary things of life and giving thanks for them. Chesterton wrote, “It is the aim of all religion, of imagination, of poetry and the arts, to awaken that sense of something saved from nothing.” Second, he emphasized appreciating the limits of our imagination and the limitless nature of God who chose to take on the limits of our mortality. Knowing limits is “a way to appreciate how awful and beautiful this world is,” he wrote.
Chesterton saw Catholicism as “the key which unlocked the meaning of the world, it had to be complex and complicated, which is why he vigorously condemns the speciously attractive demand to simplify Christianity”. He accused Calvin of “(trying) to create a simplified Christianity, and creating a world of pessimism and devil-worship.”
For many years, audiences poured in for debates between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw, the great playwright. Chesterton would argue the need for and the worthiness of religion, while Shaw took the atheist position.
Despite the differences between them intellectually, they remained good friends. But Shaw, a strict vegetarian and always thin, never missed a chance to tease Chesterton about his weight. Chesterton mentioned that a famine had broken out in a certain region and Shaw said, staring at his friend’s stomach, “Yes, and you are probably the cause of it.” When one considers the level of political debate today, it makes one long for a chance to hear two such brilliant and funny men.
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Yearley earned a certificate of advanced study in theology at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. He continues to study theology