‘I have often had a fancy,’ G.K. Chesterton wrote in his book Orthodoxy (1908), ‘for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.’ The man would arrive, ‘armed to the teeth and talking by signs’, and try to plant the British flag on the Brighton Pavilion. A little later Chesterton says: ‘I am that man in a yacht. I discovered England.’ He likes this trope and returns to it in detail in The Everlasting Man (1925), adding the variant story of the boy who couldn’t recognise the exotic secret of his village until he got far enough away from it. ‘That, I think, is a true picture of the progress of any really independent intelligence today.’ Home is not only where the heart is, it is our only chance of having a heart. Everything else is an abstraction.
Only by understanding this proposition ‘can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it’; realise the full excitement of the ‘pursuit of the obvious’; acknowledge that ‘ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary.’ In Heretics (1905) Chesterton even talks about ‘the ecstasy of being ordinary’, which seems to be going a bit far, even for an ordinary man. The trouble with Kipling, we learn in the same book, is that ‘he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.’ Chesterton, of course, is not quite claiming to be ordinary, or to have always been at home. That is the point of his fancy. He discovered England by mistake, and discovered his mistake in the process, along with Kipling’s narrowness and a host of other national failures. His highest praise for H.G. Wells is that ‘he has come to the most dreadful conclusion a literary man can come to, the conclusion that the ordinary view is the right one.’
It’s not Chesterton’s fault that his idea should have become so popular with people who didn’t have to go to Oz to find out that home was best, but there is something baffling in his insistence on it, especially since its interest varies so vastly with its forms of expression. Astonishment at the world is surely an attractive proposition, and so, in a more subtle way, is the pursuit of the obvious – as long as one pursues it rather than parading it. But the claim that ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things is a mess; as is Chesterton’s announcement, in his preface to Orthodoxy, that he is seeking to offer ‘an explanation, not of whether the Christian faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it’. If he has come to believe it, it can be believed – what further demonstration could we want? The question is whether it should be believed. Chesterton thinks it should, but is trying not to insist and so falls into his logical hole. The same goes for the ordinary things. If they are extraordinary after all, we just return to where we started, only to take another path: extraordinary things are more valuable, they just aren’t the things we thought they were. But why do we have to ‘contrive’ to be astonished as distinct from just being astonished?
Reading Chesterton over the last few weeks, I came to feel I was living out a tiny equivalent of his romance, but in reverse. I set off expecting to find a version of Englishness and ended up off the coast of a new island, an angry, troubled spot dominated by a man armed to the teeth and talking by signs. It’s true I was not properly prepared for the journey. I had read Chesterton on Dickens and on the Victorian age; read all the Father Brown stories; and read or heard quoted many memorable epigrams. I had seen shadows of his invention in Borges, snatches of his thought in T.S. Eliot, echoes of his paradoxes in Larkin, and an allusion to his imagery in Nabokov (I’m thinking of the ‘democracy of ghosts’ in Pnin, which recalls Chesterton’s definition of tradition as ‘the democracy of the dead’). I thought, and still think, that his assessment of the English 19th century is about as shrewd as such things get: ‘It is no idle Hibernianism to say that towards the end of the 18th century the most important event in English history happened in France. It would seem still more perverse, yet it would be still more precise, to say that the most important event in English history was the event that never happened at all – the English Revolution on the lines of the French Revolution.’ But I had not encountered Chesterton the Christian apologist, and I was, I confess, the man who had not read The Man Who Was Thursday.
P.D. James, in her introduction to a selection of Father Brown stories, says: ‘Chesterton never wrote an inelegant or clumsy sentence.’ Almost everyone reaches for the word ‘genial’ when they talk about him, and we are told that he loved to argue. All of these assertions are true in part. There are no inelegant or clumsy sentences in the Father Brown stories, and not many in the work anywhere, although the opening sentence of The Man Who Was Thursday would be a candidate: ‘The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.’ Chesterton could be very genial, as in the following wonderful sentence from Heretics, where he pretends to see Naturalist writers as cheerful because they were clear, and even uses the word ‘genial’: ‘In the glad old days, before the rise of modern morbidities, when genial old Ibsen filled the world with wholesome joy, and the kindly tales of the forgotten Emile Zola kept our firesides merry and pure, it used to be thought a disadvantage to be misunderstood.’ And even when he is not genial, he is very funny. ‘Mr Shaw is (I suspect) the only man on earth who has never written any poetry.’ George Moore ‘is in a perpetual state of temporary honesty’. Wells ‘is the only one of his many brilliant contemporaries who has not stopped growing. One can lie awake at night and hear him grow.’ As for arguing, Chesterton and Shaw quarrelled publicly for a lifetime without losing their respect for each other. ‘I have never read a reply by Bernard Shaw,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘that did not leave me in a better and not a worse temper or frame of mind.’ One assumes Shaw felt the same.
But Chesterton would damn me for such equable concessions. He tells us he doesn’t believe in partial truths; he can’t stand compromise or resignation. He is an absolutist, even when urging moderation on us. It’s absolute moderation or nothing. And when he is invading England, he is far from genial. In a fine undated ballade, he acknowledges that laughter is ‘terrible and true,/A thunder given of God before the Fall’, but goes on to say that
perhaps the last most blessed isle
Is not of laughter; maybe, after all:
The happy people hardly ever smile.
The final line appears three times more as a refrain, following the tradition of the ballade form, and the envoi reads:
Prince, at the ballet when you have a stall
You roll about with laughter all the while;
The ‘Star’ describes your laugh as genial:
The happy people hardly ever smile.
Fortunately, Chesterton doesn’t always practise the happiness he preaches, but he does, at least in his High Christian mode, love words like ‘fierce’ and ‘furious’, and he delights in images of irrevocable violence. His joke about the guillotine (it knows where to draw the line) is witty but disturbing, and his equation of Zola with Torquemada – no, his preference for Torquemada because in his time ‘there was at least a system’ – is outrageous. He regrets, or pretends to, that millionaires and tyrants (the same thing in his view) are not ‘publicly whipped in Westminster Abbey’. He has some astonishingly uncharitable pages on suicide, and he reminds us that ‘real love has always ended in bloodshed.’ Yes, yes, he means Christ’s love for us, and the giving of his life for our sins; but a terrorist could be forgiven for misunderstanding the proposition.
And in Orthodoxy at least, Chesterton doesn’t argue – The Everlasting Man is more conciliatory, and more elementary. Chesterton thinks he may have taken his imitation of innocence too far, exaggerating ‘even my own ignorance’ in the process. In the earlier book he just fills the world with straw men and waits for them to fall down. If the intellectual world of his day is a madhouse, as he repeatedly says it is, and if every intellectual is mad in some way or other, then the only sane people left are us: Chesterton and his readers, a cosy company of people who have got it right without leaving the home of our received opinions. Of course, Chesterton is not saying the company is cosy. He is saying ‘there never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.’ But his style makes clear that the perils and excitements are in-house attractions, aspects of the scope of Christian thought, not a sign of its engagement with other traditions.
Both optimists and pessimists, for instance, talk ‘raving nonsense’ because one group thinks the world ‘as good as it could be’, and the other thinks it’s ‘as bad as it could be’. Leaving aside the question of whether optimism and pessimism mean anything like this, it’s clear what’s wrong with this kind of talk. The world could be better and it could be worse. Accepting this state of affairs, though, produces just the sort of decent stoicism Chesterton detests, and his next move is really brilliant. It’s not that the world could be better or worse. It is better and worse, fully fallen and perfectly redeemable. We are to go at it with ‘a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent’, and rather than deny optimism and pessimism, which is where his logic seemed to be leading us, we are to seek both of them in their extreme, irrational forms. One needs to be ‘a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist’.
There is an important truth in these claims. It is possible to be passionately committed to traditional, indeed ancient views; not all devotion and energy belong to the opposition. But the claims mischievously disguise at least three other truths: that the opposition is unlikely to be wholly mad or degenerate; that fanaticism is not such a wonderful idea, even if it’s only a rhetorical gesture; and that if I am told that there is a terrific adventure in believing what I have always believed, I am more likely to slap myself on the back than go out and fight a dragon.
The most attractive pages in Orthodoxy successfully combat this manifest temptation. Chesterton declares war on all forms of belief and unbelief that allow us to settle in on ourselves. He wants us to seek a severe and outward-looking happiness, and we need to be willing to pay for it. Indeed, paying for it is an essential part of the appeal. We are to live in the world by means of ‘a sort of sacred thrift’: we should treat everything as if it had just been saved from a shipwreck. Fairy tales preach ‘the Doctrine of Conditional Joy’. There is always a prohibition, absolute and arbitrary. ‘The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld . . . an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.’ This doctrine may seem as perverse as it is familiar, and Proust and Freud would surely see it as a means of securing ourselves against happiness rather than arriving at it; but its power and pedigree are obvious. And whatever else it does, it places the individual irrevocably among other people and unmistakable material things. ‘Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.’ And if we fail to find ways of ‘creating life for the world’, Chesterton can tell us in no uncertain terms what our end will be:
Then when this kindly world all round the man has been blackened out like a lie; when friends fade into ghosts, and the foundations of the world fail; then when the man, believing in nothing and in no man, is alone in his own nightmare, then the great individualistic motto shall be written over him in avenging irony. The stars will be only dots in the blackness of his own brain; his mother’s face will be only a sketch from his own insane pencil on the walls of his cell. But over his cell shall be written, with dreadful truth, ‘He believes in himself.’
This is probably closer to Poe than to Thomas à Kempis, but it’s a wonderful passage and it allows us to find elsewhere what Chesterton found in Christianity. Truth is stranger than fiction, he says in Heretics, ‘for we have made fiction to suit ourselves’.
William Oddie’s book is a painstaking and intelligent study of the man who was not yet quite the Chesterton we have been looking at. This early life is a neglected area in Chesterton studies, Oddie tells us, and he found ‘existing biographies of little help’ – with the exception of Maisie Ward’s 1944 book. He is very good on the scientific and theological contexts of the time, and he takes us right to the threshold of Chesterton’s new/old encounter with England, or of his report on that encounter; tracing, as he says, ‘the process of intellectual discovery which comes to a fairly clear terminus ad quem in 1908 with Orthodoxy’. The bohemian Chesterton attends St Paul’s School, then the Slade School of Art and University College, London; becomes a journalist, writes poems, gets into many arguments, often with himself; writes books on Browning and Dickens, writes The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and pursues the religious controversies that lead him to Heretics and Orthodoxy. It’s worth remembering that even when fully declared, his faith at this time is very broadly Christian, a matter of the Incarnation and its consequences. He joined the Roman Church only in 1922.
Oddie occasionally writes as if he had learned his logic from his subject. ‘His childhood was not without its sorrows; it would not, nevertheless, be wrong to describe it as a cloudlessly happy one.’ Because sorrows don’t cause clouds, or because we can call it what we like? I find Oddie’s claim for Chesterton as a Victorian sage hiding behind an Edwardian journalist mildly implausible, but then perhaps a person who doesn’t care much for sages anyway shouldn’t insist on having an opinion on this matter. And I am fully persuaded by Oddie’s suggestion that The Man Who Was Thursday, published only six months before Orthodoxy, is an intimately ‘self-revealing’ book, and by his careful reading of that text. I found his comments on Orthodoxy very helpful too, since he makes it clear that Chesterton, in what he himself calls ‘a sort of slovenly autobiography’, is playing an interesting double game. There is ‘a process of multiple remembering’, ‘a conflation of the period recalled with the process of recalling it’.
Jonathan Lethem, in his very sharp introduction to a Modern Library reprint of The Man Who Was Thursday, says the novel is ‘far too personal and strange to parse as an allegory of Chesterton’s Catholicism’, and he is right. Or rather, it is too personal and strange to parse as a straightforward allegory (if there is any such thing). The chief protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is usually taken to represent Chesterton. He is, he says, ‘a poet of order’, even ‘a poet of respectability’ – surely a contradiction in terms in the turn of the century London where the story is set, and the close equivalent of a person who can find perils and excitements in old dogma. He is also a policeman, but ‘not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective.’ He is a detective because he wants to defend the poetry of order against the death-wish of anarchy. He gets himself elected to the Central Anarchist Council, whose seven members are simply known as days of the week (the Thursday slot has recently been vacated and he has taken it), only to discover, in a very nicely paced sequence, that five of his colleagues are police infiltrators, too, and that his sixth colleague, the vast and unfathomable Sunday, is working both for and against the Anarchists.
Chesterton is more critical of Syme than he is of himself – or than he is of himself as himself. Syme defends respectability ‘with violence and exaggeration’. ‘He was one of those who are driven . . . into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists.’ He ‘had to revolt into something’, Chesterton says, ‘so he revolted into the only thing left – sanity. But there was just enough in him of the blood of these fanatics to make even his protest for common sense a little too fierce to be sensible.’ He is touchy too, ‘a great deal too sensitive to the smell of spiritual evil’. There may be an element of self-congratulation here, but mostly Chesterton is refining his self-portrait. And of course he has left other self-portraits in the book. If he is the respectable Syme he is also (or could have been, or used to be) the arch-anarchist Gregory, and he is all of Syme’s colleagues on the council too, or at least he knows their fears: their shared fear of nihilism, and the particular fears of the Professor (‘the tyrannic accidents of nightmare’), the Doctor (‘the airless vacuum of science’), as well as those, less closely defined, of the Secretary, the Marquis, the tragic Polish exile.
The person in the novel Chesterton is not, and by design cannot be, is the President, Sunday, the man who leads the others into terrorism and appoints them to hunt themselves down. When Syme finally claims to understand what has been happening to them all, to have grasped the full meaning of the intricate conspiracy that has entangled them – when he therefore comes closest to being the Chesterton of Orthodoxy – the narrator of the novel pulls the rug from under the poor fellow’s already sliding feet, and manages both to endorse the message of the essay and provide a devastating critique of it.
Syme thinks Sunday’s scheme was an instrument for making them suffer, and for turning suffering into knowledge. ‘We have been broken upon the wheel . . . We have descended into hell.’ Sunday’s face assumes ‘a strange smile’, and he cries out: ‘Have you ever suffered?’ Then the smiling face grows until it fills the sky, and Syme faints. Just before he loses consciousness he seems ‘to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”’ The text is Mark 10.38; the context Christ’s answer to the request of James and John that they may sit with him in glory. He says the seats in glory are not for him to give, but also, rather forbiddingly, that they will indeed get to drink of the cup he drinks of. In the secular framework of the novel, though, the voice is surely saying that Sunday is the only man of sorrows, that no suffering is like his: that Syme and his colleagues haven’t even started to know anything about suffering. This confirms much of the argument about mystery and awe to be found in Orthodoxy; but it also makes Christ himself a sort of cipher, the mere measure of everything we don’t know about pain. There are many ways of learning such modesty, and it’s not at all clear that orthodoxy is the best place to begin.
Chesterton’s subtitle for the novel is ‘A Nightmare’, and with hindsight we can see the genres he is skirting. ‘Not quite a political dream,’ Kingsley Amis said, ‘nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a comic joke in the form of spy novel, but it is something of all three.’ Lethem adds that the book is ‘not quite a roman noir nor a simplistic religious allegory’, and thinks it is ‘much too complete and legible to be a nightmare, and really, too happy’. It starts out chatty and quaint and ends with an awakening from a bad dream. It has many twists and surprises, a little preaching here and there, and some great grim jokes: ‘Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life . . . by the sacrifice of what seem to them to be lesser lives.’ But above all it has three sequences of especial brilliance and edginess, which point us to a certain complicated conclusion.
The first concerns the chase of Syme by the infirm and elderly Professor de Worms, whom Syme at this stage still believes to be an anarchist. The Professor moves ‘slowly and painfully’, or seems to, and yet manages instantly to appear wherever Syme goes. Syme walks through a snowy London and finds the Professor standing in front of him, staring at a shop window. Syme wanders off, taking various streets at random and has lunch at a restaurant. As he leaves he sees the Professor sitting there. Now Syme races away, but as soon as he stops, sure of having shaken off his pursuer, the Professor shows up. Syme runs for a bus, knowing the ancient Professor can’t possibly compete with such speed. As he reaches the top deck and turns round, the Professor is climbing the stairs. The chase has several more episodes before Syme stops running. The plot point here is that the Professor is also a policeman, not the terrible agent of the Anarchists’ Council. But the magical, impossible effect of his never failing presence becomes frightening in its own right, whoever he is.
Later in the novel, when the policemen have learned that they are all policemen, they become convinced that Sunday, known to them at this stage only as the evil President, is taking over the world (‘he has bought every trust, he has captured every cable, he has control of every railway line’), and one by one their real and symbolic hopes die: the noble peasant, the decent doctor, the local police, ordinary people themselves, all gone over to the dark side. ‘We are the last of mankind,’ one of our heroes says. Then it turns out that this gang of others is just an aggregation of good guys, convinced that our men are the anarchists they are pretending to be. Again, the harmless resolution makes the story more disturbing, rather than less.
And finally, when the six detectives confront Sunday, he dashes off, leading them on a fabulous dance across London and the English countryside, in which he uses as transport a horse and cab, a fire engine, an elephant and a balloon, flinging enigmatic crumpled messages to his pursuers as he repeatedly gets away from them. They don’t catch him, he just reaches his country estate and invites them in, and here there is another complete change of tone. This patch of story, although it describes a chase, creates a sense of wild freedom, of innocent anarchy: let’s say, something in the line of Lewis Carroll, which is quite different from the oppression created by the ever-appearing Professor, which is different again from the apocalyptic semblance of the victory of evil.
In all three cases, though, the ordinary world is transfigured or abandoned, and if the orthodox Chesterton might suggest this was his way of showing us how extraordinary the ordinary can be, Chesterton the novelist would surely be happy to say it reveals the sheer fragility of ordinariness. ‘It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all,’ he says in a reckless moment in Orthodoxy. It is: an act of faith we make every day, whatever our theories about the practice. The ubiquitous Professor, the world gone bad and the evil President turned into a cosmic joker are all images of how it feels to need such faith and to make bad connections, or to fail to connect. The world deceives us or escapes us, and at this point we have to find our own way out of the not quite nightmare.