Not long ago , I heard the story of a trainee priest being interviewed by an irascible bishop. After some scanning of the man’s records, the bishop looked up and said abruptly: ‘Most of the problems in my churches stem from people unaware of how vulnerable they are to one of three temptations: money, sex or power. So which is it for you?’
G.K. Chesterton could have claimed to be unaffected by all three. He was famous for his indifference to money, keeping cabs waiting for hours while he talked in the pub, before rolling up penniless to the Daily News to deliver his copy in return for an advance to pay the fare. Distrusting banks, he kept cheques and banknotes in his pockets but forgot to spend them, until the cheques grew tattered and the notes got lost; eventually his wife took over the household finances and restricted him to pocket money of 2/6 per outing. Sex was not an obvious temptation either. Despite the restrictions she put on his wallet and on his waistline, G.K. adored his sober, dutiful, unshowy Frances, and was content to be mothered in his incompetence. But no children came, and Chesterton’s sister-in-law, Ada – she married his younger brother, Cecil – later claimed the wedding night had been so ghastly for Frances that their marriage had remained sexless. This might not be true: Ada had long nursed a grudge against Frances for taking G.K. out of the sharp-witted, boastful and heavy-drinking coterie of Fleet Street pals, where she had met the Chestertons, and off to sober Beaconsfield. As for power, Chesterton spent half a lifetime advocating distributism, a libertarian and localist politics that sought to evade socialist centralisation and capitalist wage-slavery alike by keeping as much wealth as possible at household level: each man in his own cottage with a pig at the end of the garden. Everyone who knew G.K. loved him for his kindliness and jollity, as well as the dazzling turns of phrase and the forensic psychology of the Father Brown stories. Chesterton adapted his detective’s talent for noticing the deceptiveness of the taken-for-granted in his defences of Christian belief in a secular world. Some people began to wonder if there were something saintly about him.
After his death in 1936, Chesterton was neglected by English departments more interested in The Waste Land than in rollicking ballads of the English road. But he still fascinated enough people to be given hagiographic treatments in the 1980s and 1990s by Alzina Stone Dale and Joseph Pearce. More critical studies by Ian Ker and William Oddie have emphasised the links between a life spent joyfully giving no thought to the morrow and the apologetic books, which argue that only Christian belief can supply a maximum of wonder at this world’s existence and a maximum refusal to take it to be all the good there is. At a memorial service marking the fiftieth anniversary of Chesterton’s death, Cardinal Emmett Carter described him as one of the ‘holy lay persons’ who have exercised a prophetic role within the Church and the world. Though the cardinal was hesitant, the Chesterton Review wondered whether there might be grounds for canonisation, given the ‘special integrity and blamelessness about him, a special devotion to the good and to justice’, coupled with the ‘breathtaking, intuitive (almost angelic) possession of the Truth and awareness of the supernatural which only a truly holy person can enjoy’. Addressing American Chestertonians twenty years later, Oddie was asked why there had been so little progress. He replied that for Chesterton’s cause to be taken seriously by the Church, there had to be a cult. ‘What the heck do they think we are?’ an audience member replied.
The volume Oddie edited after that conference, The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton (2010), laid out more evidence for the childlike wonder that Chesterton had retained amid the journalistic thrust and parry, both sides symbolised by the cloak and swordstick he affected. One appendix included a suggested prayer for his intercession in heaven. Another attempted to refute the chief obstacle to Chesterton’s canonisation, and to his reputation as a Christian: the antisemitism evident in his journalism. Despite his support for Zionism – in fact, thanks to it – Chesterton thought Jews would always be foreigners and honour-bound to have allegiances other than to Britain. The case that proved this to him beyond doubt was the Marconi affair of 1912, in which the attorney-general, Rufus Isaacs, profited from advance knowledge of government policy and bought shares in Marconi, his brother Godfrey’s company, shortly before it was awarded a lucrative contract to supply radio equipment to the empire by the postmaster-general, Herbert Samuel. After helping to expose the scandal in the New Witness, Cecil Chesterton was sued for libel by Godfrey Isaacs, and lost. G.K. regarded his brother’s action as heroic, and unhappiness with Cecil’s legal defeat, Oddie argued, explains G.K.’s worst comments. As a student in the 1890s, he had written a poem shaming France for the Dreyfus Affair, and near the end of his life in the 1930s he assailed crackpot Nazi theories of race superiority. But in between came Marconi, which showed, according to Oddie, that it was largely ‘Jews of a particular class that he disliked; that is, rich Jews who might be accused … of cupidity’.
The Chestertonians’ appeal eventually resulted in a six-year investigation by the diocese of Northampton into whether there was sufficient evidence of Chesterton’s ‘heroic virtue’ and of miracles arising from his intercession. But in 2019, the bishop announced that things would be taken no further: there was too much evidence of antisemitism and, surprisingly, too little of ‘a pattern of personal spirituality’ in G.K.’s life. The Sins of G. K. Chesterton suggests that the second reason may have a bearing on the first. It wasn’t money, sex or power that tempted Chesterton, but misplaced loyalty. He took part in a number of nasty instances of journalistic intimidation, not just during the Marconi affair, all of them a result of trailing along after his pugnacious brother and their mentor, Hilaire Belloc. After Auden discerned the pair’s ‘pernicious influence’ in his 1970 selection of Chesterton’s prose, biographers and commentators have discovered how much the resentful obsession with rich Jews and Liberal politicians was primarily Belloc and Cecil’s. Ingrams supplies detail about just how nasty the pair were to G.K., too. The witty debater and brilliant controversialist was, in private, incapable of resisting Cecil’s tests of his family loyalty or Belloc’s bullying demands for a pulpit. Against all sane counsel, he kept their prewar causes going long into the 1920s and 1930s in the hopelessly unprofitable G.K.’s Weekly, earning himself little but stress and exhaustion. His saintly lack of concern for practical affairs seems to have entailed not only a wilful failure to think about how his staff’s wages would be paid, but a deeper reluctance to address what he was avoiding and what he was clinging to – attachments that a life of prayer and self-examination are supposed to make clearer. ‘Never has such devotion been shown by one brother to the memory of another,’ wrote Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s first biographer; ‘never has the greater man exalted the lesser to such a pedestal.’
Cecil was a stinker by all accounts, including the admiring ones. Ada begins The Chestertons with the story of her first meeting with the brothers at a debate in Hampstead. G.K. had arrived late, flummoxed by the fact that Church Road seemed not to have a church on it. Abandoning his original topic, he improvised a speech on the naming of London’s streets:
‘If I go out of my father’s house in Warwick Gardens,’ he began, ‘and turn to the left, I find myself in what is called High St, Kensington. It is not high, it is quite flat, and it is a long way from Kensington, three reasons why it should not bear that name. It has, however, a distinguishing peculiarity. There are seven tobacconists, each of whom keeps a shop, but they are sad because they earn very little. If High Street Kensington were called the Street of the Seven Sorrowful Tobacconists these deserving tradesmen would grow prosperous, their shops would become landmarks.’
After prophesying an economic revival based on more streets being given names like Petticoat Lane or Hanging Sword Alley, G.K. sat down and Cecil got up with ‘combative glee’.
‘When my brother goes out of our father’s house,’ said Cecil, ‘if he turns to the left he will not find himself in High St, Kensington; that lies to the right. There is, moreover, a distinct, though slight gradient in the High St which I contend justifies its name. As for the tobacconists, there are only five, and one of the shops belongs to the firm of Salmon and Gluckstein, a combination which suggests many things, but hardly sorrow at small earnings.’
Ada, writing in 1941, leaves this without comment, as ungainsayable evidence that Cecil was ‘the most brilliant debater of his time’. As a child, she adds, he kept pet cockroaches and stacks of copybooks ‘containing juvenile novels and political theses and economic systems – the outlines of a Cecilian form of government, which covered every phase of national life’.
Unpopular at school, Cecil would monopolise conversations with his ‘contradictory temperament and an extraordinary belief in his own ability’, his fellow journalist Frank Harris remembered. It could not have been easy being the little brother of someone so famous and well-loved, but Cecil was convinced he’d been overlooked: Leonard Woolf noted the streak of ‘fanatical intolerance’ nourished by a ‘grudge against the universe, the world and you in particular’. Beginning as a Fabian socialist under the mentorship of Hubert Bland, Cecil came out in favour of the Boer War and praised Kipling for giving ‘to the silent movement of sentiment and opinion an articulate voice’. Then he switched loyalties again, first to A.R. Orage, proprietor of the anarcho-socialist New Age, before discovering Belloc and right-wing distributism. This is not quite the swerve it appears: all Cecil’s mentors shared a deep mistrust of parliamentary democracy and state benevolence, and a conviction that the real interests of the people were not being represented by MPs, political parties or newspapers owned by plutocrats. In person, they offered macho alternatives to Cecil’s own amiable, withdrawn, toy-loving father.
To the conviction that all those in power were in cahoots, Belloc added a layer of antisemitism. Like his hero the writer and politician Paul Déroulède, Belloc felt France had been unbearably shamed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and wanted revenge against the compromisers and financial interests that had undermined army morale. A thoroughgoing anti-Dreyfusard, he merged conspiracy theories about the plutocratic Jewish elite with resentment at not being offered a fellowship at All Souls and a ministerial position in the Liberal government of 1906. Belloc left Parliament in 1910 and started his own newspaper, the Eye-Witness (later the New Witness), which gave him a platform for his articles on the breakdown of English civilisation, complete with swipes at Lloyd George and his perfidious controllers, the Northcliffe press, bankers, Prussians and Jews. Converting to his master’s Roman Catholicism, Cecil also adopted his antisemitism, which emerges when he remarks in his rather patronising little book on his brother that the British aristocracy has fallen ‘into the hands of Hebrew moneylenders’. The book admires G.K.’s prodigious talent, but Cecil felt his brother was squandering his reputation as much as his taxi fares by writing so few books and so much for the Daily News, a Liberal paper. ‘Until he controls his effervescent desire to write everything that comes into his head he will never write the best that he might have written,’ he admonished. Warning his brother he had to choose between his excessive enthusiasm for the world and Cecil’s sterner standards was a lifelong tactic.
G.K. fell under the power of both men. ‘It was the hero in Mr Belloc that captured Mr Chesterton’s heart,’ rued A.G. Gardiner, his editor at the Daily News, as he watched his protégé being drawn into Belloc’s orbit. ‘For Mr Chesterton is the boy who refused to grow up. The world is forever filled with knights and dragons and Dulcineas in horrid dungeons … he watches his volcanic leader flashing into the lists and he winds his mighty horn to cheer him on.’ The volcano’s first eruption was The Party System, an exposé co-written with Cecil, which claimed that, despite the opposition to Lloyd George’s introduction of National Insurance, the Tories and Liberals were a political cartel. Cecil and Belloc took particular exception to the Liberal politician and journalist Charles Masterman, an old friend of the Chesterton family, and characterised his marriage to Lucy Lyttleton (the Liberal-voting daughter of the Tory chief of the general staff and a childhood friend of Frances Chesterton) as the act of an insecure and unsuccessful journalist inserting himself into ‘the little governing group which has the salaries and places in its gift’. They issued scurrilous leaflets during the 1911 Bethnal Green by-election, which Masterman narrowly won, and joined the Daily Express in smearing him again in 1914, when he lost two by-elections (one after being appointed to the cabinet). The New Witness crowed that Masterman, as the lackey of ‘Lloyd George … the Jews and their hangers-on’, should have been ‘excluded not merely from Parliament but from the society of decent honourable men’.
If Belloc was motivated by rancour at a more successful MP than he had been, Ingrams argues, the only explanation for Cecil’s venom can have been to force his brother to declare his allegiance to the attackers, not the Mastermans or his own wife. When H.G. Wells wrote to the New Witness to protest against the vendetta, Cecil replied: ‘I think it very probable that my brother and I should disagree to a considerable extent … on Masterman’s character and motives.’ But G.K. could not defend Masterman in public without calling Cecil’s motives into question. ‘By allying himself to Belloc, and insulting Masterman in the most vicious attacks imaginable,’ Ingrams writes, ‘Cecil could force his brother to change sides.’ He succeeded. Chesterton had dedicated a book to Masterman less than two years earlier, and Frances and Lucy had loved to go to parties together; the friendship disintegrated when he wrote to Masterman that he could not defend him in public, since he believed ‘the new and mutinous camp’ formed by his brother and Belloc were right.
Another target of Cecil and Belloc’s was George Cadbury, owner of the chocolate firm and the Daily News. Cadbury had organised campaigns with Masterman against sweatshop labour and as a pacifist had opposed the Boer War. But to Cecil and Belloc, his teetotalism and his insistence that Cadbury workers take exercise breaks were Puritanical despotism. Their influence on G.K. started to show when, uncharacteristically, he began to provoke Gardiner, his editor at the Daily News, with articles critical of the Liberal Party. Then he published ‘A Song of Strange Drinks’ in the New Witness, taunting teetotallers with the lines ‘Cocoa is a cad and a coward/Cocoa is a vulgar beast,/Cocoa is a dull, disloyal/Lying crawling cad and clown.’ His real target was only too obvious, and Gardiner reluctantly sacked him. ‘My unaffected physical recoil from cocoa was not an attack on Mr Cadbury,’ Chesterton’s Autobiography later protested, but of course it was, as a poisonous New Witness article from 1917 reveals: ‘Such philanthropists have more of the evil in spiritual superiority than all the priests on this planet. They are not even one caste: they are rather one firm and one family. They send a telegram: and the English coasts are nearly swept bare of their ships under the instant shadow of the Great War.’ The language betrays the paranoia of Cecil and Belloc. And so another of G.K.’s friendships went to the wall.
But it was the Marconi affair that provided the scandal Cecil had been waiting for. In the New Witness he kept slashing at Masterman as a symbol of the rot at the heart of government, ‘the deserter and deceiver of the poor, the associate of the Hirsches and the Samuels’. Then Tory rumours reached him of a potential conflict of interest scandal. One way to read it was as a case of insider dealing. The other way was that Marconi had got the contract only because Herbert Samuel was doing a favour to his fellow Jews, who were all in league to rip off the British taxpayer. Naturally, Belloc and Cecil pushed the second line; in an editorial a year earlier, Cecil had called Rufus Isaacs ‘an alien, a nomad and an Asiatic, the heir of a religious and racial tradition wholly alien from ours’. Now he demanded that both Isaacs and Samuel be punished and expelled from office, or ‘nothing in our public life is safe.’ When Le Matin broke the story, Cecil and Ada paraded up and down outside Marconi with placards warning of ‘GODFREY ISAACS’S GHASTLY RECORD’. They seemed desperate to be sued for libel, but when the trial came it was shown that Cecil had no information to back up his claims of a Jewish plot. Belloc, meanwhile, had contrived not to be present at the trial, and when pressed by a parliamentary committee, denied co-authorship of the antisemitic articles that had appeared in the Eye-Witness and the New Witness. Cecil’s fine was paid by a group of Tory MPs, but he thought himself a successful martyr, and started a campaign group called the League for Clean Government. G.K. chaired its first meeting, and watched his brother repeat his antisemitic accusations to a live audience, as if nothing had happened. Shortly afterwards, Chesterton had a breakdown, possibly a kidney problem, possibly mental collapse. ‘If you come he would not know you,’ Frances wrote to Fr John O’Connor, the priest who had inspired the character of Father Brown.
After G.K. slowly recovered, Cecil enlisted. In the New Witness he had been trying to keep up with the Daily Mail, warning of potential treachery from hotel-owners with Jewish and German-sounding names on the Kent and Sussex coasts. When he wanted to threaten Germans more directly, he pressured his brother to take over the paper. Knowing he was hopelessly unsuited to running a right-wing scandal sheet, Chesterton reluctantly drew in Ada, now Cecil’s fiancée, as his deputy. Scornful of his inept financial and editorial leadership, she was determined to maintain Cecil’s brisk, persecutory line. One of her 1916 articles smeared Ford Madox Hueffer as a Jew who wrote unpatriotic books. Hueffer was Catholic and had been gassed while on active service in France, but no matter. Another article attacked Whitechapel Jews for going to Underground shelters when Zeppelins dropped explosives, thus exhibiting a lack of moral courage and showing that they should be ‘cleared from the cities and made welcome in a bomb-proof ghetto in the Midlands where they can exhibit the cowardice of the race in decent privacy’. ‘She is not and never has been a person I could treat like an ordinary subordinate,’ Chesterton later confessed to Belloc, but no one forced him to draw admiring attention to that article in the following week’s editorial.
Then Cecil died – not in the trenches, as Chesterton let people believe at the time, but of an infection brought on by marching in the rain three weeks after the Armistice. Chesterton’s mind buckled, and he wrote an open letter to – of all people – Rufus Isaacs, now involved in the Paris Peace Conference. Cecil’s death had brought to an end ‘the great Marconi duel’ they had been fighting, Chesterton began grandly. Isaacs’s actions in 1913 and his ‘type of politics’ had discredited the nation, Chesterton wrote, and he couldn’t be trusted not to betray it again:
It is not, in short, a question of how much we dislike you, but of how far we can be expected to adore you, to die for you, to decay and degenerate for you … Have you the serious impertinence to call us Anti-Semites because we are not so extravagantly fond of one particular Jew as to endure this for him alone?
In this fantasy, G.K. was now stepping over his fallen brother’s body and fighting on. But it was the New Witness that fell. ‘You pose as the antagonists of a general corruption,’ H.G. Wells had warned Chesterton, ‘but the reality is a personal pursuit and individual spite.’ With Cecil gone, there was no reason to keep fighting, and few readers. Chesterton became a Catholic in 1922, but his friend George Bernard Shaw warned him this wouldn’t be any help in finding new sympathisers to the distributist cause:
The Roman Catholic Church, embarrassed by recruits of your type and born scoffers like Belloc … will quietly put you on the unofficial index … There is absolutely no public for your policy; and though there is a select one for yourself … it is largely composed of people to whom your oddly assorted antipathies and pseudo-racial feuds are uncongenial.
Ada was determined that the paper should keep the memory of her late husband alive, but wanted G.K.’s name on the cover, certain he was its one bankable asset. Belloc wanted a platform for his increasingly unhinged opinions about a Jewish, American and masonic conspiracy to cripple France and refinance Germany. Chesterton had to do more lecture tours and write many more Father Brown stories in order to keep the new title, G.K.’s Weekly, afloat. ‘Many a squire has died in a dank garden arbour, transfixed by a mysterious dagger,’ he later acknowledged, ‘in order that Mr Belloc may have a paper.’ Belloc rewarded his friend’s loyalty with articles admiring Mussolini, and when Chesterton defended him by saying that Britain had no right to protest against the invasion of Abyssinia because it had invaded small countries in its time, even Ada was shocked. ‘It astounded me that this genius, who had built up a vast reputation as a protagonist of fundamental liberties, should sidetrack the issue by suggesting that, having once bullied, you had no right to protest against bullying,’ she wrote. Support for the distributists fell away, and Chesterton’s death in June 1936 left the paper’s staff jobless and feeling that they had been led up the garden path morally as well as financially.
The Sins of G.K. Chesterton is primarily aimed at the fan club who mistook unworldliness and a habit of avoidance for heavenly-mindedness. ‘He never shirked an intellectual issue,’ a former employee of G.K.’s Weekly complained to Maisie Ward after the paper collapsed, ‘but in a practical crisis he was inclined to slide out.’ Chesterton had never thought of himself as a saint: in one of the Father Brown stories, ‘The Resurrection of Father Brown’, his hero turns pale with horror when he realises he has been the object of a plot to drug and then resuscitate him. ‘They thought any man alive, waking up in a coffin to find himself canonised like a saint, and made into a walking miracle for everyone to admire, would be swept along with his worshippers and accept the crown of glory that fell on him out the sky,’ remarks his Protestant companion, John Race. Father Brown really is a saint: self-effacing, he is unafraid to confront powerful enemies because he has nothing to lose. While Sherlock Holmes just wants to find out who did it, Father Brown is a detective with a cause, using his lightning perception of the real facts to explain to the villain that all is known, and to hear his confession before any suicide or further crime can be committed.
ACatholic himself, Ingrams wishes that Belloc had been more truly converted, both by reading the gospels and by paying more attention to Chesterton’s classic works of apologetics, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. I’m not sure the latter would have helped. The Everlasting Man is Chesterton’s major work of theology, a blockbusting reply to H.G. Wells’s bestseller The Outline of History, which tracked the unstoppable progress of mankind from primitive squalor towards a post-religious scientific consensus and a one-world government. Chesterton argues that religious mythology is not a stage of reason to be discarded on the way to science, but a manifestation of patterns that are permanent features of human thought, and which find their most universal form in Catholicism. It’s not surprising that J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough found dying and rising gods everywhere, Chesterton maintained in The Blatchford Controversies (1903), for if Christ really were the logos-principle of the world, his traces should be found everywhere. The Everlasting Man turns this thought into a history of world religion in which all types of faith are seen as preparation for the establishment of Catholic Christianity, the universal form which combines the philosophical appeal of ascetic religions like Stoicism or Buddhism with the local and sacrificial aspects of classical paganism. Christianity is defended as the only truly inclusive religion. But this means The Everlasting Man becomes far more interested in Rome than in Israel, looking for aspects of classical belief that presage Christianity’s triumph. Israel’s world-historical role was to hold fiercely to a monotheistic faith when everything around it wanted tolerant polytheism. Rome’s contribution was the defeat both of Moloch, worshipped by the Carthaginians, and of unspecified ‘Greek decadence’.
In attacking Wells, Chesterton also needed to show that Christ was an interruption to all religions rather than the harmless moralist that The Outline of History and liberal theology had made him. In some justly famous chapters, he tries to imagine someone reading the gospels afresh, seeing ‘things as new as newspaper reports’. The journalist’s approach allows him to sidestep the quest for the historical Jesus and to make some brilliantly fresh observations about the stories: the way that the supernatural healings and exorcisms are the most realistically described parts, for instance, or the absence of platitudes about the brotherhood of man or the joy of humble service. Instead, there are bloodcurdling judgments, the story of Mary and Martha, and claims about his own person that are so grand as to be delusional, were it not for the astute judgment Christ shows about everyone else. C.S. Lewis adapted this argument into the ‘mad, bad or God?’ challenge to neutral readers in Mere Christianity. But the effect in Chesterton is again to divorce Christ from his Judaism. Eyewitness reportage gives Chesterton no scope for noting the typological identifications with Elijah or Moses that the gospels want their readers to spot, and the description of Christ’s final sacrifice bypasses its setting in the Passover feast, which celebrates the flight from Egypt. This supersessionist account is not directly antisemitic, but it builds the historical oblivion of the Jews into the structure of world religion. Jewish ‘monumental monotheism’, he says, ‘has at least remained like a monument, the last thing of its kind’.
Then the ghost of Cecil reappears in another way. The preceding chapter reads the Nativity scene – Chesterton insists it took place in a cave – as a typological gathering of all world religions. The shepherds are the representatives of poetry and redeemed paganism, the Magi bring in philosophy and the East, and then there is Herod, who is essential: ‘Unless we understand the presence of that Enemy, we shall not only miss the point of Christianity, but even miss the point of Christmas.’ Christianity wasn’t born as a peaceful synthesis of all religion, but as warfare:
There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakeable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. By the very nature of the story, the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw’s den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out.
The Everlasting Man pursues the First World War analogy with enthusiasm: the birth of Christ should be seen as his ‘entrance into enemy territory’, an ‘undermining’ of the powers of the world, like a Royal Engineer tunnelling under German lines. Reading the gospel story, ‘we are meant to feel that his life was in that sense a sort of love affair with death, a romance of the pursuit of the ultimate sacrifice … for the story of Christ is the story of a journey, almost in the manner of a military march.’ It is meant to bring the Man of Sorrows pungently into the present, but the transhistorical synthesis of types serves to sanctify the soldier, and one soldier in particular. Cecil died ‘of the effects of exposure in the last fierce fighting that broke the Prussian power over Christendom’, Chesterton had written. If the soldier as a type of Christ was a truism of First World War rhetoric, The Everlasting Man returns the favour by making Christ a type of soldier.
While Chesterton shrank from personal conflict, an admiration for open-hearted combat runs through his writings. The streets of Notting Hill run with blood as the London boroughs fight it out in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, but the shopkeepers feel exhilarated and declare they have at last found something to make life worth living, compared to the stultified commercial peace of the city when it was administered by civil servants. The villains of Dickens’s novels, Chesterton’s biography observes, are vivacious because Dickens understood the ‘bellicose base of all cheerfulness’. To modernity’s ‘aching vacuum of joyless approval, there is only one antidote – a sudden and pugnacious belief in positive evil’. ‘This world can be made beautiful by beholding it as a battlefield,’ he goes on. ‘When we have defined and isolated the evil thing, the colours come back into everything else.’ Not only is war energising, it springs from the same primal feelings as faith. ‘Whatever starts wars, the thing that sustains wars is … something akin to religion,’ The Everlasting Man argues. Chesterton explains that religious feeling is related to the gut-level loyalty to home and family. Loyalty, like faith, is ‘love of something said to be threatened, if it be only vaguely known as home’, together with a ‘dislike and defiance of some strange thing that threatens it’. Never has faith sounded more like something that would be praised in the Daily Mail.
Some of this over-estimation of the powers of fighting came from his lifelong public quarrel with his anti-war friend George Bernard Shaw. But a stronger reason must be his own profession. In a piece from 1917 called ‘The Tyranny of Bad Journalism’ he blamed capitalist owners for the anti-democratic quality of most papers. The press ‘is not an organ of public opinion’, he warned, ‘it is a conspiracy of a very few millionaires, all sufficiently similar in type to agree on the limits of what this great nation (to which we belong) may know about itself and its friends.’ But as the article pitches again into Cadbury and Northcliffe, it reveals the deeper truth of Walter Lippmann’s observation in Public Opinion (1922), that no matter its backer, tabloid journalism had to attract readers by making every story about sex or fighting (or, better still, a fight about sex). Political discussion had to be a matter of crusades and feuds; international affairs were reduced to personal showdowns between strong leaders; and if it were a slow day, the opinion columnist could rustle up an argument. ‘Anyone who reads the New Witness for a spell either flies into a passion of rage, or freezes into contempt,’ the diplomat Maurice Baring warned, despite having been converted to Catholicism by Belloc’s example. If Cecil were alive today he would have a talk radio show; G.K.’s journalism was, by and large, far kindlier and more brilliant, but the need to compete for market share still slid the New Witness and G.K.’s Weekly towards polarisation and manufactured outrage. At one nicely self-incriminating moment in The Everlasting Man, Chesterton observes that before Pilate, ‘some brigand or other was artificially turned into a picturesque and popular figure and run as a kind of candidate against Christ. In all this we recognise the urban population that we know, with its newspaper scares and scoops.’
The one journalistic bully who Chesterton did finally manage to stand up to was Ada. She had been the obvious editor for G.K.’s Weekly, having kept the New Witness going after the war when Chesterton went on American lecture tours to bolster his finances. She had found new backers, and had the contacts, the efficiency and the bitterness to sustain its campaign. And yet after a year of dithering, Chesterton called his sister-in-law in and murmured, while doodling the outlines of a French cavalier on the blotting paper, ‘I think, do you know, that one Chesterton on the paper is enough.’ Where he found the strength to refuse her, Ingrams does not speculate; her shock and anger may have been one reason behind her unauthorised biography, published in 1941, which embarrassed the Chesterton family terribly.
But his refusal did her good. Forced to look to less virulent papers for work, Ada began writing a series of exposés on the plight of destitute women for the Sunday Express, after making a bet with an editor who believed she would never give up her flat and live on the streets for two weeks. Her experience of hunger and the hostility shown to homeless women so shocked her that she bought an old house and refurbished it as a hostel, whose only rule was that no questions were asked of the women applying for help. With the help of publicity from the Express and her experience in fundraising, several more hostels followed. In a gesture of retrospective sanctification, they were named Cecil Houses.
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