Making them think

J.I.M. Stewart

  • G.K. Chesterton by Michael Ffinch
    Weidenfeld, 369 pp, £16.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 297 78858 2

In a Foreword to this very substantial book Michael Ffinch says that G.K. Chesterton ‘was above all things a great champion of Liberty’. He goes on: ‘This being so, it has often come as a surprise that in religion Chesterton should have moved away from the Liberal Unitarianism of his childhood towards Catholicism ... Yet Chesterton knew that it was only by loving and serving God through his Church that perfect freedom may be found, so it was inevitable that in the cause of Liberty he also became a defender of the Faith ... The understanding of this seeming paradox must be the chief concern of any biography of Chesterton, for the expounding of it was the chief concern of his life.’ On the following page Mr Ffinch tells of being admitted by Miss Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s literary executor, to archival material so rich that he ‘remained happily stranded in the attic for twelve hours a day for several weeks’. ‘As each chest, trunk, suitcase or box revealed its treasures in the form of letters, articles, drawings and notebooks (in one box I found some thirty notebooks), I felt as if I had discovered Ben Gunn’s gold. In a suitcase there were many of the characters and scenery from Chesterton’s Toy Theatre ... in another the early drafts of his great book, The Everlasting Man; while in a drawer I found more personal things: Chesterton’s passport, his pen, his spectacles, a Papal Medal, and his rosary.’ One may be edified, I suppose, by the Papal Medal and the rosary while at the same time feeling that early drafts of Chesterton’s most important work of Christian apologetics are likely to be of more substantial interest. Mr Ffinch, however, has nothing further to say about them, and what he seems chiefly to have carried off from amid Ben Gunn’s gold are numerous scraps of mediocre verse. And of just this, as it happens, some readers will recall quite enough in Maisie Ward’s earlier biography of Chesterton, published in 1944.

A student of the craft of biography might find an interest in comparing these two books. The earlier is by a near-contemporary of Chesterton’s who got quickly off the mark. In no time she was holding lengthy conversations with Maurice Baring, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw; interviewing Hilaire Belloc at King’s Land; visiting – she records – ‘ “Father Brown” among his Yorkshire moors’; going to Paris to see one old friend of Chesterton’s and to Indiana to see others; even contriving to gather together Chesterton’s boyhood companions of the Junior Debating Club at St Paul’s School.

These Boswellian advantages Mr Ffinch does not, of course, share. Here and there a few people who knew Chesterton survive, but his early intimates and his eminent contemporaries are all dead. In the 1980s, however, it ought to be easier than in the 1940s to place the man in the context of his time, to estimate his stature and analyse his techniques as a writer, and to conform to those standards of reference and annotation which have spread steadily from academic to general publication. In this last – and doubtless minor – regard Mr Ffinch doesn’t do too well. The first long description of Chesterton in his book is attributed simply to ‘one who saw him in Fleet Street in the early 1900s’; and on the following page somebody equally anonymous acclaims the ‘World-Famous Literary Genius, G.K. Chesterton, the World renowned Essayist, Dramatist, Romancist, Poet, Brilliant Epigrammist, Wit, Phrase-maker, the Inspiring Philosopher whose ideas attract, fascinate, impress – make people think’. Being left to conjecture the identity of this eulogist, I hazard that he is a jokey G.K.C. At the back of his book Mr Ffinch sometimes provides a source and sometimes does not: this on no distinguishable plan. One needn’t be a scholar to find such inconsistency exacerbating.

It is a remarkable fact that these two biographers, although operating at a remove of some thirty years each from the other, both express a major indebtedness to that Dorothy Collins who is still the guardian of Ben Gunn’s gold. It was in 1926 that Miss Collins became Chesterton’s secretary. She was then – Mr Ffinch tells us – 32 years old; and until her employer’s death ten years later she was increasingly responsible for virtually all his affairs. Perhaps she is best glimpsed during Chesterton’s second lecture tour in America, which took place in 1930. At Chattanooga in Tennessee Mrs Chesterton fell seriously ill, and it was arranged that Chesterton should continue his tour alone, while Miss Collins remained with his wife. Something like disaster ensued, Chesterton arriving back in Chattanooga without his tickets, his money, or most of his clothes, and ‘looking as if he had not undressed for a week’. He would never, he said, venture to go anywhere alone again. So, while Mrs Chesterton stayed put, he and Miss Collins together salvaged what was left of the tour. For a week, Miss Collins recorded, ‘we rushed up and down the Californian coast and Mr Chesterton gave a lecture at a different place every night.’

It is tempting to cast a cold eye on this aspect of Chesterton’s character: that of the genius who in all practical matters is as a child; who takes his bride straight from the altar to buy a revolver and cartridges with which to defend her – and who then goes off for a walk by himself, gets lost, and turns up late in the nuptial chamber; who, with marital responsibilities and on straitened means, refuses to let money have any meaning for him, and as soon as he has any gives away all of it not required for the purchase of burgundy; who – most famously – sends his wife a telegram saying: ‘Am in Wolverhampton where ought I to be?’ But people like this do exist, and one of them, although bad at his books, came to dominate the intellectual life of his most able fellow pupils at school – this while given to wandering the streets, muttering poetry or breaking into insane laughter.

But what marked Chesterton out from the first was less eccentric behaviour than extreme verbal facility, and this led or betrayed him into a career in journalism, which he fondly declares in his Autobiography to be ‘the easiest of all professions’ – immediately adding: ‘If I have had a profession, at least I have never been a professor.’ There is very little sense in this afterthought, and it may be taken as illustrating the fact that when he couldn’t manage a paradox (famously his prime instrument) he was content with a pun or a jingle. Yet by far the greatest number of these verbal flippancies have a serious design upon us, their contriver believing, with his own Syme in The Man who was Thursday, that ‘a paradox might wake men up to a neglected truth,’ and asserting in an essay in Tremendous Trifles that ‘the four or five things that it is most practically essential that a man should know, are all of them what people call paradoxes’. At times, indeed, he exploits his astonishing dexterities in this field to what we may judge to be sophisticated ends, as when he maintains that his notorious conjuring up the picture of the village atheist brooding on the village idiot is not an attack on Thomas Hardy, but a defence. ‘The whole case for him is that he has the sincerity and simplicity of the village atheist’ – and so forth.

‘Paradox’ – although Chesterton himself accepted the word and used it freely – is perhaps less appropriate than is ‘parallelism’, the term preferred by Belloc and by him defined as ‘the illustration of some unperceived truth by its exact consonance with the reflection of a truth already known and perceived’, or, more succinctly, ‘an illumination through an unexpected juxtaposition’. ‘Truth’ and ‘illumination’ are perhaps the questionable words here, since the reader of Chesterton may often be less certain that he is being enlightened than that he is amused. Take this, for example, from near the end of the Autobiography: ‘No Darwin has yet maintained that motors began as scraps of metal, of which most happened to be scrapped; or that only those cars, which had grown a carburettor by accident, survived the struggle for life in Piccadilly.’ Such considerations are unlikely much to affect our estimate of On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection, but they are capital fun. And fun is very important to Chesterton, who would heartily have endorsed James Joyce’s in risu Veritas. ‘The stars are funny,’ we learn from an essay in All Things Considered, ‘because they give birth to life, and life gives birth to fun.’

If you have, let us say, a theory about man, and if you can only prove it by talking about Plato and George Washington, your theory may be quite a frivolous thing. But if you can prove it by talking about the butler or the postman, then it is serious, because it is universal. So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one’s duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions ... It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.

I can recall this last persuasion as potent with the generation approaching adulthood in Chesterton’s prime. How often was I told over cocoa or mulled wine with devoutly disposed young men, that Savonarola said mass in a bowler, and that he would have done better to wear the conventional biretta? But from the same period I sufficiently recall the Gorgias to know that its author (by Chesterton so oddly bracketed with George Washington) would have regarded with distrust a persistent exploitation of rhetorical tropes as a technique of persuasion. At least one may feel that Chesterton succumbs too often to the lure of words; has forgotten Hobbes’s observation that they are wise men’s counters but the money of fools. Consider ‘Peter Pantheism’. How marvellous a coinage! But what is it? Its creator, I suspect, had to scratch round for an answer before fitting it into one of his innumerable ‘Our Notebook’ columns for the Illustrated London News.

When, towards the end of his life, he came to look back on his career, he saw himself as having written far too much. He had ‘littered the world with millions of essays for a living’ and produced ‘cartloads of ill-constructed books’. In one place it is his ‘novels and short stories’ that he has never taken very seriously; in another, more sweepingly, it is simply his ‘books’, with the addendum that his opinions he has taken seriously enough. He may well have been conscious of a kind of aggressive monotony inherent in his favourite mode of expression. ‘Mr Chesterton’ – Mr Ffinch quotes T.S. Eliot as saying – ‘seems always to assume that what his reader has previously believed is exactly the opposite of what Mr Chesterton knows to be true.’ Certainly we are regularly made to feel slow in the uptake, being induced to dismiss as nonsense some proposition then proved susceptible of a meaningful interpretation. Sometimes the nonsense remains just that: ‘The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.’ Sometimes it has the air of an arbitrary challenge which the writer has thrown down before himself in desperation: ‘At about twenty-one minutes past two today I suddenly saw that asparagus is the secret of aristocracy.’ But, far more often than not, the ‘World renowned Essayist’ gets away with it, at least to the extent of making us think – ‘an unusual human hobby’, as he calls it in St Thomas Aquinas. There is something of the same hit-or-miss quality in his dealings with the bizarre. When he says in The Victorian Age in Literature that reading Carlyle on Goethe is ‘like watching a shaggy Scandinavian decorating a Greek statue washed up by chance on his shores’, he is scarcely fulfilling the purpose of the Home University Library. But consider the crocodile!

If you wanted to dissuade a man from drinking his tenth whisky, you would slap him on the back and say, ‘Be a man.’ No one who wished to dissuade a crocodile from eating his tenth explorer would slap it on the back and say, ‘Be a crocodile.’ For we have no notion of a perfect crocodile; no allegory of a whale expelled from a whaley Eden.

One may sympathise with Robert Blatchford, a dogged point-by-point rationalist, confronted in controversy by this power to pack an entire theology into a single escape of freakish wit.

‘A real life of anybody is a very difficult thing to write,’ Chesterton says in the Autobiography, a work from which Mr Ffinch quotes a good deal, but which he nowhere reviews as a whole. It must be said, I think, to remain the best book on its subject so far produced. And there is one point of particular note about it. The eristic tone, the combative snip-snap of paradox assertive of the sluggishness of an adversary’s mind: this has almost entirely departed. The Autobiography is a loosely-constructed book, but mellow, as it ought to be.