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.

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