Prose & Poetry - G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton Prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories. Chesterton (1874-1936) was with George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and H.G. Wells among the great Edwardian men of letters.

He is probably best known for his series of novels featuring the priest-detective Father Brown who went on to appear in some 50 stories.  Between 1900 and 1936 Chesterton published one hundred books.

"The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared.

There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists."

(from A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, 1901)

G.K. Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family.  His father, Edward, was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and estate agents business of Chesterton and his mother, Marie-Louise, was of Franco-Scottish ancestry.

Chesterton did not learn to read until he was over eight and one of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump of white fat."  Chesterton studied at University College and the Slade School of Art (1893-96).  At the age of sixteen he started a magazine called The Debater.

Around 1893 he went through a crisis of scepticism and depression and during this period experimented with the Ouija board, developing a fascination with diabolism.  Two years later Chesterton left University College without a degree and worked for the London publishers Redway and T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902).

Many of Chesteron's works were first published in such publications as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G.K.'s Weekly.  In time Chesterton renewed his Christian faith; the courtship of his future wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, further helped him to successfully overcome his spiritual crisis.

1900 brought the publication of Greybeards at Play, Chesterton's first collection of poems.  Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906) were literary biographies, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) was Chesterton's first novel, a political fantasy, and in The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) Chesterton depicted fin-de-siècle decadence.

In 1909 Chesterton moved with his wife to Beaconsfield, a village twenty-five miles west of London, and continued to write, lecture, and travel energetically.  Between 1913 and 1914 Chesterton was a regular contributor for the Daily Herald.

In 1914 he suffered a physical and nervous breakdown.  Following World War I Chesterton became leader of the Distributist movement and later President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that private property should be divided into the smallest possible freeholds and then distributed throughout society.

In his writings Chesterton also expressed his distrust of world government and evolutionary progress.  During the Boer War he advocated a pro-Boer standpoint.

A very popular radio lecturer, Chesterton engaged in a series of debates with George Bernard Shaw.

"Observed Chesterton on seeing for the first time the sparkling bright light of Broadway: "How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read."

(from The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1990)

In 1922 Chesterton was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thereafter he wrote several theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas.

His most famous character, Father Brown, debuted in The Blue Cross in the Storyteller in 1910.  To the wider public the character became first known in Chesterton's book The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), a collection of twelve cases.  Further adventures appeared: The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935).

In his Autobiography (1936) Chesterton explained the passive character of his creation: "His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on."

The critic and renowned mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included The Innocence of Father Brown as among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published (Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987).

Before creating Father Brown Chesterton had hailed in Defence of Detective Stories this somewhat scorned genre of tales as "the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life."

In his verse Chesterton was a master of ballad form, as shown in his Lepanto, which was published in 1911.  His other works plays, historical studies, essays, and biographies of such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Thackeray, George Bernard Shaw, and William Blake.

Chesterton's subjects were varied: the biography of Chaucer (1932) celebrated the Middle Ages, The Thing (1929), a collection of essays examined his own conversion to Roman Catholicism, Takes of the Long Bow (1925) propounded his social and political views.

Chesterton received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities.  In 1934 he was made Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great.

He died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield.  His coffin, too big to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window.  Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988.

"Existence is still a strange thing to me; and as a stranger, I gave it welcome."

(Autobiography, 1936)

Article contributed by Petri Liukkonen, website Author's Calendar.

A "Bangalore Torpedo" was an explosive tube used to clear a path through a wire entanglement.

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