Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on 29th May 1874 in Campden Hill in Kensington, London to Marie Louie and Edward Chesterton. He was baptized when he was just a year old at the Church of England. His family was not committed to Christianity which gave him the opportunity to experiment his interests in the occult with his brother Cecil with Ouija boards.
He went to St.Paul’s school where he was the chairman to the junior debating club after which he continued in the Slade School of Art to enhance his artistic skills about which he jokes about, “ I was planning to go for architecture. But when I arrived architecture was filled up. Acting was right next to it so I went for Acting instead.” Inspired by his father who had a love for literature he went to the University of London to learn literature.
In the September of 1895 Chesterton started his first job with London publishing House Redway where he stayed just for a year after which in 1896 he joined T.Fisher Unwin where he stayed for 16 years during which he also worked as a freelancing journalist and an art critic and contributed a series of articles for the “Speaker”, a journal formed by his friends.
His work during this period was rather immature compared to his future writing style as he was yet to realize the difference between rationalism and reason.
In 1902, he started working for Daily News as a weekly column writer. The Illustrative London News also offered him another weekly column. He collectively wrote for them for around 30 years.
G.K. Chesterton’s Books
Chesterton’s first novel was Basil Howe which was published in 2001 but was written when he graduated school. His first published books were those of his poetry which prima facie seemed very different from the columns he generally wrote. But on careful comparison as is done by Boyd, there exists a close connection between his journalism and poetry.
“In this sense, T.S.Eliot’s description of Chesterton’s poetry as ‘first-rate journalistic balladry’ turns out to have been particularly perceptive, since it is a reminder about the essential character of all Chesterton’s work. In his verse, as in all his writings, his first aim was to comment on the political and social questions of the day,”says Boyd while commenting on Chesterton’s poetry.
Chesterton describes poetry as a slang, “All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.”
Social Criticism and Theological and Religious Arguments were soul of Chesterton’s writing. His book “What’s wrong with the world” advocated distributism which he viewed as a counter to capitalism and socialism, which were ideologies reducing people to inhumane units. His work reflected the concern he had for society. He made use of literary devices like allegory and parables to bring about social changes that were embodied in his beliefs.
While commenting on the condition of society back then Gilchrist says, “The present condition of fame is merely fashion.”
Conversion to Catholicism
Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1922. Unlike before his conversion in his book “The Orthodoxy” on Christianity his writings after his conversion became more controversial as can be seen in his writings in the G. K. Weekly, St. Francis of Assissi, The Everlasting Man, The Catholic Church and Conversion, The Thing: Why am I a Catholic?, etc. His idea of a good religion is one about which he can joke around.
Fiction-Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity
Gilbert was an amazing fictional writer with a very imaginative mind which led him to create a lot of fictional works such as “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”, “The club of Queer Trades”, “The Man Who Has Thursday”.
Chesterton’s writings depict his good sense of humour, his wittiness and his didacticism. As observed by Brian Murray, “ While his novel’s are thick with details of everyday life, his hastily written book-length fictions are outlandishly plotted and in the main, unabashedly didactic.”
His didacticism made a lot of his fiction work go underappreciated. However, his series of Father Brown which he began in 1911 with the “Innocence of Father Brown” became his best fictional series/work or rather one of his best works altogether.
Father Brown, which is a series of short stories remains as the greatest creation of Chesterton in the minds of many readers. Father Brown made Chesterton to be recognised as a master of mystery writing. Chesterton was considered as the father of detective tale even in his own times. He was the first president of Detective Club formed in 1928 and not Canon Doyle who is very well acclaimed for his creation Sherlock Holmes.
Along with his other forms of writing, Gilbert was also a literary critic. Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Appreciations and Criticisms of the work of Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, The Victorian Age in Literature, William Cobbett and Robert Louis Stevenson are his works which depict his understanding of literature. His biography of Charles Dickens gave a popular revival for Dickens’ work and also made him a centre of attention for various scholars.
Chesterton got married to Frances Blogg in 1901 who tried to convert him back to Anglicanism. He did not convert back as his impression of Anglicanism was one of an imitation of Catholicism. The couple was not able to have any kids.
Chesterton would often forget where he had to go and miss the trains he was supposed to catch to reach his destination. He recollects one of such incidents where he would send a telegram to his wife from some distant location saying, “Am at Market Harborough. Where do I ought to be” to which she replied, “Home.”
Chesterton was very good friends with Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. The depth of their friendship can be seen from this one occasion when Chesterton remarked on him, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine struck England”. To this, Shaw retorted, “To look at you, anyone would think you caused it.”
Death-I think I will not hang myself today
In 1931, Chesterton was invited to do a series of Radio talks which was initially accepted by him tentatively. However, it became so successful that he delivered around 40 talks per year. He continued delivering talks until June 1936 when he died of congestive heart failure at the age of 62.
Legacy of G.K. Chesterton
Gilbert is very well remembered by everyone for his stout stature and enthusiastic and witty personality.
Chesterton wrote around 80 books, 700 poems, some 200 short stories and around 4000 essays (mostly in his magazine columns). He was a literary and social critic, mystery writer, novelist, poet, playwright, Catholic Theologian, debater, philosopher, journalist, apologist, illustrator, orator, biographer, etc. There is not just one thing that he is known about. He has contributed to the society in so many ways different from everyone else that he seems to stand out in whatever he did.
His style was different from everyone else and he is still remembered as the title of “Prince of Paradox” is accredited to him who actually denied on ever using paradox, “I never use paradox. The statements I make are wearisome and obvious common sense. I have even been driven to the tedium of reading through my own books, and have been unable to find any paradox. In fact, that thing is quite tragic, and someday I shall hope to write an epic called ‘Paradox Lost’.”
He seemingly wrote on every topic, every style. Dale Ahlquist, the president of American Chester Society commented about Chesterton saying, “He said something about everything and he said it better than everyone else.”