G. K. Chesterton: An Author Profile

G. K. Chesterton
An Author Profile

By Gabriel Blanchard

A romantic English patriot and devout Catholic convert; a friend of Shaw and Orwell and an enemy of modernity; an opponent of socialism and a staunch foe of capitalism: the paradoxes of Chesterton make an elegant closing flourish for our series on the Author Bank.

❧ Full name and titles: Gilbert Keith Chesterton [gĭł-bŕt kēth chĕs-tŕ-tøn; see our pronunciation guide for details]; KC*SG (Knight Commander with Star of the Pontifical Equestrian Order of St. Gregory the Great, an order of knighthood given by the Vatican)
❧ Dates: 29 May 1874-14 Jun., 1936
❧ Areas active: Great Britain (mainly in and around London); Ireland; Italy; the United States
❧ Original language of writing: Modern English
❧ Exemplary or important works: Heretics; The Man Who Was Thursday; Orthodoxy; What’s Wrong With the World; Saint Francis of Assisi; The Everlasting Man; Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox

If there is any author who would seem to need no introduction to supporters of the Classic Learning Test, it would surely be G. K. Chesterton. A passionate, witty journalist and essayist with a taste for the paradoxical and the fantastic, he devoted the bulk of his career to advocating and upholding Catholic, chivalric, and democratic values—an even stranger blend in Britain at the time than it seems to us, at the removes of a hundred years and one Atlantic Ocean. This is all the stranger besides, in that Chesterton himself was not only not raised in the Catholic Church, but did not enter it until 1922, at the age of forty-seven; in a career lasting thirty-six years, spanning dozens of heavily Catholic books and poems as well as hundreds of essays and short stories in the same vein, he spent more than half that time as an Anglican. But, if there was anything Chesterton took delight in, it was illumination reached through puns and paradoxes—or, as he might have put it, there is nothing more Catholic than saying (with St. Augustine) “Late have I loved thee, O ancient Beauty.”

Time—not to mention the present author’s expertise!—would fail to attempt anything like a brief-yet-comprehensive review of Chesterton’s work and life. We may, however, briefly discuss one fact about Chesterton’s life, three of his books, and one episode, and get a broader glimpse of the man while we’re at it.

To begin with, one of the things Chesterton was most famous for was other people; that is, his friends. In 1901, he met G. Bernard Shaw. The former was becoming a more devout Anglo-Catholic by the fortnight, and professed to defend both the chivalric, romantic outlook of the Medievals and the rational egalitarianism of the Enlightenment, even of the sans-culottes.* The latter was a firm believer in progress, atheism, vegetarianism, and eugenics.** Since they had nothing in common except the English language and lively wits, the two naturally became fast friends. They were joined by a near-ally on each side: Shaw’s fellow-socialist and religious skeptic George Orwell, and Chesterton’s staunchly Catholic friend and fellow Liberal, Hilaire Belloc. The sparring among the four men often took the form of public debates with one another; it is likely in this spirit that Chesterton wrote derisively in Heretics about enjoying literature in a purely æsthetic mode: “No man has any right whatever merely to enjoy the work of Mr. Bernard Shaw; he might as well enjoy the invasion of his country by the French. Mr. Shaw writes either to convince us or to enrage us.” This whole essay conveys the Chestertonian approach to controversy incomparably well, and exhibits how it was that he could combine total confidence in his ideas with a superficially flippant but, in the end, deep respect for the intelligence of his opponents. (It might do us all no harm to read “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy” between now and, say, the next time we log onto our social media account of choice.)

A modern person who read his 1910 book What’s Wrong With the World might find it easier to be enraged than convinced by Chesterton’s arguments—or, as they might retort, his lack thereof. Much of his work reflects his disposition to apprehend and analyze things primarily in imaginative terms; a person whose preference is for clearly constructed syllogisms upon such reasoning in the moral, religious, or political spheres, might find Chesterton disappointing, if not positively distasteful. It must be granted that his strongly imaginative bent has attendant disadvantages. That said, What’s Wrong With the World, though subject to those disadvantages, nicely illustrates some of the surprising strengths this way of thinking can have; he shows a real power to sympathize with experiences he has not been subject to, and gives real credit to the sincerity of his opponents’ convictions. And more than that, the idea in this book that Chesterton cared about most, regardless of the specific social views he adopted, is one of perennial importance: namely, that government and law exist to serve humanity, not the other way round; humanity as such, not its most comfortable specimens. In the final chapter, he writes of a law allowing schools to compulsorily cut the hair of girls who went to them, in order to prevent the spread of lice (this quotation is much abbreviated):

The doctors propose to abolish the hair. It seems never to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. It is obvious to any Christian man (that is, to any man with a free soul) that any coercion applied to a cabman’s daughter ought, if possible, to be applied to a Cabinet Minister’s daughter. I will not ask why the doctors do not. They do not because they dare not. It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.

What’s Wrong With the World also exhibits one of Chesterton’s less-known qualities. He is familiar to many people as an opponent of communism; many modern American readers deduce from this that he was therefore a capitalist, and may be startled in reading this volume (still more, if they chance to pick up The Well and the Shallows) by his vehement hatred of capitalism. Even among his devotees, some Americans part company with him in this respect, but it is a topic worth raising thus briefly—if only to get a little fresh air into the discussion of economics and politics in the US, which is too often confined by an artificially shortened “menu” of possible thought.

We must (alas!) pass over the justly-famed Orthodoxy, for reasons of time. However, our second volume is from the same period, published in 1908. It is hard to know how to classify it. Prose fiction, certainly—but whether The Man Who Was Thursday is more a detective thriller or more some kind of surrealist fantasia is a harder question to answer. It follows a police detective named Gabriel Syme† who, almost unintentionally, infiltrates a cabal of world-hating anarchists. He plays the part of one so well that he is elected to its international governing council. Its six members are code-named for the days of the week (Syme has of course just been elected Thursday); over them looms the gigantic and terrible figure of the society’s leader, Sunday. This brings us only a few chapters into the novel. The rest of the plot is full of mysteries and abrupt reversals, of both the catastrophic and eucatastrophic kinds.

The last and finest of these reversals is, in some sense, the point of the book, and touches on a subject Chesterton is rarely credited with understanding: suffering. It is not without reason that he is often perceived people as a breezy, even a remorseless, optimist; and that kind of thing can grate at the wrong moment. Yet, at the climax of this novel from nearly the beginning of his career, he wrote this:

I know you are contentment, optimism, what do they call the thing, an ultimate reconciliation. Well, I am not reconciled. … We wept, we fled in terror; the iron entered into our souls—and you are the peace of God! Oh, I can forgive God His anger, though it destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive Him His peace. … I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell.

Part of this came from a personal bout of depression in his early adulthood; part of it also came from a study of the Biblical book of Job. Which brings us to the third of his books that we have world enough, and time to consider.

Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.

Chesterton has been called “the master who left no masterpiece,” but other writers have already rightly decried this vile slander against The Everlasting Man. The book is by no means flawless,‡ but it exhibits its author at his rhetorical and romantic best. In it, Chesterton offers a kind of spiritual history of humanity, first discussing the uniqueness of man among the animals, and then the uniqueness of Christ among men. The book contains some of his loveliest prose, such as this passage on Israel before the time of Christ:

They had one of the colossal corner-stones of the world: the Book of Job. … Even more than [the Greek tragedies] it was an early meeting and parting of poetry and philosophy in the mornings of the world. It is a solemn and uplifting sight to see those two eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time. … Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say “I do not understand,” it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat “You do not understand.” And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.

And no writer, maybe, has surpassed his description of the ancient Church in sheer magnificence:

It was important while it was still insignificant, and certainly while it was still impotent. … It was resented, because, in its own still and almost secret way, it had declared war. It had risen out of the ground to wreck the heaven and earth of heathenism. It did not try to destroy all that creation of gold and marble; but it contemplated a world without it. It dared to look right through it as though the gold and marble had been glass.

The present author is more than tempted by the idea of simply posting sizable chunks of Chestertonian prose for the rest of the day; alas that we have to stop somewhere! But we may close with an anecdote, one that has a poetry to it he would appreciate, and perhaps did appreciate; at any event, we know he publicly shared the story at least once, albeit without including his wife’s answer.

Like many professional writers, Chesterton could be an absent-minded sort; this quality stands a journalist in worse stead than other sorts of writer, however, in that journalism frequently involves travel, which not only means going to unfamiliar places, but—and herein lies the danger for the absent-minded—becoming habituated to doing so. On at least one occasion, Frances Chesterton, his wife, was at their house in Beaconsfield (a little northwest of London) when she received a telegram from her husband, which read: Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be? A little time later, about eighty miles away, Chesterton received the reply Frances had written him: Home.

*This was a radical faction of the French Revolution. Their views were often proto-socialist or proto-anarchist rather than democratic, and most were open to drastic methods of reform; they were important agents of the Terror.
**Eugenics is the idea that the human race should be “improved” as we improve domesticated animals, by selective breeding. This view comes in a few forms; its most infamous embodiment remains the Nazi Party, whose “genetically inferior” targets included the disabled, Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and many others; yet, in less openly horrifying forms, eugenics was fashionable worldwide, from the late nineteenth century until the discovery of the Holocaust. Nor is it gone today: some eugenic policies, such as involuntary sterilization of prisoners or the intellectually disabled, are still observed in the US and elsewhere.
†This is also the name of a minor character in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. This could be mere coincidence, as Syme is a real surname (hailing from southeastern Scotland); if one author borrowed from the other, the present writer was unable to find evidence of it.
‡In particular, it must be admitted (even if we also grant that this was considered normal at the time) that Chesterton displays a certain amount of casual racial chauvinism, particularly anti-Semitism. He was by no means dominated by these sentiments—he was one of the first to speak out against Nazi anti-Semitism, for instance—but he was not free of them.


Himself a Catholic convert with an unhealthy preoccupation with his own jokes, Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

And with this, we have concluded our series profiling the CLT Author Bank! If you enjoyed this piece, take a look back through our authorly archives—we have profiles of Aristotle, Seneca the Younger, Averroës, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Willa Cather, and literally dozens more! Stay tuned: beginning next Monday, we will be offering our readers a new Monday series, one on everyone’s favorite subject, which is of course the finer details of historiography. And don’t forget to tune in to CLT’s official podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder and #1 resident Chesterton fan, Jeremy Tate. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 29th January, 2024. Page image of the title page of a first edition copy of The Everlasting Man (provided for under fair use).

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