Today is the birthday (1874) of Gilbert Keith “G.K.” Chesterton, KC*SG, English writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic. Chesterton was at one time well known for his fictional priest-detective Father Brown, and for his reasoned apologetics, but his star is perhaps a little pale over the horizon these days. As you will see from the few quotes I give at the end, I greatly value his wit and intellect. I have yet to glean why so many High Anglicans of his era converted to Catholicism in later life. Chesterton routinely referred to himself as an “orthodox” Christian, and came to identify this position more and more with Catholicism. I have no doubt that many do not understand my Protestantism. I come by it honestly (and wear it lightly).
Chesterton was born in Campden Hill in Kensington, London, the son of Marie Louise, née Grosjean, and Edward Chesterton. He was baptized at the age of one month into the Church of England, though his family themselves were irregularly practicing Unitarians. According to his autobiography, as a young man Chesterton became fascinated with the occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards. Chesterton was educated at St Paul’s School, then attended the Slade School of Art, a department of University College, London, to become an illustrator. He also took classes in literature, but did not complete a degree in either subject.
Chesterton married Frances Blogg in 1901 and the marriage lasted his whole life. In September 1895 Chesterton began working for the London publisher Redway, where he remained for just over a year. In October 1896 he moved to the publishing house T. Fisher Unwin, where he remained until 1902. During this period he also undertook his first journalistic work, as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1902 the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column, followed in 1905 by a weekly column in The Illustrated London News, for which he continued to write for the next 30 years.
Chesterton had planned to become an artist, and his writing often shows a sense of the visual that grounds the abstract in the concrete Father Brown is perpetually correcting the incorrect vision of the bewildered people at the scene of the crime and wandering off at the end with the criminal to exercise his priestly role of recognition and repentance. For example, in the story “The Flying Stars,” Father Brown entreats the character Flambeau to give up his life of crime: “There is still youth and honour and humour in you; don’t fancy they will last in that trade. Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it. Many a man I’ve known started like you to be an honest outlaw, a merry robber of the rich, and ended stamped into slime.”
Chesterton loved to debate, often engaging in friendly public disputes with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. According to his autobiography, he and Shaw played cowboys in a silent film that was never released.
Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 20 stone 6 pounds (130 kg; 286 lb). His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During the First World War a lady in London asked why he was not “out at the Front”; he replied, “If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.” On another occasion he remarked to Shaw, “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England.” Shaw replied, “To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it.” P. G. Wodehouse once described a very loud crash as “a sound like G. K. Chesterton falling onto a sheet of tin.”
Chesterton usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and a cigar hanging out of his mouth. He had a tendency to forget where he was supposed to be going and miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife Frances from some distant (and incorrect) location, writing such things as “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” to which she would reply, “Home.” (Chesterton himself tells the story, omitting his wife’s alleged reply, in ch. XVI of his autobiography.)
In 1931, the BBC invited Chesterton to give a series of radio talks. He accepted, tentatively at first. However, from 1932 until his death, Chesterton delivered over 40 talks per year. He was allowed (and encouraged) to improvise on the scripts. This allowed his talks to maintain an intimate character, as did the decision to allow his wife and secretary to sit with him during his broadcasts. The talks were very popular. A BBC official remarked, after Chesterton’s death, that “in another year or so, he would have become the dominating voice from Broadcasting House.”
Chesterton died of congestive heart failure on the morning of 14 June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. His last known words were a greeting spoken to his wife. The homily at Chesterton’s Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox on 27th June 1936. Knox said, “All of this generation has grown up under Chesterton’s influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton.” He is buried in Beaconsfield in the Catholic Cemetery. Near the end of Chesterton’s life, Pope Pius XI invested him as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great (KC*SG). The Chesterton Society has proposed that he be beatified. He is remembered liturgically on 13th June by the Episcopal Church, with a provisional feast day as adopted at the 2009 General Convention.
My favorite quote from Chesterton of all time (which I cite often) is:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.
If he had said no more, that would be sufficient. [Bold italics seem about right to me.] But he had much, much more to say. A sampling:
Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.
It’s not that we don’t have enough scoundrels to curse; it’s that we don’t have enough good men to curse them.
If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkeness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by Poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings.
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.
If there were no God, there would be no atheists.
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.
Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance.
To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it.
To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.
The rich are the scum of the earth in every country.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that Chesterton loved his food, and cheese was certainly high on his list of favorites:
Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
His actual food favorites are not easy discern, except that his secretary noted that he rarely ate vegetables, but preferred meat and potatoes. He also went through long spells of heavy drinking. At age 40 he came close to dying from the ill effects on his heart of his obesity. Surprisingly, as a young man he was rail thin, and often teased about it. But from his 30s onward, he waged a battle with excessive eating and drinking. He put his height and weight at 6’ 2” and 300 lbs, although he claimed that the weight was just a guess. Normal scales don’t typically go much over 250 lbs, and he was usually heavier than that.
I’m sure Chesterton ate roast ribs of beef in the quantity recommended by Mrs Beeton:
ROAST RIBS OF BEEF.
- INGREDIENTS.—Beef, a little salt.
Mode.—-The fore-rib is considered the primest roasting piece, but the middle-rib is considered the most economical. Let the meat be well hung (should the weather permit), and cut off the thin ends of the bones, which should be salted for a few days, and then boiled. Put the meat down to a nice clear fire, put some clean dripping into the pan, dredge the joint with a little flour, and keep continually basting the whole time. Sprinkle some fine salt over it (this must never be done until the joint is dished, as it draws the juices from the meat); pour the dripping from the pan, put in a little boiling: water slightly salted, and strain the gravy over the meat. Garnish with tufts of scraped horseradish, and send horseradish sauce to table with it (see No. 447). A Yorkshire pudding (see Puddings) sometimes accompanies this dish, and, if lightly made and well cooked, will be found a very agreeable addition.
Time.—10 lbs. of beef, 2-1/2 hours; 14 to 16 lbs., from 3-1/2 to 4 hours.
Average cost, 8-1/2d. per lb.
Sufficient.—A joint of 10 lbs. sufficient for 8 or 9 persons.
Seasonable at any time.
MEMORANDA IN ROASTING.—The management of the fire is a point of primary importance in roasting. A radiant fire throughout the operation is absolutely necessary to insure a good result. When the article to be dressed is thin and delicate, the fire may be small; but when the joint is large, the fire must fill the grate. Meat must never be put down before a hollow or exhausted fire, which may soon want recruiting; on the other hand, if the heat of the fire becomes too fierce, the meat must be removed to a considerable distance till it is somewhat abated. Some cooks always fail in their roasts, though they succeed in nearly everything else. A French writer on the culinary art says that anybody can learn how to cook, but one must be born a roaster. According to Liebig, beef or mutton cannot be said to be sufficiently roasted until it has acquired, throughout the whole mass, a temperature of 158°; but poultry may be well cooked when the inner parts have attained a temperature of from 130° to 140°. This depends on the greater amount of blood which beef and mutton contain, the colouring matter of blood not being coagulable under 158°.