THE SINS OF G.K. CHESTERTON

By Richard Ingrams

Publisher: Harbour Books (East) Ltd,  August 2021

ISBN: 1905128339

RRP Hardcover: $44.20

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson

I grew up in a Catholic family in Melbourne in the 1950s.  My mother, a musician undertaking what in those days were sometimes called “home duties”, was a big fan of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) and Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). Particularly the former. There were some Chesterton books in our house and, as I recall, that of my maternal uncle and aunts. I remember my mother saying on occasions that Chesterton had led a saintly life. He converted to Catholicism in 1922.

These days Chesterton is best known due to the Father Brown TV series starring Mark Williams as a Catholic priest in a village set in the English Cotswolds during the early 1950s.   Fr Brown doubles up his priestly duties by managing to solve various crimes, invariably murders, that are beyond the ability of the local police inspector to resolve.  The priest is vague in manner but astute in judgment.  The policeman is officious, snobbish and also incompetent.  Beyond solving crimes, the Cotswold priest is interested in saving souls – including those of robbers and murderers – and his words contain messages about repentance and forgiveness.

Viewers of the series who have scant knowledge of British history could well believe that England in the early 1950s was a Catholic society – since Fr Brown appears to be the only priest in the fictional village of Kembleford.  In fact, Catholics were a minority in Britain in the early 1950s in a nation where the Queen – the head of state – was also the supreme governor of the Church of England.  It had been thus since the Reformation of the mid-16th Century, half a millennium earlier.

As Richard Ingrams points out in his fine study The Sins of G.K. Chesterton, GKC regarded himself primarily as a journalist.  But he was also a novelist, biographer, columnist, literary critic, historian, broadcaster, playwright, irreverent cartoonist and balladist.  There was his 1911 poem Lepanto celebrating the victory of the Christian League (comprising mainly Spain and Venice) over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. And there were the clerihews (the term is taken from the inventor of this rhyme-form, Edward Clerihew Bentley, a school boyfriend of Chesterton). At school, GKC wrote this about King George III, who presided over Britain’s loss of the American colonies.

George the Third

Ought never to have occurred

One can only wonder

At so great a blunder

However, above all, Chesterton was a religious and political antagonist. To Catholics in Australia, in the early years of the 20th Century, Chesterton was a hero because he converted to Catholicism.  Baptised in the Church of England shortly after his birth in 1874, Chesterton attended St Paul’s School in London and, later, the Slade School at University College, London – where he studied art for a couple of years and attended some classes at the university itself but did not graduate.

From his early years, Chesterton was a committed Christian – as is evident in his 1909 books Orthodoxy and, later, The Everlasting Man. In view of this, it was not a big theological jump from the Church of England to the Catholic Church – from Canterbury to Rome.  But it was of great symbolic importance to Catholics throughout the English speaking world and among many Indians (who admired his support for Indian independence) – and akin to the conversion of the Anglican priest John Henry Newman in 1847.   Towards the end of his life in 1879, Newman was created a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII.

Chesterton was a contestant in the public debate and could hold his own in the public square with George Bernard Shaw, Bernard Russell and HG Wells.  To the likes of Pauline Henderson, it was an intellectual reassurance to have GKC taking up the battle for what she regarded as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – and its leader on earth, the Pope in Rome.

After a couple of years working in publishing, Chesterton obtained a column in the Daily News in 1902 and, soon after, the Illustrated London News  (where, as Ian Kerr has pointed out, he had to steer clear largely of politics and religion). He remained a commentator until his death in 1936.  Chesterton was only a Catholic for around 14 years – but he is one of the best known Catholics of his time.

As with many a successful columnist, Chesterton needed an initial break.  In 1901 the cocoa manufacturer George Cadbury acquired the Daily News and appointed A.C. Gardiner as his editor who, in turn, hired Chesterton the following year.  Cadbury was a strong opponent of Britain’s role in the Boer War.  As Ingrams puts it, Cadbury believed that Britain was fighting the war “on behalf of gold miners and money men”.   It was a position that Chesterton also held – as did his mentor Hilaire Belloc and his brother Cecil Chesterton. GKC did not much like what he regarded as the British ruling class. And was no fan of British colonialism.

Chesterton did not always return favours. Among others, in time, he turned against Cadbury, primarily due to his perceived support for Lloyd George’s role in the Liberal Party government. GLC described him, in a bitter 1913 poem, as “a cad and coward”, “dull disloyal”, of “vulgar heart”, a “clown” and a “fool”. He did so under the influence of Belloc.  Gardiner objected to Chesterton’s vicious attack on Cadbury and GKC resigned from the Daily News. He was all but ignored in Chesterton’s autobiography.

Ingrams, himself a covert to Catholicism, is an admirer of Chesterton.  In the middle of his book, GKC is described as “a very scrupulous man of great intelligence”.  What, then, are the sins of GK Chesterton?

Sin is perhaps too strong a word – even if it works well as a book title.  At Page 242, Ingrams lists some of them – including (i) his treatment of Cadbury and Gardiner, (ii) the untruths he told about the death of his brother Cecil and (iii) his unprovoked attack on Rufus Isaacs which exhibited an element of anti-Semitism.  There is also reference of what GKC described as the “evil” he experienced at Slade School.  Evelyn Waugh referred to rumours of homosexuality at this time of his life. Certainly Chesterton did not look back in happiness on his time at the Slade School.

Ingrams demonstrates that, like all of us, GKC was adversely affected by the consequences of The Fall.  But, to a traditional Catholic, most of his sins would seem to be more of the venial than mortal variety. But his occasional anti-Semitism was a grievous fault and inconsistent with the teaching of the Catholic Church. Pius XI had said that “it is not possible for Christians to take part in anti-Semitism… spiritually we are Semites”.

Unlike my mother, I was never a fan of Chesterton – although I admired his cleverness and occasional sharp wit and liked his tribal defence of what we called the “Faith of our Fathers”.

As a young man, I read Dudley Barker’s G.K. Chesterton:  A Biography (Constable, 1973). Barker was not a Catholic – and he exhibited a degree of disinterest in his subject’s life not evident in the biographies published by Masie Ward in 1942 and 1952 and, later, Ian Ker in 2011.

Toward the end of his work, Baker criticised Chesterton concerning “his obsession that the Middle Ages were superior in every way to modern industrial civilization”. Barker also drew attention to GKC’s sympathetic attitude towards the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and wrote that he “drifted into a defence of fascism” – but made the point that this did not extend to “commendation of the Nazis”.

Around this time, I read GKC’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill – regarded by many as one of his most important books.  It did not make much sense.  This look into the future foresaw an idealistic time consistent with the author’s notion of distributism whereby authority would centre on individuals who would live within small units of the kind which prevailed in the Middle Ages.

In Australia, Chesterton’s idea of distributism – which he promulgated along with Belloc – was popular with intellectual Catholics who could be found within the Campion Society in Melbourne – such as Denys Jackson and Frank Maher.  But it was never embraced by the Catholic activist B.A. Santamaria who was an intelligent political operator rather than an intellectual.  As far as I am aware, Santamaria never read Chesterton or Belloc.

The cult of Chesterton in North America, Britain, Ireland and Australia is remarkable.  The Chesterton Review Quarterly has been produced for nearly five decades.  In Australia, The Defendant newsletter contains intelligent analysis along with accounts of activities undertaken by the Australian Chesterton Society headed by Karl Schmude.

Without question, unlike most writers of his generation, Chesterton made an impact on society.  Even if – as his brother Cecil Chesterton predicted – he is best remembered for the Father Brown stories.  Nevertheless, his longevity beyond the grave is considerable.  Here is my take from Richard Ingrams biography.

  • GKC was one of those members of the intelligentsia who told leaders what they should do but could barely manage their own lives. In early life, he was very dependent on his parents – and later on his wife Frances and secretary Dorothy Collins. As Ingrams put it: “He was so ignorant of day-to-day matters that he once expressed surprise on being told you could buy pajamas in a shop.” On another occasion, GKC is reported to be waiting on the advice of his wife as to whether to take the stairs or a lift.
  • While an accomplished writer who produced a huge amount of work – perhaps too much – GKC was a hopeless editor. Moreover, he could not manage people due to an inability to handle conflict.
  • GKC was dominated by his brother Cecil who was born four years after him. He was also prevailed over by Belloc – an older man of lesser ability and some jealousy – who never praised Chesterton’s work.
  • GKC’s dependence on Belloc, a Catholic of part French parentage who was born in France, and Cecil led him to express anti-Semitic sentiments which he never ventured when a young man. This led Chesterton to end up on the wrong side of the Dreyfus debate in failing to publicly acknowledge that the Jewish French military officer Alfred Dreyfus was not a spy for Germany. Also, he followed Belloc in admiring the anti-Semitic Charles Maurras, the leader of the Action Francaise movement in France.
  • Chesterton died not long after Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party came to power. He had little to say about the Nazi leader. Like a few anti-communist intellectuals of his time, GKC had some regard for Benito Mussolini and his fascist doctrine put into practice after the successful march on Rome. It established itself, for example, as rationalising Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Also, as an intellectual alienated from British democracy and its leaders, GKC looked at the early manifestation of Italian fascism with, at best, gross naivety.
  • GKC too readily accepted the opinions of Belloc and Cecil Chesterton on the 1912 Marconi scandal when key members of the British government at the time were accused of what was, in effect, insider trading. GKC was deeply involved in making false accusations about the Jewish British politician Rufus Isaacs, later Lord Reading.
  • Perhaps the most shocking revelation in Ingrams’ book turns on GKC’s comments about Jewish Britons. Belloc and Cecil Chesterton constantly maintained that Jews were aliens who belonged to a different nation – that is, a nation other than Britain. GKC came to accept this view – despite the fact that there had been a Jewish presence in Britain for centuries and the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81) was Jewish.

Whatever his intellectual weakness with respect to Belloc and Cecil Chesterton – GKC stands condemned for writing this in his 1920 book The New Jerusalem, as cited by Ingrams:

Let a Jew be the Lord Chief Justice if his exceptional veracity and reliability have clearly marked him out for that post…but let there be one single-clause bill; one sweeping law about Jews, and no other.  Be it enacted…that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab…If my image is quaint, my intention is quite serious; and the point of it is not personal to any particular Jew.  The point applies to any Jew and to our own recovery of healthier relations with him.  The point is that we should know where we are; and know where he is, which is a foreign land.

Early on, Ingrams records that his attitude to GKC changed after reading the review by Professor Owen Dudley Edwards of Dennis Judd’s life of Lord Reading – which was published in The Chesterton Review in 1985.  What was important was the source of the publication, which was then edited by the Catholic priest Fr Ian Boyd and the fact that Dudley Edwards was a Catholic.  Ingrams writes that this aspect of Chesterton has been downplayed by biographers all-too-sympathetic to their subject, such as Masie Ward and Ian Ker.

  • GKC’s devotion to Cecil was such that he claimed falsely that he died on active service in France in 1918 – in fact, he died due to heart failure following a long march three weeks after the Armistice was signed. Following Cecil’s death, GKC devoted considerable resources to preserving his brother’s memory by continuing his publication New Witness which changed to become G.K.’s Weekly in 1925. GKC could have used his resources to greater effect. Moreover, he wrote too many of what Ingrams calls pot-boilers in order to keep Cecil’s creation going after he had died. What emerges from Ingrams’ portrait is an account of a brilliant writer who produced too much work – as a result of which his output was uneven.

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The Sins of GK Chesterton re-enforced my long-held view that GKC was important but overrated.  Ingrams writes that GKC’s association with Catholicism after his 1922 conversion lessened his appeal among non-Catholics and that this was unfortunate.   Probably true. But it contributed to his enormous appeal among Catholics – since he was a layman who could take on the critics of the One True Holy Apostolic Church with intellectual force and, at times, devastating wit.

GKC’s longevity turns on his advocacy of Christendom in general and Catholicism in particular, illustrated in the Father Brown tales plus his role in the intellectual controversies in the first four decades of the 20th century.  Perhaps even GKC came to realise that his political philosophy of distributism was a crock. As Ingrams points out, there is not a single mention of either the Distributist League or its mouth-piece G.K.’s Weekly in Chesterton’s memoir Autobiography, which was published shortly after his death.

The best of biographies are both critical and sympathetic with respect to their subjects. Ingrams meets this standard while focusing on GKCs imperfections as a political commentator. Chesterton was a sinner like the rest of us.  As Ingrams documents, his main imperfection turned on his anti-Semitism acquired from an overdose of Bellocism.

Members of the Chesterton Fan Club petitioned the Catholic Bishop of Northampton (the diocese in which GKC lived in Beaconfield) with a request that he pursue the cause for the canonisation of Chesterton. Bishop Peter Doyle declined to do so, maintaining that there was no local cult supporting the campaign and referring to concerns about GKC’s “anti-Semitism”.   By local cult – it is meant that there had been neither an ongoing campaign by members of the Catholic faithful seeking canonisation nor any “pattern of personal spirituality” in GKC’s life.  The latter is consistent with Ingrams’ account which suggests that Chesterton was not in any sense pious or someone who exhibited spirituality.

A case for canonisation is never terminated.  It is likely that the members of the Chesterton Fan Club will renew their campaign advocating the cause of Saint Gilbert.  If so, Bernard Ingrams’ The Sins of G.K. Chesterton may well be a reference source for the “devil’s advocate” who is commissioned by the Catholic Church to present the case against the cause of canonisation advocated with respect to anyone in Requiescat in Pace mode.

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Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute and columnist for The Weekend Australian. His Media Watch Dog blog is published in The Australian Online every Friday.