Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a giant in many ways. His six-feet-two inches and corpulent figure made him a physical giant but it was the extent and diversity of his writings that made him a giant in the field of literature and theology. He proved to be a great defender of the Catholic faith and crossed swords with the likes of George Bernard Shaw on theological matters yet they remained friends, and Shaw called him ‘a man of colossal genius’, writes PATRICK P ROWAN
Chesterton was born in Kensington, London on 29 May, 1874 and was christened in an Anglican church. At school he did not appear to be very bright because his mind was often on anything except his studies. One of his teachers told him, ‘You know, Chesterton, if we could open your head we would not find a brain but only a lump of fat.’ He was very good at drawing and attended the Slade School of Art. He was asked to leave because when he was supposed to be drawing he was reading and when he was supposed to be reading, he was drawing. He also attended University College, London, but didn’t graduate. In his teens he experimented with an Ouija board and was involved in spiritualism. This experience convinced him that the devil really existed.
He began his working life as a badly paid junior in a publisher’s office but was soon writing articles which began to make him known. During his lifetime he wrote around eighty books as well as stories, essays and plays. His writing covered such diverse subjects as philosophy, biography, journalism, apologetics as well as the famous Father Brown detective stories.
The character of Father Brown was based on an Irish priest living in Yorkshire – Father John O’Connor. Chesterton met O’Connor when he was twenty-nine years-old, and they remained friends for the rest of the author’s life. Over forty Father Brown stories were published from 1910 onwards. These stories were so popular at the time that it was only Sherlock Holmes’ stories that outclassed them.
Gilbert married Frances Blogg in 1901 and she was to be a great support and influence over him for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, they had no children. This was a big disappointment to him because he loved amusing children by telling stories and by drawing cartoons for them. He was a completely impracticable individual. He arrived at the church for his marriage having forgotten to bring a tie. Once, when he was doing research in a library he was very hungry but had no money on him, so he drew a cartoon of a hungry man with an appeal for sixpence to buy food and passed the cartoon around the library. Soon he had sufficient money to buy a good meal.
Frances Chesterton, Gilbert’s wife, must have been very exasperated by his behaviour at times. Sometimes she would receive a telegram from some distant town. ‘I’m in such and such a town. Where should I be?’ ‘Home’, would be her reply. He himself summed up his attitude to his lifestyle when he said, ‘I can keep ten poems and twenty theories in my head at once but I can only think of one practical thing at a time.’
His wife was a very fervent member of the Anglo Catholic, or High Church section of the Church of England. Gilbert attended church with her but gradually he began to examine the beliefs of this church through studying Christianity from the time of Christ. He came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic was the Church founded by Jesus. His friend, Hillaire Belloc was a cradle Catholic and helped him in his search. He was also helped by Father O’Connor and by several of the leading Catholic laymen in England at the time.
Chesterton’s writing and debates had a huge influence on many in England and beyond, both during his lifetime and continue to do so. These debates were very well attended and his books were bestsellers. One of the most important of his books is The Everlasting Man, in which he rebuts the belief of HG Wells and others that man is just an animal. Some of the most prominent people influenced by Chesterton were CS Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Ronald Knox.
In 1914, Chesterton became ill and soon lapsed into a coma. His wife and friends were convinced that he was going to die. Frances knew that her husband wanted to become a Catholic and asked Father ‘O’Connor to give Gilbert the Last Rites. The priest refused presumably because the patient couldn’t express his own wishes. After a number of months, Chesterton was his old self again, but it wasn’t until 1922 that he was eventually received into the Church. He had procrastinated because of the fear of his wife’s reaction. He later found that she was relieved that, at last, he had followed his conscience. She was to follow him into the Church four years later.
Chesterton visited Ireland several times. His first visit was in 1918 at the invitation of WB Yeats. He was an honoured guest at the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, and attended the Pontifical High Mass in Phoenix Park dressed in the robe of the Doctor of Letters which had been bestowed on him by the National University some years previously. The Chestertons also travelled to America and Poland and spent some time in the Holy Land where he was pleased to refute the charge of anti-Semitism which had been levelled against him.
Gilbert Chesterton died on 14 June, 1936 at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. Monsignor Ronald Knox delivered the homily at his Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral. Gilbert was buried in Beaconsfield Cemetery.
Chesterton was a keen observer of human nature and his comment on the Irish character contains more than an atom of truth:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.