Gilbert Keith Chesterton– 14 June 1936 known as G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic. His writing style can be described as poignant, sharp and terse and his quotes manage to provoke thought without relying on lengthy passages. He is numbered among the most influential British writers at the beginning of the 20th century.
Though physically awkward, Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing around 20 stone 6 pounds (286 lb). he was very nimble intellectually and he became famous for his use of paradox and ironic commentary. His fiction writing often contained carefully concealed parables.
Chesterton was born in Campden Hill in Kensington, London, on 29 May 1874, the first child of Edward and Marie Louise Chesterton. His brother Cecil, who also became a journalist and writer, was born in 1879 but died in World War l . He was educated with his brother, at St Paul’s School and then attended the Slade School of Art to become an illustrator. The Slade is a department of University College London, where Chesterton also took classes in literature, but did not complete a degree in either subject. Early on Chesterton showed a great interest in and talent for art. He had planned to become an artist, and his writing shows a vision that clothed abstract ideas in visual and memorable images.
In September 1895 Chesterton began working for his first London publisher and after a year, 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 thirty years.
Chesterton met Frances Blogg in 1896 and married her on 28 June1901 in St Mary Abbots, Kensington. Frances was very deeply involved in the Christian church and its pastoral activities. She was working as a secretary and administrator at the ‘Parent’s National Educational Union’, planning and organizing conferences and giving speeches, but on her marriage to Chesterton, putting her duty to her husband first, she effectively worked as his manager, keeping his appointments’ diary and his accounts, negotiating on his behalf with publishers, and hiring his typists. Throughout their marriage, Frances encouraged his writing. Chesterton admired Frances’ faith and how she engaged with it’ by reading the Bible, teaching at Sunday school and taking care of the sick and elderly. Frances wanted to have a large family, but due to infertility, she was unable to bear any children.
Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the ‘Daily News’, ‘The Illustrated London News’, and his own paper, ‘G. K.’s Weekly’; he also wrote articles for the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’, including the entry on Charles Dickens .
His best-known fiction character is the priest-detective ‘Father Brown’ who appeared in collections of short stories and who is perpetually correcting the misunderstandings of the confused onlookers at the scene of the crime and then wandering off at the end with the criminal to exert his priestly role of recognition and repentance.
‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ is his best-known novel. Of his nonfiction, he has received the most universal praise for his 1906 biography of Charles Dickens,‘Charles Dickens: A Critical Study,’ which was largely responsible for creating a popular revival of Dickens’s work as well as a serious reconsideration of Dickens by literary scholars.
Chesterton loved to debate, often engaging in friendly public disputes with such men as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. Chesterton and Shaw were famous friends and enjoyed their arguments and discussions and although rarely in agreement, they both maintained good will toward and respect for each other.
Chesterton’s writings consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour. He employed paradox, while making serious comments on the world, government, politics, economics, philosophy, theology and many other topics. For example ‘Chesterton’s fence’ is the principle he espoused in one of his books – that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood.
Shaw represented the new school of thought, modernism, which was rising at the time. Chesterton’s views, on the other hand, became increasingly more focused towards the Church and faith.
He was a convinced Christian and Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing.
Chesterton credited his wife, Frances, with leading him back to Anglicanism, though he later considered Anglicanism to be a “pale imitation”. He entered full communion with the Catholic Church in 1922.
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)
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”.
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 which were very popular.
Chesterton is often associated with his close friend, the poet and essayist Hilaire Belloc. Though they were very different men, they shared many beliefs. Chesterton eventually joined Belloc in the Catholic faith, and both voiced criticisms of capitalism and socialism. They instead espoused a third way: distributism, favouring the distribution of land.
Chesterton and Belloc faced accusations of anti-Semitism during their lifetimes, as well as posthumously. One observer said “If Belloc’s feeling against the Jews was instinctive and under some control, Chesterton’s was open and vicious’’. In ‘The New Jerusalem’, Chesterton made it clear that he believed that there was a ‘Jewish Problem’ in Europe, in the sense that he believed that Jewish culture (though not Jewish ethnicity) separated itself from the nationalities of Europe.
However, Chesterton, like Belloc, openly expressed his abhorrence of Hitler’s rule almost as soon as it started. In ‘The Truth about the Tribes’ Chesterton criticised German race theories, writing: ‘the essence of Nazi Nationalism is to preserve the purity of a race in a continent where all races are impure.’
Chesterton died of congestive heart failure on the morning of 14 June 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.