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||G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton (1874-1936)|
Prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories. Along with George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and H.G. Wells, Chesterton was one the great Edwardian men of letters. Between 1900 and 1936 he published some one hundred books. Chesterton also gained fame for his series about the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared in 50 stories
"The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists." (from 'A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls', 1901)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family. Edward, his father, whom Chesterton described as "serene, humorous and full of hobbies," was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and estate agents business of Chesterton. Marie-Louise Grosjean, his mother, was of Franco-Scottish ancestry. Chesterton did not learn to read until he was over eight, but later he could quote whole passages of books from memory. One of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump of white fat." Chesterton studied at University College, where he registred for courses in art, Latin, French, and English, and the Slade School of Art (1893-96), which was an unhappy period in his life. At the age of sixteen he started a magazine called The Debater.
Around 1893 Chesterton had gone through a crisis of skepticism and depression. During this period he experimented with the Ouija board and grew fascinated with diabolism. In 1895 Chesterton left University College without a degree and worked for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902). Much of his early writings were first published in such publications as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G.K.'s Weekly, which he edited for the last eleven years of his life. Chesterton renewed his Christian faith; also the courtship of his future wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, pulled him out of the crisis. Frances was the eldest daughter of a deceased diamond merchant. She was convicted her husband was ment to be a novelist, rather than a prolific journalist.
At the start of the twentieth century, Chesterton had formed strong relationships with a range of writers. His impact on English literature has been compared to that of Joseph Conrad and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Greybeards at Play, Chesterton's first collection of poems, appeared in 1900. Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906) were literary biographies, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) was Chesterton's first novel, a political fantasy. The Defendant (1901), gathered together from a series essays, which had appeared in Speaker, caused considerable debate – Chesterton defended popular culture, including detective stories, which reviewers had scorned to waste ink upon them.
Between the years 1890 and 1914 Chesterton produced his most imaginative works, such as The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a depiction of fin-de-siècle decadence. The protagonist, Syme, is a poet turned an employee of Scotland Yard, who reveals a vast conspiracy against civilization. The members of the secret anarchist gang are named for days of the week. Sunday is the most mysterious character who tells that since "the beginning of the world, all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet." Sunday, the president of the Central Anarchist Coucil gives a simple advice about disguise: "You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless, a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb? Why then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool! Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then." Perhaps Chesterton had in mind the 'Bloody Sunday' of 22 January 1905, when the priest and double-agent Gapon, led the crowds to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburgh. A stage adaptation of the story by Mrs Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale was produced in 1926.
In 1909 Chesterton moved with his wife to Beaconsfield, a
twenty-five miles west of London, and continued to write, lecture, and
travel energetically. Wherever he went, he was recognized. He was six
feet four inches tall, and weighted three hundred pounds. His wife
dressed him in a huge cape and wide-brimmed hat. He also carried a
swordstick. I his youth he had carried a gun and when he heard someone
say that life was not worth living, he would offer to shoot the person,
"and always with the most satisfactory results."
Between 1913 and 1914 Chesterton was regular contributor for
the Daily Herald.
When the First World War
began, he suffered a physical and nervous breakdown. At the call of
Charles Masterman, a member of H.H. Asquith's Cabined, he joined a
editors from the British press and senior writers – among them Arthur
Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Gilbert
Murray, George Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Israel Zangwill –
whose task was to represent the British viewpoint and counterbalance
German propaganda in Allied and neutral nations. The War Propaganda
Bureau was set up at Wellington House, Buckingham Gate, in London.
Chesterton wrote several pamphlets, beginning from a tract called The Barbarism of Berlin (1914).
After the war
Chesterton became leader of the Distributist movement and later the
President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that private
property should be divided into smallest possible freeholds and then
distributed throughout society. In his writings Chesterton also
expressed his distrust of world government and evolutionary progress.
During the Boer War Chesterton took a pro-Boer standpoint. He was very popular radio lecturer, engaging in a series of debates with George Bernard Shaw. His younger brother, Cecil, died in 1918 and Chesterton edited his brother's the New Witness and his own G.K.'s Weekly. The editorial work occupied a considerable amount of his time and energy.
"Observed Chesterton on seeing for the first time the sparkling bright light of Broadway: "How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read." (from The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1990)
In 1922 Chesterton was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thereafter he wrote several theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. "Existence is still a strange thing to me; and as a stranger, I gave it welcome", he wrote in Autobiography (1936). Chesterton received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities. In 1934 he was made Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield. His coffin, too big to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window to the ground. Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988.
Father Brown debuted in 'The Blue Cross' in the Storyteller
(1910). To wider public the character became first known from
Chesterton's book The Innocence of
Father Brown (1911), a collection of twelve cases. The
rest of the stories appeared in The
Wisdom of Farher Brown (1914), The
Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927),
and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935).
Chesterton explained the passive character of his creation: "His
commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected
vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his
appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his
manners clumsy, and so on." Basically these stories can be read as an
attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil.
The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published (Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987). Before creating father Brown he had hailed in 'Defence of Detective Stories' this somewhat scorned genre of tales as "the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." Father Brown is gentle, quiet cleric, with ever-furled umbrella and round face, whose mission is to identify the culprit so that he/she might repent and save his/her soul. Among his opponents is the French jewel thief Flambeau, who reforms and becomes a London private investigator, and helps occasionally Father Brown. "Has it never struck you," Brown explains to Flambeau in 'The Blue Cross', "that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?" Father Brown was based on father John O'Connor (later Monsignor), Chesterton's friend, who in 1922 received the author into the Roman Catholic Church. John Dickson Carr used Chesterton as the model for his detective Dr. Gideon Fell.
In his verse
Chesterton was a master of ballad form, as shown in his "Lepanto",
published in 1911. His other works include plays, historical studies,
essays, and biographies of such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo
Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Thackeray, George
Bernard Shaw, and William Blake. Chesterton's subjects were very
varied: the biography of Chaucer (1932) celebrated the Middle Ages, Takes a Long Bow (1925) propounded
his social and political views, and The
(1929), a collection of essays examined his own conversion to Roman
Chesterton's play The Magic
(1913) was one of the favorites of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman,
who reworked it into his movie Ansiktet
(1958, The Magician), starring Max von Sydow.
Chesterton wrote quickly and refused to edit his publications
carefully. Religious perspective was the center of much of his
writings. "Personally, I am all for propaganda," he once said, "and a
great dealt of what I write is deliberately propagandist." When the Illustrated London News
hired him to write a weekly column on all sorts of topics, except
religion and politics, Chesterton responded by saying there was nothing
else worth writing about.
For further reading: G. K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker (2012); Chesterton and Evil by Mark Knight (2004); G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense by Dale Ahlquist (2003); Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); G.K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, ed. by D.J. Conlon (1987); G.K. Chesterton by Michael F. Finch (1986); Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis by John Coates (1984); A Chesterton Celebration by R.W. Rauch (1983); The Outline of Sanity by A.S. Dale (1982); Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc by Jay P. Corrin (1981); G.K. Chesterton: Explorations in Allegory by Lynette Hunter (1979); G.K. Chesterton by Margaret Canovan (1977); G.K. Chesterton, ed. by D.J. Conlon (1976); The Novels of G.K. Chesterton by Ian Boyd (1975); G.K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal, ed. by John Sullivan (1974); G.K. Chesterton by Lawrence Clipper (1974); The Chesterton Review, publ. by the G.K. Chesterton Society (1974-); G.K. Chesterton by Dudley Barker (1973); The Mind of Chesterton by C. Hollis (1970); Chesterton: Man and Mask by Garry Wills (1961); G.K. Chesterton: A Bibliography by J. Sullivan (1958); Return to Chesterton by Maisie Ward (1952); Paradox in Chesterton by Hugh Kenner (1947); Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward (1944); The Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters by Hilaire Belloc (1940); Chesterton and the Victorian Age by A.M.A. Bogaerts (1940); Chesterton as Seen by His Contemporaries by Cyril Clemens (1939); G.K. Chesterton by M. Evans (1939); G.K. Chesterton by W.R. Titterton (1936) - Father Brown films: Father Brown, Detective, dir. by Edward Sedgewick, starring Walter Connolly as Father Brown and Paul Lukas as Flambeau, (1934); Father Brown, dir. by Robert Hamer, starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Finch (1954); Pater Brown findet Daniel Boom (TV film), dir. Peter A. Horn, starring Walter Janssen (1955); Das schwarze Schaf, dir. by Helmut Ashley, starring Heinz Rühmann (1960), Er kann's nicht lassen, dir. by Axel von Ambesser, starring again Heinz Rühmann, who also played in television films Inspector Maigret (1962); The Quick One (episode in Detective, TV series), dir. Gilchrist Calder, with Mervyn Johns as Father Brown (1964); Pater Brown (TV series), with Josef Meinrad (1966-72); Une soirée au bungalow (TV film), dir. Lazare Iglesis, with Giani Esposito (1969); I racconti di Padre Brown (TV series), dir. Vittorio Cottafavi, with Renato Rascel (1970); Father Brown (TV series), with Kenneth More (1974); Sanctuary of Fear (TV film), dir. by John Llewellyn Moxey, starring Bernard Hughes (1979); Sei delitti per padre Brown (TV mini-series), dir. Vittorio De Sisti, with Emrys James (1988).