Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review of G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker

G.K. Chesterton: A Biography
Ian Ker
Oxford University Press, 2011

G.K. Chesterton was (amongst many other things) a biographer. His biographies of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens are considered classics. He also wrote highly-regarded biographies of Robert Browning, William Blake and the English conservative-radical William Cobbett.

Chesterton's biographies, however, are very different to the sort of volumes you might find in the Biography section in a modern bookshop. He paid scant attention to biographical facts, and often enough (famously in the case of his Charles Dickens biography) he got those facts wrong.

It didn't matter. Chesterton's biographies are not so much chronicles as extended essays. Rather than immersing himself in archives and hunting down private letters, he simply took what was already public knowledge and wrote a study upon it. This is why Chesterton's biographies are so eminently readable. He didn't (to use the modern phrase) sweat the small stuff. He did not turn out his subjects' pockets, or rifle their desk drawers. He just looked at them and wrote about what he saw. He was especially good at seeing the things that were so glaring, so obvious, that nobody else had noticed them before.

Strangely, I know of no biography of Chesterton himself that has followed this lead. They have all pretty much gone the Dry-as-Dust route. They give us far more information about Chesterton's ancestry, early life, schooling, living arrangements, dinner parties and holidays than any sensible reader could ever have possibly wanted, and far too little about Chesterton's beliefs, ideas and themes-- all the things Chesterton cared about the most, and all the things his readers should care about the most.

Maisie Ward, a personal friend of Chesterton, came closest with her never-surpassed biography (first published in 1942), and its follow-up volume, Return to Chesterton, which was made up of recollections and anecdotes by those who had known him. But even Ward dwelt too much on living arrangement and travel details. She also reprinted many private letters and private nonsense poems which are very often (to be frank) tiresome. (Not all the letters are tiresome, mind you. Chesterton's correspondence with Shaw was always entertaining and insightful, while some of the letters he wrote to Maurice Baring, Hilaire Belloc and others, at the time of his conversion to Catholicism, are amongst the most interesting things he ever wrote. But most of the letters are mere chatter.)

I have read at least five or six biographies of Chesterton, and it is very difficult to single Dr. Ker's out for any special commendation.

What I liked most about it was the author's critical assessment of Chesterton's work-- especially his defence of the non-fiction prose works and journalism as the most important, and his praise for the too-often-overlooked Autobiography. (More controversial, perhaps, but equally correct in my view, is his claim that The Ballad of the White Horse has been rather overpraised. It has sublime stanzas, but protracted longeurs.)

Chesterton's friends, and certainly his wife, often regretted that he did not spend more time producing "masterpieces". W.H. Auden was also of this school of thought. But aren't there enough "masterpieces" in the world? Isn't it a lazy assumption that the heights of literature are only scaled in fiction and poetry? I would swap any of Chesterton's novels-- come to think of it, I would swap all of them-- for another Orthodoxy or What's Wrong with the World. And his innumerable newspaper columns are endlessly fascinating. Ker has a similar view, and it especially pleased me that he repeatedly quotes Chesterton's own explanation for preferring polemical writing to fiction for its own sake: "I could not be a novelist; because I really like to see ideas or notions wrestling naked, as it were, and not dressed up in a masquerade as men and women. But I could be a journalist because I could not help being a controversialist."

There is a wonderful humility in Chesterton's concentration upon the causes he championed, rather than his own literary reputation. Perhaps it is best expressed in this little known ballade, quoted in a memoir by his friend Father O'Connor:

I am not as that Poet that arrives,
Nor shall I pluck the Laurel that persists
Through all perverted Ages and revives;
Enough for me, that if with feet and fists
I fought these pharisaic atheists,
I need not crawl and seek when all is done
My motley pennon trampled in the lists.
It will not matter when the fight is won.

(For this very reason, it is very difficult for a neutral critic to be fair to Chesterton. He was first and foremost a controversialist, so an appreciation of his work is almost inevitably dependent on whether you think he was right or wrong about the most important matters. His biggest fans tend to be Catholics, Christians and Distributists-- though there are a few exceptions, like the late Martin Gardner, a skeptical deist. When it comes to Chesterton, it's difficult to avoid either idolising him uncritically, on the one hand, or simply missing the point, on the other-- and the point is often missed by those who judge him primarily as a creative writer rather than a controversialist, or by those who condemn him for his fondness for paradox. Paradox was not a stylistic device for Chesterton, but simply the way his mind worked-- or, rather, a feature of reality as he saw it. There is another rather eminent figure I can think of who was much given to paradox, but strangely, he has rarely been taken to task for it.)

Although I agree with most of Dr. Ker's critical assessments of Chesterton's work, I was rather irritated at the self-assured tone in which he expresses them. Over and over again, we are told about Chesterton's Half-Dozen Major Works, to the point where I wondered if Dr. Ker should trademark the phrase. I can't argue too much with the titles which he includes in this heading-- Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, Charles Dickens, St. Francis of Assisi, The Dumb Ox and Autobiography-- but is there any need to be so definitive? There is certainly a case to be made for Heretics, What's Wrong with the World, Chaucer, and pretty much any of his collections of essays. But really, what does it mean to say that something is a "major" work, anyway? That it deserves the interest of some priggish General Reader who treks the landscape of Literature looking for works of Importance, the Best That Has Been Thought and Written in All Ages, while studiously avoiding those works which are not considered Major and are found guilty of being Ephemeral, Derivative or of purely Historical Interest?

The truth is that anyone who enjoys any of Chesterton's "major" works will almost certainly enjoy all or most of his works-- and that this division is between major and minor is pretty pointless, anyway. Even Chesterton's lesser works have many stretches of brilliance, or (at least) moments of brilliance. Dr. Ker takes a much more solemn and serious view of Literature, considered for its own sake, than Chesterton ever did.

Again, Dr. Ker's summaries of the various collections of Chesterton's articles published in his lifetime makes them sound a lot more repetitive than they are. He is right to identify the standard Chestertonian themes that occur again and again-- Chesterton's love of limits, his insistence that levity and seriousness could go together, his dislike of the racial theory, his insistence on the need for clear thought and first principles, above all the emphasis he placed upon the sense of wonder-- but he is wrong to list them in such a supercilious tone. The whole point is that these are indeed themes, and themes capable of infinite variety and application. I think Chesterton is the least boring writer I've ever read. He repeats himself, indeed-- what writer doesn't? But the most important thing is that he never seems to strain for a subject-- he always seems to have something to say, and not just for the sake of saying it. Given the sheer volume of his output, this is extraordinary.

This is a book which suffers from an air of pedantry, which is hardly a Chestertonian characteristic. Letters and notes that were obviously written in haste (by Chesterton and others), and which occasionally drop an apostrope or make some such trivial error, suffer the indignitiy of having [sic] inserted into them. Surely they should simply be corrected, or let stand without comment. (Perhaps my complaint itself is pedantic, but I found it an irritant). Dr. Ker even corrects George Bernard Shaw's use of punctuation, which-- considering GBS's views on spelling reform, and his deliberate avoidance of standard spelling and punctuation-- seems rather silly.

But the worst thing about this book, without any doubt at all, is Dr. Ker's almost unbelievable fixation upon minute details. This really has to be read to be believed. The author only stops short of recording what colour socks Chesterton wore on a given day, or the name of the shop that he bought his ink from. Perhaps those details simply weren't available, or they would have been included.

This tendency reaches it barmiest when it comes to the accounts of Chesterton's trips overseas. For instance, Chesterton went on a lecture tour of Notre Dame University, Indiana, in 1930. Here is a short extract from the book, describing the negotiations that preceded this lecture tour:

On 16 January 1930 Father O'Donnell wrote again to Chesterton asking him to confirm that he would be coming in April; on receiving confirmation, he would send an advance payment to cover the travelling expenses. On 23 January Dorothy Collins wrote to confirm that Chesterton would begin lecturing on Monday 14 April and conclude on Saturday 24 May. She now informed the President that she herself would be accompanying the Chestertons. They understood that there should be no difficulty about accommodation as they had heard that there was a 'quiet and comfortable' hotel at Notre Dame. She would write again but in the meantime she informed him that they would be probably in America for a week or two before coming to Notre Dame as Chesterton had been asked to give some public lectures.

Reader, there are six pages of the book devoted to this correspondence, all of it pretty much of the same sort as the paragraph quoted above. This is the worst example of Dr. Ker's obsession with pettifogging detail, but it is by no means the only one. There are pages and pages devoted to logistics and itineraries.

Why? That is the question that the reader, brain-fatigued after yet another in-depth account of some train journey or public reception, finds himself asking. These long litanies of barely-relevant information certainly have no entertainment value, nor do they have any literary value. They tell us nothing about Chesterton, and nothing of any consequence about his era. It's hard to see that they even have any historical or scholarly value. Dr. Ker's decision to include so many of these obscure details is a bizarre one, and one that significantly reduces the readability of the book.

One thing I really liked about the biography was the author's realistic and sympathetic view of the Chestertons' marriage. So much has been written and said about their domestic life-- much of it gushing, much of it wildly speculative, some of it (as is the case with the theories of Ada Chesterton, the great man's sister in law) prurient. The marriage of the Chestertons has been held up as an idyll of domestic bliss by some. Others have considered Chesterton's wife to have been a kind of martyr for enduring his untidiness, chaotic lack of organization, carelessness about money and helplessness in practical matters. (She would actually shave him and tie his shoelaces!) Still others have cast Frances in the role of fussing, controlling wife, condemning Chesterton to suburban respectability rather than letting him indulge his rollicking life as a jolly journalist in the taverns of Fleet Street. (This despite the fact that, according to one of Chesterton's doctors, he would have died twenty years earlier than he did if Frances had not taken him away from this lifestyle.)

The most plausible view, I think, is that one put forward by Dr. Ker-- that the Chestertons had a loving and happy marriage, but one that suffered from strains and trials like any other, and that gave both spouses plenty of opportunity to show forbearance and consideration. (I don't think I would like to had lived with Chesterton, for all my admiration of his work. His chronic unpunctuality would have driven me up the wall. And speaking of walls, his habit of drawing on them would also have exasperated me.)

Another thing I liked about the book is Dr. Ker's balanced and sane verdict on Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism. Both during his life and since his death, Chesterton has been accused of anti-Semitic tendencies. The most damning evidence against him is a passage in his book, The New Jerusalem (which I've never read), in which Chesterton argues that English Jews who hold positions of importance in national life should wear distinctive dress to identify themselves as Jewish. This (allowing for context, since I haven't read the book) seems indefensible and, indeed, anti-Semitic. But one anti-Semitic passage does not make an anti-Semite. Chesterton had Jewish friends from his youth onwards, he defended the right of the Jews to a national homeland, and, though he died before the horrors of the concentration camps, he was unambiguous in his condemnation of Hitler's treatment of the Jews.

Dr. Ker puts it very well:

If Chesterton was anti-Jewish, he was anti-Jewish in exactly the same kind of way that many Europeans are anti-American today, or that Irish American are or used to be anti-British, or that British people were anti-German or anti-Japanese after the Second World War. Of course, to hold unfavourable views of a nation is not to condemn all the individuals in it or to preclude the possibility of having friends amongt them. But whereeas, Chesterton himself complained, people were "allowed to express...general impressions" about the Irish or the Scots or Yorkshiremen-- this latitude was not permitted in the case of the Jews: "There (for some reason I have never understood), the whole natural tendency has been to stop; and anybody who says anything whatever about Jews as Jews is supposed to wish to burn them at the stake"....That there was to be a "final solution" proposed in Nazi Germany to the Jewish 'problem' was still some years ahead, and Chesterton cannot be judged in the light of the Holocaust.

Surely that should be the last word on Chesterton's supposed anti-Semitism.

The author is a Catholic priest, and it is therefore no surprise that there is a strong emphasis on Chesterton's spiritual life in the book. This, of course, is just as it should be. Chesterton's Christianity was the most important thing about him, and everything else in his life and thought flowed from it.

The book introduced me to a delightful anecdote, taken from a letter Chesterton wrote to a friend, which is one of the most perfect expressions of what I might call the spirit of Catholicism, and which shows Chesterton's inimitable flair for illustrating why the Faith seems so solid and certain to its adherents, and why we view it as a Thing rather than a theory.

The scene is Prohibition-era America, during one of Chesterton's tours there. A Catholic priest is visiting Chesterton's wife, who was ill (and who by this time had also become a Catholic convert).

Priest (after a boisterous greeting) I was told ye were ill: but I didn't know how ill. I've brought the Holy Oils.
Frances (somewhat tartly) Then you can take 'em away again. I don't want them just yet. But I wish you'd give me your blessing, Father.
Priest I'll give you some whiskey first. (Produces an enormous bottle of Bootleg Whiskey and flourishes it like a club.)....You drink that down and ye'll be all the better.
Frances (rather faintly):...and the Blessing?
Priest (straightens himself out and gabbles in a strong guttural voice): Benedicat te Omnipotens Deus, etc. etc.

Chesterton's commentary upon the little scene (he says he would "like to have that actual dialogue printed as a little Catholic leaflet") is a minor masterpiece:

It would tell people more about the Soul of the Church than ten thousand chippy chats between A (Anglican Enquirer) and C (Catholic Instructor)-- about its fearlessness of the facts of life and the Fact of Death, its ease and healthy conscience, its contempt for fads and false laws, its buoyancy that comes from balance; its naturalness with the natural body as with the supernatural soul; its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment; its presence of the Priest; its utter absence of the Parson. Clare dear, never let go of the Faith.

Amen, I say. For that anecdote alone I am glad that I read Dr. Ker's biography. I just wish there had been a lot more of that kind of thing, and a lot less about travel schedules and lecture tour arrangements.

For all the accolades heaped upon this work, it doesn't, in my opinion, even threaten to dislodge Maisie Ward from her pedestal as the best Chesterton biographer yet. As for the definitive Chesterton biography, that remains to be written.

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