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G K Chesterton, saint and sinner. By Rev Michael Coren

Blog | May 29, 2024

G K Chesterton (1874-1936): ‘I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean’

Gilbert Keith Chesterton – born 150 years ago, on 29th May 1874 – never quite goes away.

He’s still widely read and quoted by people who rely on speechwriters rather than books. He’s a major voice in conservative circles, in particular. The Father Brown stories (even if twisted beyond recognition) are always on television. He speaks to modernity as though he were an especially brilliant and informed neighbour.

He wrote the novels The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and biographies of St Francis, Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens. His analyses of history include Orthodoxy, Heretics and The Everlasting Man. He poured out oceans of journalism. There was poetry too, including The Ballad of The White Horse, The Rolling English Road and Lepanto.

Born in 1874 in London, Chesterton grew up with his brother, Cecil, in a secure, happy home. The gangly, awkward yet gifted schoolboy chose art school rather than university, and didn’t plan a career in journalism. He drifted into the craft, mingling an emerging Christianity with a delightful refusal to be bound by conventional party labels or accepted political wisdom.

On nationalism, he wrote, ‘“My country, right or wrong” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober”.’ On literature, he said, ‘A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.’ On being controversial, he wrote, ‘I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.’

‘If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe,’ he wrote. ‘If you look at it the 1,000th time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.’

Books came early: Greybeards at Play in 1900, Twelve Types in 1902 and a biography of Robert Browning the following year. The Napoleon of Notting Hill was in 1904.

He married Frances Blogg in 1901 and they had an intensely happy, childless life together. She was an essential steadying influence on his notorious untidiness and lack of organisation.

‘Am at Market Harborough,’ he once wrote to her. ‘Where ought I to be?’

Her reply? ‘Home.’

The other central aspect to Chesterton was faith, and the pull of Roman Catholicism. He would join the church in 1922: ‘The fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.’

He had a thrusting ability to hold up a mirror to the addled society around him and show its absurd reflection. ‘Journalism largely consists of saying, “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.’ And, ‘The Bible tells us to love our neighbours and also to love our enemies, probably because they are generally the same people.’

But as well as the undoubted brilliance, there’s the accusation of anti-Semitism. It’s a subject on which I’ve vacillated. In my 1989 biography, I acknowledged his comments but still came down on his side. I later saw that as insufficient. Now, in all honesty, I’m just not certain.

His younger brother, Cecil, was obsessed with what he saw as negative Jewish influences and led a vitriolic campaign against the handful of Jewish figures who were involved in the 1912 Marconi Scandal – an early form of insider trading, mostly involving non-Jews. Cecil died at the end of the First World War, through illness rather than combat, and Gilbert wrote an open letter to Lord Reading, the Jewish Lord Chief Justice of England. It’s soaked in anti-Semitism, ‘the Jewish international’ and ‘alien psychology’.

He could be just crude and cruel. ‘I am fond of Jews/Jews are fond of money/ Never mind of whose. I am fond of Jews/ Oh, but when they lose/Damn in all, it’s funny.’ And ‘Oh I knew a Doctor Gluck/ And his nose it had a hook/And his attitudes were anything but Aryan/ So I gave him all the pork that I had, upon a fork/Because I am myself a Vegetarian.’

He was, however, an early anti-Nazi and spoke of Jewish people being ‘rabbled or ruined or driven from their homes’ by the Nazis, who ‘beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps’, and how ‘I do indeed despise the Hitlerites’. Compare that with the silence or even ambivalence of many alleged progressives at the time.

I am an Anglican vicar, even though three of my four grandparents were Jewish. I wish that a man of such foresight and perception hadn’t dipped his toes into the rancid waters of anti- Semitism, but he did. It doesn’t dent his brilliance – but it does sting.

Oh, how it stings.

Rev Michael Coren is an Anglican vicar in Ontario