Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith)

views updated

CHESTERTON, G(ilbert) K(eith)

Nationality: English. Born: Kensington, London, 29 May 1874. Education: Colet Court School, London; St. Paul's School, London (editor, the Debater, 1891-93), 1887-92; drawing school in St. John's Wood, London, 1892; Slade School of Art, London, 1893-96. Family: Married Frances Alice Blogg in 1901. Career: Staff member, Redway, 1896; editor, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1896-1902; columnist, London Daily News, 1901-13; columnist, Illustrated London News, 1905-36; moved to Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1909; founder with Cecil Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, Eye Witness, London, 1911-12; contributor, London Daily Herald, 1913-l4; editor, New Witness, London, 1916-23; leader of the Distributist movement from 1919; president of the Distributist League. Joined Roman Catholic church, 1922. Editor, with H. Jackson and R. Brimley Johnson, Readers' Classics series, 1922; editor, G.K.'s Weekly, London, 1925-36; lecturer, Notre Dame University, Indiana, 1930; radio broadcaster, BBC, 1930s; illustrated some of his own works and books by Hilaire Belloc and E.C. Bentley. Awards: Honorary degrees: Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities. Member: Detection Club, 1928 (presi-dent). Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great, 1934. Died: 14 June 1936.



Selected Stories, edited by Kingsley Amis. 1972.

As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader, edited by Robert Knille. 1985.

The Bodley Head Chesterton, edited by P. J. Kavanagh. 1985; asThe Essential Chesterton, 1987.

Collected Works, edited by D. J. Conlon. 1987

—. Short Stories, Fairy Tales, Mystery Stories, Illustrations. 1993.

Poems for All Purposes: The Selected Poems of G. K. Chesterton.1994.

Collected Poetry. 1994.

A Motley Wisdom: The Best of G. K. Chesterton. 1995.

The Works of G. K. Chesterton. 1995.

Short Stories

The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown. 1903.

The Club of Queer Trades. 1905.

The Innocence of Father Brown. 1911; edited by Martin Gardner, 1987.

The Perishing of the Pendragons. 1914.

The Wisdom of Father Brown. 1914.

The Man Who Knew Too Much and Other Stories. 1922.

Tales of the Long Bow. 1925.

The Incredulity of Father Brown. 1926.

The Secret of Father Brown. 1927.

(Stories). 1928.

The Sword of Wood. 1928.

The Poet and the Lunatic: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale. 1929.

The Moderate Murderer, and The Honest Quack. 1929.

The Ecstatic Thief. 1930.

Four Faultless Felons. 1930.

The Floating Admiral, with others. 1931.

The Scandal of Father Brown. 1935.

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond. 1936.

The Coloured Lands (includes non-fiction). 1938.

The Vampire of the Village. 1947.

Father Brown: Selected Stories, edited by Ronald Knox. 1955.

The Penguin Complete Father Brown. 1981; as The Father Brown Omnibus, 1983.

Daylight and Nightmare: Uncollected Stories and Fables, edited by Marie Smith. 1986.

Thirteen Detectives: Classic Mystery Stories, edited by MarieSmith. 1987.

The Best of Father Brown, edited by H.R.F. Keating. 1987.

Seven Suspects, edited by Marie Smith. 1990.

The Father Brown Stories. 1996.


The Napoleon of Notting Hill. 1904.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. 1908.

The Ball and the Cross. 1909.

Manalive. 1912.

The Flying Inn. 1914.

The Return of Don Quixote. 1927.


Magic: A Fantastic Comedy (produced 1913). 1913.

The Judgment of Dr. Johnson (produced 1932). 1927.

The Surprise (produced 1953). 1953.


Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen: Rhymes and Sketches. 1900.

The Wild Knight and Other Poems. 1900; revised edition, 1914.

The Ballad of the White Horse. 1911.

Poems. 1915.

Wine, Water, and Song. 1915.

Old King Cole. 1920.

The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Verses. 1922. (

Poems). 1925.

The Queen of Seven Swords. 1926.

The Collected Poems. 1927; revised edition, 1932.

Gloria in Profundis. 1927.

Ubi Ecclesia. 1929.

The Grave of Arthur. 1930.

Greybeards at Play and Other Comic Verse, edited by JohnSullivan. 1974.

Collected Nonsense and Light Verse, edited by Marie Smith. 1987.


The Defendant. 1901.

Twelve Types. 1902; augmented edition, as Varied Types, 1903; selections, as Five Types, 1910; and as Simplicity and Tolstoy, 1912.

Thomas Carlyle. 1902.

Robert Louis Stevenson, with W. Robertson Nicoll. 1903.

Leo Tolstoy, with G.H. Perris and Edward Garnett. 1903.

Charles Dickens, with F.G. Kitton. 1903.

Robert Browning. 1903.

Tennyson, with Richard Garnett. 1903.

Thackeray, with Lewis Melville. 1903.

G.F. Watts. 1904.

Heretics. 1905.

Charles Dickens. 1906.

All Things Considered. 1908.

Orthodoxy. 1908.

George Bernard Shaw. 1909; revised edition, 1935.

Tremendous Trifles. 1909.

What's Wrong with the World. 1910.

Alarms and Discursions. 1910.

William Blake. 1910.

The Ultimate Lie. 1910.

A Chesterton Calendar. 1911; as Wit and Wisdom of Chesterton, 1911; as Chesterton Day by Day, 1912.

Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens. 1911.

A Defence of Nonsense and Other Essays. 1911.

The Future of Religion: Chesterton's Reply to Mr. Bernard Shaw. 1911.

The Conversion of an Anarchist. 1912.

A Miscellany of Men. 1912.

The Victorian Age in Literature. 1913.

Thoughts from Chesterton, edited by Elsie E. Morton. 1913.

The Barbarism of Berlin. 1914.

London, photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn. 1914.

Prussian Versus Belgian Culture. 1914.

Letters to an Old Garibaldian. 1915; with The Barbarism of Berlin, as The Appetite of Tyranny. 1915.

The So-Called Belgian Bargain. 1915.

The Crimes of England. 1915.

Divorce Versus Democracy. 1916.

Temperance and the Great Alliance. 1916.

The Chesterton Calendar, edited by H. Cecil Palmer. 1916.

A Shilling for My Thoughts, edited by E.V. Lucas. 1916.

Lord Kitchener. 1917.

A Short History of England. 1917.

Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays. 1917.

How to Help Annexation. 1918.

Irish Impressions. 1920.

The Superstition of Divorce. 1920.

Charles Dickens Fifty Years After. 1920.

The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays. 1920.

The New Jerusalem. 1920.

Eugenics and Other Evils. 1922.

What I Saw in America. 1922.

Fancies Versus Fads. 1923.

St. Francis of Assisi. 1923.

The End of the Roman Road: A Pageant of Wayfarers. 1924.

The Superstitions of the Sceptic. 1925.

The Everlasting Man. 1925.

William Cobbett. 1925.

The Outline of Sanity. 1926.

The Catholic Church and Conversion. 1926.

Selected Works (Minerva Edition). 9 vols., 1926.

A Gleaming Cohort, Being Selections from the Works of Chesterton, edited by E.V. Lucas. 1926.

Social Reform Versus Birth Control. 1927.

Robert Louis Stevenson. 1927.

Generally Speaking: A Book of Essays. 1928.

(Essays). 1928.

Do We Agree? A Debate, with Bernard Shaw. 1928.

A Chesterton Catholic Anthology, edited by Patrick Braybrooke. 1928.

The Thing (essays). 1929.

G.K.C. a M.C., Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Introductions, edited by J.P. de Fonseka. 1929.

The Resurrection of Rome. 1930.

Come to Think of It: A Book of Essays. 1930.

The Turkey and the Turk. 1930.

At the Sign of the World's End. 1930.

Is There a Return to Religion? with E. Haldeman-Julius. 1931.

All Is Grist: A Book of Essays. 1931.

Chaucer. 1932.

Sidelights on New London and Newer York and Other Essays. 1932.

Christendom in Dublin. 1932.

All I Survey: A Book of Essays. 1933.

St. Thomas Aquinas. 1933.

Chesterton (selected humour), edited by E.V. Knox. 1933; asRunning after One's Hat and Other Whimsies, 1933.

Avowals and Denials: A Book of Essays. 1934.

The Well and the Shallows. 1935.

Explaining the English. 1935.

Stories, Essays and Poems. 1935.

As I Was Saying: A Book of Essays. 1936.

Autobiography. 1936.

The Man Who Was Chesterton, edited by Raymond T. Bond. 1937.

Essays, edited by John Guest. 1939.

The End of the Armistice, edited by F.J. Sheed. 1940.

Selected Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1949.

The Common Man. 1950.

Essays, edited by K. E. Whitehorn. 1953.

A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1953.

The Glass Walking-Stick and Other Essays from the Illustrated London News 1905-1936, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1955.

Chesterton: An Anthology, edited by D. B. Wyndham Lewis. 1957.

Essays and Poems, edited by Wilfrid Sheed. 1958.

Lunacy and Letters (essays), edited by Dorothy Collins. 1958.

Where All Roads Lead. 1961.

The Man Who Was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of Chesterton, edited by A.L. Maycock. 1963.

The Spice of Life and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1964.

Chesterton: A Selection from His Non-Fictional Prose, edited by W.H. Auden. 1970.

Chesterton on Shakespeare, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1971.

The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, and Other Essays, edited by Dorothy Collins. 1975.

The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays, edited by MarieSmith. 1984.

Editor, Thackeray (selections). 1909.

Editor, with Alice Meynell, Samuel Johnson (selections). 1911.

Editor, Love and Freindship (sic) by Jane Austen. 1922.

Editor, Essays by Divers Hands 6. 1926.

Editor, G.K.'s (miscellany from G.K.'s Weekly). 1934.



Chesterton: A Bibliography by John Sullivan, 1958, supplement, 1968, and Chesterton 3: A Bibliographical Postscript, 1980.

Critical Studies:

On the Place of Chesterton in English Letters by Hilaire Belloc, 1940; Chesterton, 1943, and Return to Chesterton, 1952, both by Maisie Ward; Paradox in Chesterton by Hugh Kenner, 1947; Chesterton, 1950 (revised edition, 1954, 1964), and The Mind of Chesterton, 1970, both by Christopher Hollis; Chesterton: Man and Mask by Garry Wills, 1961; Chesterton: A Biography by Dudley Barker, 1973; Chesterton by Lawrence J. Clipper, 1974; Chesterton: A Centennial Appraisal by John Sullivan, 1974; The Novels of Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda by Ian Boyd, 1975; Chesterton, Belloc, Baring by Raymond Las Vergnas, 1975; Chesterton: The Critical Judgments 1900-1937, 1976, and Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, 1987, both edited by D.J. Conlon; Chesterton, Radical Populist by Margaret Canovan, 1977; Chesterton and the Twentieth-Century English Essay edited by Banshi Dhar, 1977; Chesterton: Explorations in Allegory by Lynette Hunter, 1979; Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity by Jay P. Corrin, 1981; The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of Chesterton by Alzina Stone Dale, 1982; Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis by John Coates, 1984; Chesterton: A Seer of Science by Stanley L. Jaki, 1986; Chesterton: A Critical Study by K. Dwarakanath, 1986; Chesterton by Michael Ffinch, 1986; Chesterton: Philosopher Without Portfolio by Quentin Laver, 1988; The Riddle of Joy: Chesterton and C.S. Lewis edited by Michael H. Macdonald and Andrew A. Tadie, 1989; Gilbert: The Man Who Was Chesterton by Michael Coren, 1989; G.K.'s Weekly: An Appraisal by Brocard Sewell, 1990; Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce, 1996; The Size of Chesterton's Catholicism: A Study of His Apologetic by David W. Fagerberg, 1998.

* * *

G. K. Chesterton's stories can be divided into the secular and the religious, but both have several features in common. Both kinds have strong elements of extravagance and fantastic high spirits, tempered by sharp and sudden doses of common sense. He is always aiming to make the familiar appear in its pristine strangeness, to peel away the coarsening layers of habit, so that a weed or a London street or a suburban family may appear romantic and glorious. As we can see from his autobiography (especially the chapter entitled "How to Be a Lunatic"), he considered that he had attained sanity and religious truth by passing through something near to madness; and this is reflected in the stories as in the essays. His descriptive passages not only are sharply observed, but often imply social criticism; for instance, the following contains a critique of fruitless aristocratic opulence: "outlying parts of a great house, regularly swept and garnished for a master who never comes."

Though some of the stories were written after 1918, the secular ones are usually pervaded with the atmosphere of Edwardian public life, stating or implying his dislike of the imperialism of Rhodes and Kipling (he had been among the small minority who was proud to be called a pro-Boer), the corruption of the Marconi scandal, and a society where, as he thought, power and opulence had become complacent and cynical. Often there is a leading character who expresses these views. Such is Horne Fisher in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," who says, "I know too much. That's what's the matter with me," and who penetrates to the "daylight on the other side of strange scenery."

In a particularly fantastic collection, The Club of Queer Trades, there are men with professions like the "organizer of repartee," who is employed to be the feed at fashionable dinner parties for a man with a Wilde-like reputation for impromptu wit. Other characters include a man who has invented a wordless language through dancing, and a man paid to impersonate vicars and colonels, whose endless calls keep impatient but polite people at home when their presence elsewhere would be unwelcome. In "Tales of the Long Bow" the central figure is Crane, whose casual good manners contrast with the vulgarities of the new rich.

But it is on the religious stories, centered on Father Brown, that Chesterton's reputation as a story writer mainly rests. He describes the character's origin in the 16th chapter of his autobiography:

In Father Brown, it was the chief feature to be featureless. The point of him was to appear pointless…. I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy…. At the same time I did take some of his inner intellectual qualities from my friend, Father John O'Connor of Bradford …, a sensitive and quick-witted Irishman, with the profound irony and some of the potential irritability of his race.

It is interesting that he thus took as a model for his character, in his own Anglo-Catholic days, a Roman Catholic priest, and one who was eventually to receive him into the Catholic Church. The main idea of these stories was simple and fruitful, to give that popular genre of the detective story a core of Christian thought and feeling, so that criminals and victims and witnesses might be judged, not as the law courts judge, but as gifted spiritual advisers might judge. Of course, this meant that the reader had to accept the obvious improbability that Father Brown always happened to be hanging about when a murder was about to be committed, and that his parish duties never seemed onerous. The other recurrent character is Flambeau, the thief, who is outwitted by Father Brown in "The Blue Cross," and who signalizes his repentance by returning the jewels he has stolen in an atmosphere of uproarious Christmas farce in "The Flying Stars." Afterwards he is often a valued assistant in the priest's investigations. Father Brown is a firm supporter of common sense and homely virtues, at the same time as he is, like his creator, a lover of paradox. Very characteristic is "The Scandal of Father Brown," where the priest is suspected of conniving at adultery, because the actual adulterer looks dull and elderly (like a stock idea of a husband), while the husband has the appearance of a curly-headed lover. And when the American journalist shows his prejudices about "Wops and Dagos," Father Brown has his wider context:

Well, there was a Dago, or possibly a Wop, called Julius Caesar; he was afterwards killed in a stabbing match; you know these Dagos always use knives. And there was another one called Augustine, who brought Christianity to our little island.

Many of the stories are aimed against esoteric cults, pseudo-oriental magic, and cranky religions. Thus in "The Blast of the Book," the book, a glance into which is supposed to make the reader disappear, proves to consist of blank pages, and the ingenious story of its fatal effects is elaborate fabrication. In other stories the inconsistency of the casual assumptions of the world is exposed to witty ridicule, as in "The Worst Crime in the World," where a mother's wish for a prudent marriage for her daughter would have meant mating her with a man who has murdered his father. In "The Invisible Man" the caller that no one noticed is the postman, who is also the murderer, and the story ends with Father Brown giving him spiritual counsel. Very characteristic is Father Brown's description of the postman's uniform: "He is dressed handsomely in red, blue and gold." Chesterton really did see familiar things like that. The odd similarity in the dress of fashionable diners and those who wait on them leads, in "The Queer Feet" to an ingenious story in which a thief deceives the diners into thinking he is a waiter, and the waiters into thinking he is a diner, but the upshot, that the members of the Club agree to meet in green dinner jackets to avoid being mistaken for waiters, has a symbolic value as a critique of the meaningless extravagance of a plutocracy lacking a real social function. The conventionality of many who deem themselves bold and revolutionary thinkers is satirized in "The Crime of the Communist," where a communist don can talk of bloody revolution, but would be horrified at the thought of smoking before the port. Few have succeeded so well as Chesterton in combining a thoughtful interpretation of life with amusing fantasies.

—A. O. J. Cockshut

About this article

Chesterton, G(ilbert) K(eith)

Updated About content Print Article