Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Sins of G.K. Chesterton by Richard Ingrams

Writing in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, Peter Howarth reviews a book on G.K Chesterton by the former Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams.

Chesterton, who died 1936, was a journalist, controversialist, theologian and literary critic - his book on Charles Dickens is well worth seeking out for observations like this:

In such a sacred cloud the tale called The Christmas Carol begins, the first and most typical of all his Christmas tales. It is not irrelevant to dilate upon the geniality of this darkness, because it is characteristic of Dickens that his atmospheres are more important than his stories. The Christmas atmosphere is more important than Scrooge, or the ghosts either; in a sense, the background is more important than the figures. 

The same thing may be noticed in his dealings with that other atmosphere (besides that of good humour) which he excelled in creating, an atmosphere of mystery and wrong, such as that which gathers round Mrs. Clennam, rigid in her chair, or old Miss Havisham, ironically robed as a bride. 

Here again the atmosphere altogether eclipses the story, which often seems disappointing in comparison. The secrecy is sensational; the secret is tame. The surface of the thing seems more awful than the core of it. 

It seems almost as if these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth

Though he was most at home with tight deadlines and in the pubs of Fleet Street, there hung about Chesterton a reputation for unworldliness. So much so that some of his Catholic co-religionists have urged his canonisation.

Peter Howarth writes:

The Chestertonians’ appeal eventually resulted in a six-year investigation by the diocese of Northampton into whether there was sufficient evidence of Chesterton’s ‘heroic virtue’ and of miracles arising from his intercession. But in 2019, the bishop announced that things would be taken no further: there was too much evidence of antisemitism and, surprisingly, too little of ‘a pattern of personal spirituality’ in G.K.’s life.

And according to Howarth, Richard Ingrams follows other modern biographers in seeing Chesterton's antisemitism as the result of the malign influence of his brother Cecil and Hilaire Belloc (who was briefly a Liberal MP):

After Auden discerned the pair’s ‘pernicious influence’ in his 1970 selection of Chesterton’s prose, biographers and commentators have discovered how much the resentful obsession with rich Jews and Liberal politicians was primarily Belloc and Cecil’s. 
Ingrams supplies detail about just how nasty the pair were to G.K., too. The witty debater and brilliant controversialist was, in private, incapable of resisting Cecil’s tests of his family loyalty or Belloc’s bullying demands for a pulpit.

I think I shall read Ingrams' book as I have always had a soft spot for Chesterton, though the idea that we can simply blame his antisemitism on other people sounds a little like wishful thinking.

And if you share my interest in G.K. Chesterton and Belloc's distributism, which is described by howarth as

a libertarian and localist politics that sought to evade socialist centralisation and capitalist wage-slavery alike by keeping as much wealth as possible at household level

then you could look at David Boyle's Back to the Land: Distributism and the politics of life.

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