G. K. Chesterton
May 29 is the birthday of
one of the most versatile authors in history,
novelist and essayist Gilbert Keith
Chesterton. Born in London, England, in 1874, he is lauded
today for his detective novels about the bumbling, fumbling, crime-solving
priest Father Brown, but during his lifetime he was even better known as an
essayist. As the conscience of a nation, he wrote constantly about
politics, society, literature, and religion. A prolific writer, he
often dictated one
article to a secretary while working on another at his own desk.
Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family. His
father, Edward, was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and
estate agents business of Chesterton, and his mother, Marie-Louise, was of
Franco-Scottish ancestry. Young Gilbert couldn't read until he was more than eight
years old, and once one of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head,
we should not find brains but only a lump of white fat."
Nevertheless, Chesterton went on to study at University College and the Slade School of Art (1893-96). At 16
years of age, he published a magazine called The Debater.
Chesterton slipped into a downward spiral of depression
and overall skepticism about life. He began experimenting with the
occult and often played with a Ouija board. He became obsessed with
diabolic behavior. In 1895, he left University College without a
degree and went to work for London publisher Redway and for T. Fisher Unwin
(1896-1902). Many of his works were first introduced in publications
such as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News,
Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G. K.'s Weekly.
Chesterton found renewed hope for life in his Christian faith. He also
found Frances Blogg, his future wife, whom he married in 1901 and who helped
him pull himself out of his spiritual and emotional crisis.
of the first twentieth-century critics to argue that Charles Dickens was a
great novelist during the author's declining reputation, Chesterton also
supported the theory that the influence of religion on public life
would in time be replaced by the power of promotion. He said
that what drove him as a writer was "the problem of how men could be made to
realize the wonder and splendor of being alive."
In 1900, Chesterton published Greybeards at Play, his first
collection of poems. He followed that with two literary biographies,
Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906). His first novel,
The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), was a political fantasy, and in
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), he depicted the ultimate decadence.
protagonist of the book, Syme, is a poet-turned-Scotland Yard employee who reveals a
vast conspiracy against civilization. The members of his secret
anarchist gang are named for days of the week. Sunday is the most
mysterious character, who said 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
Sunday, who is president of the Central Anarchist Council,
gives 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."
In his A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, Chesterton
critiques society, relying on his wit and wisdom to relay his thoughts to
the common man.
"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 as 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." - A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, 1901
In 1922, Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and
wrote several theologically oriented works, including biographies of Francis
of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. He 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.
G. K. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield.
His coffin, too large 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.
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