G K Chesterton by Michael Flinch (Weidenfeld, f16).
"I LIKE", wrote G K Chesterton, "to get into hot water. It helps to keep me clean."
Michael Ffinch, in this 'detailed study, has newly 'researched and re-told not only the Chesterton known and loved for his brilliant essays and stories, poems and bubbling humour, but also the Chesterton who sacrificed full recognition by the Establishment of his day rather than tone down his attacks upon the enemies of family life and integrity, whether these were capitalists or State bureaucrats and sociologists. From the beginning, he engaged in controversy in defence of
Christianity, starting in 1904 with Robert Blatchford, the atheist editor of The Clarion, who saw Christianity as an enemy of the poor, and attacked it in a series of articles. Then, with great magnanimity, he opened the columns of his paper to allow Christians unrestrained reply. Chesterton's were the most powerful responses, and Mr Ffinch's skilful quotations give us the full flavour of them.
This book gives a great sweep of narrative, from earlier members of that remarkable family (when will someone give us a family tree or, better still, a book on it), through GKC's days at St Paul's School, University College, and the Slade School of Art — upon all of which new light is thrown — through his writing career, marriage, friends and travels, to the closing lines on Hilaire Belloc weeping after the funeral of his friend.
One of the strengths of this latest biography lies in the helpful comment on, and quotation from, Chesterton's major works in chronological order. Another is that Mr Ffinch never loses sight of the fact that GKC can be viewed as a whole only by constant reference to that philosophical and spiritual journey which led him to the Catholic Church: Chesterton knew that it was only by loving and serving God through his Church that perfect freedom may be found, so it was inevitable that in the cause of liberty he also became a defender of the Faith. The understanding of this seeming paradox must be the chief concern, of any biographer of
He quotes those telling and relevant words of GKC's "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and not tried", and his blunt message to those of our new theologians who are more concerned with being "contemporary" than with being Catholic: "We do not want a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world."
I must, alas, make two criticisms of this fine and very readable study. Firstly, that Mr Ffinch carries on the error made by Dudley Barker in accepting Mrs Cecil Chesterton, GKC's sister-in-law, as being wellinformed and authoritative, quoting her on such matters as the wedding-night of Gilbert and Frances and their married and domestic life. I knew Mrs Cecil ("Keith", as she liked to be called) very well and with great affection in her later years, but she had hated Frances (quite unfairly, as she tacitly admitted to me) and her book The Chestertons, gives free rein to her imagination and emotions. In parts it has the clear flavour of a novelette. Mr Ffinch tells us that "Mrs Cecil was particularly generous in her praise of Frances's poetry", but the sole reference to it in The Chestertons is obviously a sneer: "Frances disliked the Press as such, and really only cared for small journals and parish magazines to which she contributed her quite charming verse." No, Mrs Cecil was not a close member of Gilbert's household and her knowledge is
seldom first-hand and never to be accepted as accurate or disinterested.
My second criticism is the more serious matter of GKC's alleged anti-semitism. Those of us who have studied this accept that he was open to valid criticism, and this has been detailed in many issues of The Chesterton Review (particularly by Leo Hetzler, Spring 1981), and in John Coates' profound study (Hull Univ. Press 1984), but there is no basis for accusations of hatred of Jewish people as such. Mr Ffinch quotes an hysterical outburst by an American Rabbi, but fails to quote the more authoritative leader of American Jewry, Rabbi Wise: I was a warm admirer of Gilbert Chesterton ... He as a Catholic, I as a Jew, could not
have seen eye to eye . . . but I deeply respected him. When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out, with all the directness and frankness of a great unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!
GKC's tour of Palestine, which resulted in his book, The New Jerusalem, was made with his friend and fellow-writer on The New Witness, Dr Montague Eder, President of the Zionist Commission, and he was warmly received by Dr Weizmann and spoke by invitation to many Jewish groups. This simply would not have happened had Chesterton been regarded as rabidly antiJewish.