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Authors: Wyatt North

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The Life and Words of GK Chesterton

BOOK: The Life and Words of GK Chesterton
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The Life of G.K. Chesterton
Introduction

The turn of the last century produced many great thinkers as well as many great writers. Some have the distinction of being known as both. Fewer still have been adored by the masses for their public engagements and their amicable persona. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was all of those things; a true renaissance man of the modern era, whose impact on modern Christianity, and Christian apologetics, is unfortunately becoming increasingly forgotten.

 

Although C. S. Lewis may be a more well-known Christian apologist across the denominations, it was the works of G. K. Chesterton that helped Lewis to re-embrace his Christian faith.

 

Many are those that have found their way because G. K. Chesterton dared to believe in God and in miracles in an ever more secular and skeptical world.

 

His biographer and president of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, called him “the most unjustly neglected writer of our time” — a title that is not entirely undeserved.

 

With over 130 books to his name, including biographies, novels, essays, short story collections, poetry collections, and Christian apologetics, as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, and plays, G. K. Chesterton, however often the work outside of his Catholic corpus is neglected, is undoubtedly a literary giant. He was also known in his time for being, quite literally, a giant. Standing at 6'4” and weighing approximately 300 lbs, Chesterton could have easily been an intimidating man, but his good nature, friendly tone, and often childlike whimsy made him instead a larger than life character, who fit perhaps better into one of his fantastical novels than into the real world.

 

He was a man who would leave his home with the wrong shoe on, forget what he was doing, and end up in a strange and unfamiliar place. His eating habits were so surprising that they were the subject of jokes and tales. He loved to attend costume parties, especially in 18th century garb. The child in him never grew up; he played games, drank milk by the pint, and reveled in the most childish of temptations, like chocolates and sticky buns.

 

He was also a man with a unique talent, although not always fully understood, for taking a serious topic and writing about it in a surprising and humorous way without making light of the matter. G. K. Chesterton may have been known as the “Prince of Paradox” because of this love for using humorous paradox, in particular, to make a point about otherwise serious things, but even the man himself was a man of contradictions.

 

He was nearly always a modest man, downplaying his own achievements and giving credits to others even when credit was not strictly necessary. But he was hardly ever a moderate man. He ate too much, he drank too much, he worked too hard, and he argued for too long. He disliked being the center of attention, but he lived his life in the limelight.  Yet despite his lack of moderation, he was a pious man. In fact, one may say that it was his lack of moderation that allowed him to so fully accept Catholicism and its mystery tradition as his own. A more moderate Englishman of his time would have considered Catholicism too superstitious and too continental.

 

Who was he then, this man G. K. Chesterton, the friendly rival of playwright George Bernard Shaw and spiritual inspiration of C. S. Lewis, who rose from an increasingly industrial post-Victorian England skeptical of faith and especially of something as un-English as the papacy of Rome and found himself drawn to the most mysterious aspects of the Catholic religion only to be named a “defender of the faith” by the Pope? Chesterton himself, in his usual self-deprecating way, confessed to a friend that, of his own person, he felt that the biographers of the future would say: “Chesterton, Gilbert Keith. From the fragments left by this now forgotten writer, it is difficult to understand the cause of even such publicity as he obtained in his own way; nevertheless, there is reason to believe that he was not without certain fugitive mental gifts.”

 

Let us learn, then, what those mental gifts were, whence they came, and how they developed.

Childhood

 

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on May 29, 1874, in Kensington, a district of central and western London. The Victorian Era prior had been good to the city. Although a large portion of the city's inhabitants were still living in poverty, London was overflowing with wealth. Communications had improved under the great queen, as had the standard of living and public health. Not everyone could read, but literacy had greatly increased, and with no competing media, people were hungering for literature. It was an increasingly secular period. The piety of the early Victorian Era, with the family at its center, was quickly going out of fashion.

 

G. K. Chesterton's father was Edward Chesterton, a man who Gilbert himself described in his Autobiography as “serene, humorous, and full of hobbies.” Gilbert's mother was Marie Louise Chesterton, née Grosjean. A childhood friend of Gilbert's described her thus: “I never met with such a parental devotion or conjugal sympathy more strong than they were in the exceptional woman who was his mother, or with greater kindliness.” At the time of Gilbert's birth, the Chestertons already had one daughter, Beatrice, aged five.

 

Despite some mixed Swiss and Scottish ancestry, the Chestertons were a quintessentially English family who belonged to that peculiar section of society that was the 19th century middle class. Gilbert's great grandfather, Charles, had started his career as a poultry merchant, then a coal merchant, and finally an estate agent with the Phillimore Real Estate Agency. He eventually started his own real estate firm, which at the time of Gilbert's birth, was run by his father Edward and his uncle Sidney. Gilbert’s maternal grandfather, Pierre Grosjean, had been a master tailor with nearly two dozen people in his employ.

 

As neither truly the upper nor at all the lower echelon of society, the middle class was very much a class of its own. The middle classes were separated from the lower classes who served in their homes through literacy, culture, accent, and, most importantly, knowledge. The separation of the classes was such that the middle classes knew very little of the lower classes’ struggles. Gilbert’s father, Edward, reputedly “knew all of his English literature backwards.” Being able to make cultured conversation was the domain of the middle and upper classes. Coming from a self-made family, it was probably all the more important to the Chestertons, and Edward started teaching Gilbert poetry by heart long before the young boy had the capacity to fully understand it.

 

At the same time, the middle classes were separated also from the true upper classes in their estates. Although the tables of a middle class household might be set by a servant and groan under the weight of a lavish supper every bit as much as in an upper class estate, the middle class man was very careful not to mimic certain, to our modern eyes seemingly random, behaviors of aristocracy that he found vulgar. The Chestertons would rather wait in the rain for a streetcar than take a cab, as the aristocracy were prone to do, although they could well afford to.

 

Young Gilbert was baptized in the Church of England, although the family could hardly be considered religious. The Chestertons attended service very irregularly, and when they did go to sermons, it was almost exclusively those of one of their favored Unitarian preachers, Reverend Stopford Brooke. Gilbert’s Scottish grandfather, who often captured his imagination, however, had been a Wesleyan Methodist lay-preacher at a time when the Methodist movement was controversial and often judged as an “infidelity” by contemporaries.

 

When Gilbert was three years old, his sister, Beatrice, fell ill and died suddenly, when she was only eight. Edward was particularly heartbroken and forbade her name to be spoken in his presence. Although her portraits were not taken off the wall, they were turned around so that he would not have to see her face. From that point onward, Edward had a fear of sick people that he passed on to his son.

 

When Gilbert was five years old, his little brother came into the world. In an incredibly prophetic remark for a five year old, Gilbert is supposed to have proclaimed: “Now I shall always have an audience!”

 

It is particularly astute a comment if we consider that young Gilbert had only begun to talk a few months prior. He was not only a clumsy child; he was a silent one. According to family stories, it was not until Gilbert was five years old and attending a children’s party, where one of his four-year-old cousins talked his ear off, that Gilbert finally became so indignant at having to listen for so long that he threw a fit and poured forth surprising eloquence for someone who had up to that point not spoken full sentences.

 

The brothers were very fond of each other, but they were also very fond of arguing. From the moment that Cecil learned to speak, they argued constantly. It was Cecil who dominated these arguments. Because Edward and Marie Chesterton refused to interfere with their sons’ freedom of speech, these arguments could be excruciatingly long. The longest recorded is said to have continued for over 18 hours.

 

Marie Chesterton was well-known for her kindness and hospitality, but it was more than her sons’ free speech that she did not wish to encroach on. She did not make any great demands on the boys’ overall appearance, so the boys were known for being untidy and unclean, although their clothes were proper and kept in good repair, if not necessarily clean.

 

Being middle class, Gilbert could be educated at home from an early age, but when the time came, he was offered one of the best educations offered in Britain at the time. It is unknown when that time was, but we know that when he entered preparatory school, he was two years older than his classmates. This suggests that he was either held back or started school later than his peers, at age 9 in 1883.

BOOK: The Life and Words of GK Chesterton
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