Among the genres in which G. K. Chesterton wrote was critical biography. With typical paradox, Chesterton defined two duties for such authors that seem contradictory but are actually complementary. First, he referred to “that understanding sympathy with his subject which every biographer should possess.” Yet he also held that “criticism does not exist to say about authors the things that they themselves knew. It exists to say the things about them which they did not know themselves…. The function of criticism [is] dealing with the subconscious part of the author’s mind which only the critic can express….” Ian Ker grapples with this twin mandate in his own critical biography of Chesterton, as he attempts to compose “not only a personal but an intellectual and literary life.” G.K. Chesterton: A Biography, published by Oxford University Press, presents an understanding and sympathetic portrait of the personal life of its subject, allowing it to supplant Maisie Ward’s still-valuable 1943 biography as the standard chronicle of Chesterton’s days. However, Ker is far less successful at the critical task of revealing the subconscious side of Chesterton’s life and thought; future scholars will hence have to substantiate his correct assertion that Chesterton ranks among the foremost figures in modern British intellectual and literary history.
Ker maintains rightly that Chesterton has been improperly “dismissed as a minor writer” for too long, and he seeks to rehabilitate Chesterton by casting him principally as a controversialist whose “real greatness lies in his non-fiction prose,” most notably Charles Dickens, Orthodoxy, The Victorian Age in Literature, St. Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas, and his Autobiography. Ker therefore prefers Chesterton the lay theologian and literary critic to the poet, popular novelist, and innovative social critic. He consequently contends that Chesterton’s “rightful position” in cultural history is as the twentieth-century successor of “the great Victorian ‘sages’” like Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold, but especially John Henry Newman.
In making this case, Ker attends to the aforementioned texts while still addressing the other elements of Chesterton’s oeuvre. He also stresses that Chesterton’s life was not entirely one of the mind, drawing on previously unused documents to illuminate some of Chesterton’s closest relationships, particularly with his wife, Frances, and his secretary (and spiritual daughter), Dorothy Collins. For instance, Ker crafts meticulous narratives of Chesterton’s 1919–20 trip to the Holy Land and his two visits to America (in 1921 and 1930–31) that are enriched greatly by his liberal quotation from letters and diaries that Frances and Collins penned during those journeys. Yet Ker’s reports of other sojourns sometimes lack a sense of proportion, as when he devotes more space to recounting a relatively uneventful 1927 tour of Poland than to analyzing two crucial contemporaneous books, The Outline of Sanity and The Return of Don Quixote. On the whole, though, Ker is a reliable and comprehending guide to the facts of Chesterton’s life.
He is similarly sensitive to some of Chesterton’s deepest convictions. For example, although Ker does not delineate the specific details of distributism, he does highlight Chesterton’s more general esteem for the common person. Chesterton’s lifelong democratic sense of each person’s individual dignity was rooted in his fundamental belief that anything that exists is miraculous simply because it has being; as there is no reason why anyone or anything should exist, everyone and everything should be regarded as an unexpected gift and thus be met with wonder and gratitude. Moreover, Chesterton championed the common people as his day’s defenders of orthodox religion and traditional institutions, like the family, against post-Christian, progressive literati entranced by fashionable elitist ideologies, as epitomized by eugenics. Ker concludes that Chesterton’s “grimly prophetic words” defying these enemies of the permanent things makes his populism a more trenchant reading of the signs of his times than those advanced by his friends H. G. Wells and George Bernand Shaw, who facilely indulged the illusions of their epoch, as when Shaw called Stalin “the greatest man alive.”
If Ker’s account displays a consistent warmth toward Chesterton personally (particularly his sense of humor) and an alert receptiveness to his principles, it offers a much less satisfying interpretation of the man and his works. In rendering Chesterton’s life story, Ker relies more on narrative and anecdote than on substantive inquiry into the formation and evolution of Chesterton’s character. He hence does not convey adequately how pivotal certain events were for Chesterton, especially his adolescent struggles with an idealistic form of solipsism and an aesthetic pessimistic decadence that precipitated a kind of madness and recovery from which established the contours of his intellectual, religious, and even rhetorical development. Likewise, Ker supplies no sustained examination of the specific dynamics of Chesterton’s spiritual journey from childhood Unitarian to youthful skeptic and subsequent metaphysical realist and theist to young adult orthodox Anglo-Catholic to middle-aged convert to Roman Catholicism. Exploring these personal watersheds more intensively would in turn have furnished analytical focal points for a more concentrated investigation of Chesterton’s writings.
For instance, Ker points out that Chesterton wrote four of his seven “great literary works” following his 1922 reception into the Catholic Church. Yet Ker nowhere elaborates on what Chesterton gained from his conversion that fostered some of his finest intellectual efforts. In 1924, Chesterton himself referred to his change of religious allegiance as a “revolution.” That transformation is evident in his Roman Catholic writings, be it the broader vision of history articulated in The Everlasting Man (1925), the greater theological confidence that inspired his cogent elucidation of Scholasticism in St. Thomas Aquinas (1933), or the tighter integration of his faith and his distributist sociology voiced in The Outline of Sanity (1926) and The Return of Don Quixote (1927). As Ronald Knox put it, after Chesterton’s conversion “his ideas seemed to grow even larger and more luminous.” By attending more carefully to this impact that becoming a Roman Catholic had on Chesterton’s intellectual vision, Ker would have provided a richer understanding of both his personal and literary lives and the relationship between them.
Unfortunately, Ker usually treats Chesterton’s works more expositorily, supplying extensive quotation and paraphrase rather than critical scrutiny of their content and themes. There are some refreshing exceptions to this methodology, as when Ker offers a focused, topical reading of the Father Brown tales that is driven by interpretive arguments, grounded in knowledge of the relevant contexts and scholarship, and ends in judicious conclusions. Furthermore, he posits several striking parallels between Chesterton’s theology and that of the Oxford Movement and Newman: he deems Chesterton the Tractarians’ successor as defender of the dogmatic principle, and notes numerous instances of Chesterton “practically echoing Newman’s theory of development” of doctrine. But these sparks of Ker’s sapience never catch sufficient analytical fire to illuminate adequately the rest of Chesterton’s corpus.
Ian Ker is right to regard Chesterton as one of his era’s leading intellectuals, and to see his contribution to thought as comparable to that of forbears like Newman. His admiring portrait will encourage greater understanding of, and perhaps sympathy for, the man who was Chesterton. But his inability to more than sketch the subconscious part of that author’s life and mind will hinder his hopes of elevating Chesterton’s stature. Presenting and praising Chesterton’s work is insufficient to prove its profundity. Chesterton scholars should therefore welcome this biography’s assiduous research and generous appreciation of its subject while pursuing with equal diligence and respect the things that Chesterton did not know fully about himself which the discerning critic alone can express. Only such inquiries will yield an everlasting life of this everlasting man.
This essay first appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The University Bookman and is reprinted here with permission.