The poet David Jones once called one’s formative period “the years of becoming.” William Oddie focuses on this phase of G. K. Chesterton’s life, seeking to document how someone reared in a conventional late-Victorian milieu became, by early adulthood, a renowned Christian, countercultural critic. Oddie’s account makes several scholarly breakthroughs; but its value as a biography is limited by its one-sided presentation of the pivotal event in Chesterton’s early life, and by its inadequate appreciation of how his later conversion to Roman Catholicism shaped the mindset he had constructed by 1908. Future Chesterton commentators will thus be more indebted to Oddie’s research and methods than to his analysis and conclusions.
In limning “the making of GKC,” Oddie concentrates on the key episodes and environments that molded Chesterton’s consciousness from his birth in 1874 until 1908. He commences with Chesterton’s loving upbringing in a liberal Christian household, an atmosphere reinforced in many ways at St. Paul’s School, where he was a day student from 1887–92. Oddie next notes the searing challenge to his childhood cosmology that Chesterton underwent during his tenure at the Slade School of Art from 1892–94, as his encounter with fashionable fin de siècle pessimistic aestheticism triggered an intellectual and spiritual crisis.
Due in part to the influence of reading Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Browning, Chesterton began to regain conviction in the primal goodness of Being, and a consequent childlike wonder at and gratitude for it, that became the metaphysical foundation of his worldview by the mid-1890s. He then started weaving that “thin thread of thanks” into the richer tapestry of orthodox Christianity with the aid of Anglo-Catholic Frances Blogg (whom he met in 1896 and married in 1901) and her friends and clerical advisers, especially Rev. Conrad Noel. With the turn of the century, Chesterton advanced his first public defenses of orthodoxy against predominant secularism, most notably in a lengthy journalistic debate with freethinker Robert Blatchford in 1903–4 and an affirmation of the dogmatic principle in Heretics (1905). Oddie concludes that Chesterton’s intellectual and religious journey reached its destination in two 1908 books. The Man who was Thursday recalls and transforms Chesterton’s adolescent agon while Orthodoxy articulates the philosophical and spiritual vision developed since that breakdown: “With Orthodoxy, that is to say, Chesterton had arrived at a mature and complete expression of the essentially Christian and essentially Catholic view of the modern world which animated his entire literary career… the foundations both of his life and of the mountainous literary oeuvre of the decades to come had been permanently and monumentally laid down.”
Oddie’s clarification of this chronology is not as original as he suggests, but its detail and vigor are nonetheless welcome. His most valuable contribution to Chesterton studies, however, is methodological. Oddie has deployed Chesterton’s unpublished manuscripts, letters, and diaries and his uncollected journalism more fully and effectively than any previous scholar. Even more significantly, Oddie, unlike prior biographers, focuses not on Chesterton’s personality but on “the one part of a writer which is of lasting importance: his writings.” Oddie contends further (and rightly) that this corrective emphasis on intellectual biography is necessary to rescue Chesterton from the condescension of a posterity that has often patronized him as a “jolly journalist” or an ephemeral verbal trickster: to “trace the growth of Chesterton’s mind” is to reveal that “behind the Edwardian journalist, popular versifier, and minor novelist [is] a more substantial and more prophetic figure … who epitomized [his] age by standing in fundamental opposition to it.”
Oddie is therefore well attuned to the contexts of Chesterton’s rebellion against modernity. He situates Chesterton generally in a romantic, counter-Enlightenment heritage that includes the likes of Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens, and John Henry Newman. Yet he is also sensitive to specific settings, and to how hitherto neglected events are pregnant with thematic meaning for Chesterton’s intellectual history. For example, Oddie draws attention to Chesterton’s awareness of, and participation in, the Anglo-Catholic rebuttals of R. J. Campbell’s immanentist “New Theology” in 1907, arguing convincingly that this controversy helped shape Chesterton’s insistence in Orthodoxy on a firm distinction between the Creator and his creation. Overall, Oddie’s attempts to put Chesterton’s work in these various perspectives succeed in historicizing his writings without detracting from their transcendent substance and worth.
Likewise, Oddie recognizes that Chesterton’s intellectual and religious engagement with his age had crucial social and political implications. He labels Chesterton an “anti-ideological liberal,” highlighting his defense of individual freedom against univocal utopianisms. Oddie chronicles well an early instance of this belief, showing that Chesterton’s Pro-Boer stance manifested a broader support for small nations whose independence seemed threatened by homogenizing imperialist hegemony. But he slights Chesterton’s most elaborate expression of this ideal, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), a novel that is not only a lucid résumé of Chesterton’s outlook at the outset of his public career but is also (as Oddie fails to see) a prolegomenon of his future themes and positions, especially in social criticism. Oddie similarly scants The Ball and the Cross (1910), which continues to outline the contours of Chesterton’s politics—in the process, critiquing both communist and fascist collectivism proleptically—and connects them to his burgeoning Catholicism. Moreover, Oddie makes the curious suggestion that Chesterton became involved substantively with the distributist movement only in 1916. Chesterton, however, participated in efforts to counter monopoly capitalism and collectivism by promoting widespread, small-scale property ownership and a decentralized polity from the century’s first decade. In fact, his What’s Wrong with the World offered an extensive definition of the distributist ethic in 1910, a full two years before the publication of Hilaire Belloc’s The Servile State, the putative “bible” of distributism.
Despite these missteps, Oddie is continually conscious of Chesterton’s fundamental radicalism. Far from having “any conservative instinct that would be remotely recognizable as such within the English political tradition,” Chesterton’s radical conservatism sought to uproot established institutions and ideologies and replant British society in what he considered its venerable, Christian vision of a property-owning democracy. This aspiration fueled a lifetime sympathy for the French Revolution and even the belief that “orthodox Christianity was by no means incompatible with a predisposition to bloody revolution.” Oddie hence concludes correctly that in both his intellectual and religious principles and their political articulation, “Chesterton’s instinct was to be what John Paul II called on all Christians to be: a ‘sign of contradiction.’”
Yet, for all Oddie’s admirable insight into the character and substance of Chesterton’s subversive mindset, he miscasts two of its principal mainsprings. The first is Chesterton’s travails at the Slade School of Art. Unlike most scholars, Oddie realizes that this trauma was central in fashioning Chesterton’s worldview; but he paints only a partial picture of its factors and dynamic. Oddie recounts and contextualizes skillfully Chesterton’s revulsion at Paterian and Wildean decadents’ advocacy of art-for-art’s-sake and their inversion of traditional morality, which Chesterton feared would yield aesthetic and ethical anarchy. But Oddie overlooks a concurrent, and at least equally important, component of this crisis. While at the Slade, Chesterton learned an anti-representational interpretation of impressionism propounded by George Moore. Contemplating this notion that “things only exist as we perceive them” fed a preexistent tendency toward mental self-immurement; it ended with Chesterton succumbing to an idealistic form of solipsism that denied the autonomy of external reality and saw Being as an extension of his own mind. As he put it in his autobiography, “it was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near to the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad.” Indeed, Chesterton dubbed this time “my period of madness,” and sanity became his signature trope, showing the enduring effect of this experience on his imagination. His ensuing judgment that sanity rested on the postulate that “all my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made” predisposed Chesterton to the orthodox Christian doctrine of creation, making this element of his breakdown crucial to his religious voyage as well. To ignore Chesterton’s struggle with solipsism, then, is to misrepresent the formation of his mentality gravely.
Oddie’s oversight of this portion of the Slade School crisis not only distorts his treatment of that episode and its ramifications, but also weakens his analysis of other issues. For instance, in discussing the dispute over Campbell’s “New Theology,” Oddie notes that Chesterton emphasized divine transcendence to a greater extent than some other orthodox Catholics. This adamant demand for an unambiguous differentiation between Creator and creation becomes more explicable, and gains more emotional texture, from understanding that it was a mental conflation of Maker and things-made that had precipitated the young Chesterton into a kind of madness.
If Oddie’s rendition of the fons et origo of Chesterton’s mature worldview is misconstrued, so is his grasp of its full flowering. Chesterton became a Roman Catholic in 1922, and Oddie opines that “when he came into full communion with the Holy See … there was to be little or no further theological development from the position he had arrived at in Orthodoxy…. Politically and theologically, Chesterton’s journey towards a Catholic vision of life was essentially complete” by 1908. Although it is true that Chesterton adopted no new doctrines or devotions after his reception, Oddie’s assessment underestimates the added depth and surety that Chesterton’s thought acquired from his completion of his religious pilgrimage. For example, in Orthodoxy, Chesterton sketched briefly the claims that humans are qualitatively different from animals, that Christ was qualitatively different from all humans, and that the Church is a revolutionary, eternally reviving institution. These points remained undeveloped for nearly two decades until they became the core theses of his 1925 theology of history, The Everlasting Man, indicating that their elaboration awaited a deeper understanding of their significance that Chesterton obtained only with unqualified belief in Roman Catholicism. Similarly, his postreception political works, such as The Outline of Sanity (1926) and The Return of Don Quixote (1927), develop distributism more intricately as Chesterton’s sociology becomes grounded more firmly in Roman Catholicism. Joining the Catholic Church therefore mattered more to him intellectually than Oddie appears to credit. As Chesterton explained in 1926, “with fuller convictions, one comes to have larger views.”
Future Chesterton biographies should benefit from William Oddie’s diligent research and lively intelligence. But such efforts will also recognize that Chesterton’s recovery of primordial sanity was enriched by his journey, not simply along the orthodox Christian way, but on the particular path to Rome, where he felt all roads led. For G. K. Chesterton, no less than for Newman, to have become perfect was to have changed often.
This review first appeared in the University Bookman on March 20, 2011 and is reprinted here with permission of the editor.