Tomorrow, it will be 78 years since G.K. Chesterton took his last breath on this earth. His death was front page news around the world and was met with an outpouring of spontaneous groans and genuine grief. Thousands of people who had never met Chesterton but who had welcomed him into their homes through his newspaper columns felt as though they had lost a friend. But the next few decades passed and he was forgotten. Then something quite contrary happened. Thousands of people suddenly found a friend in Chesterton. His books and essays surged back into print, and people got to know him all over again, embracing the sense of wonder and joy that lives on in his words.
We have witnessed a revival, and it has, of course, been personally gratifying as Chesterton has proved to be my friend, my hero, my mentor, my Virgil, who led me, not through the Inferno but through the comedy which is indeed divine. It is a great joke that he led this Baptist to the Catholic Church.
I certainly feel that I know him very well as I have explored the mountain of his words. Five thousand essays and counting. In the last few years we have found over four hundred previously uncollected essays. Yet I often think about the impenetrable wall that exists between those of us who have known Chesterton only through his writings and those who actually knew him in person. As we approach eight decades since his death, that latter list continues to dwindle.
I have met only three people on that list: people who met Chesterton. I have met several more who met people who met Chesterton, and I am always anxious to gather personal accounts. Even though his beloved wife Frances testified that he talked the same way he wrote, assuring me that I am hearing his voice when I read him, there is still something I crave about those personal encounters. This same feeling struck someone who, even though he met Chesterton, realized that gathering more of these face-to-face encounters would be valuable for generations to come. His name was Cyril Clemens, and within a year of Chesterton’s death, he put together a book of firsthand accounts of this great writer under the title Chesterton as Seen By His Contemporaries. Clemens had done the same thing earlier for another great writer whose legacy he felt was vitally important, and who happened to be a cousin of his: Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
Here are my three-second degrees of separation. The most recent occurred when I was in England just a couple months ago, where I gave several talks, all well-received in spite of the fact that an American was lecturing Englishmen about not being grateful enough for one of their native sons. After one of the talks, an old gentleman walked up to me and said, “Dale, I have something to tell you that no one else here can tell you. I met G.K. Chesterton.” Rapture.
The Rev. Dr. Francis Andrews, a deacon, told me of how his parents took him to Douai Abbey in 1935, where the abbot, Fr. Ignatius Rice, one of the two priests who had received Chesterton into the Church, was hosting a talk by the legendary convert.
It was all very promising until he said, “I was only three years old at the time.” So he really did not have anything to tell me. But he was, at least, a second-class relic.
“I sat in Chesterton’s lap.” Those were the words spoken to me after another talk I gave in England, twelve years ago. I neglected to get the gentleman’s name, and his story was only a little bit better. He was five years old at the time, but he told me that his parents invited both G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to their home for dinner. He recalled Chesterton being kindly and jovial. The only other thing he remembered was running through the house and crashing into Belloc’s stomach.
During that same trip a dozen years ago I met Barbara Wall. She was the granddaughter of Wilfrid and Alice Meynell. Wilfred was an important publisher who discovered Francis Thompson, the author of “The Hound of Heaven.” Alice was an accomplished poetess in her own right, a Catholic convert, and a mega-Chesterton fan. She used to refer to him as “My Chesterton.”
I had given a talk at the Meynell family estate in Sussex. Barbara Wall was in her 90’s and an utterly charming and gracious woman. She told me the story of how her grandfather had saved Francis Thompson’s life, all very interesting, but then she got to the good bit: the time she met G.K. Chesterton. She was a teenager. She was attending daily Mass at Westminster Cathedral in London, and one day she saw G.K. Chesterton come in for Mass. Being a properly trained English person, she would not approach him without having someone else introduce her. Opportunity lost. Afterwards, she approached the priest at Westminster, who was a family friend, and was none other than the same Don Ignatius Rice who figured in the nonproductive story above. She told him, “Father, I saw G.K. Chesterton at Mass today.”
“The next time you see him,” said Fr. Rice, “you go up to him and tell him that you are Wilfrid Meynell’s granddaughter and that I told you should go and introduce yourself!” An introduction in abstentia. Good enough.
The next time she saw G.K. Chesterton enter Westminster Cathedral, she rushed up to him and said breathlessly, “Mr. Chesterton, Fr. Rice said that that I should introduce myself and tell you that I’m Wilfrid Meynell’s granddaughter!”
And this is how she told the rest of the story: “And he looked down at me from his great height and bowed his head slightly and said, ‘And I trust that such holy obedience has not been a burden for you?’”
That was it. But it was wonderful. An unpublished Chesterton quotation. Unpublished till now.