Haloed Fellow Well Met – Frank McNally on GK Chesterton’s claims to sainthood
An Irishman’s Diary on the English novelist who was a ‘friendly enemy’ to Shaw
“GK Chesterton was certainly no ascetic, enjoying cigars and alcohol as well as food. Unlike most saints, he was also happily married.”
The writer GK Chesterton was unusual for many reasons, ranging from his physical enormity – he stood 6 feet 4 and weighed more than 20 stone (130kg) – to his love of paradox as an aid to critical thinking.
But he must be unique among 20th-century English novelists in also being considered a live candidate for sainthood, the process towards which has tentatively begun. Pending a final decision on that, the anniversary of his death on this date in 1936 is already a feast-day in the Episcopalian Church.
Chesterton was in life a monument to feasting. He was certainly no ascetic, enjoying cigars and alcohol as well as food. Unlike most saints, he was also happily married.
Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera were both admirers. So were many of the generation of writers who came of age in the new Free State
His girth was a running joke, not least for himself. Describing a thunderous noise once, PG Wodehouse likened it to the sound of “GK Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin”. The portliness also contributed to a public double-act with the famously skinny George Bernard Shaw, his long-time “friendly enemy”.
More promisingly for a would-be saint, perhaps, Chesterton was noted for absent-mindedness about social engagements. On such occasions he depended on his wife as a GPS system. In a typical telegram, he announced: “Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?” She replied: “Home”.
But his voluminous writings were hugely influential in his lifetime, as much on this side of the Irish Sea as in his native England. Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera were both admirers. So were many of the generation of writers who came of age in the new Free State.
A few years after his death, Chesterton featured indirectly in Patrick Kavanagh’s satirical poem The Paddiad, a Dublin literary version of the St Valentine’s Day massacre. Lampooning the poets and writers who congregated in Fleet Street’s Pearl Bar (to which they had recently migrated from the Palace), he included a “Chestertonian Paddy Frog/Croaking nightly in the bog.”
While the caricatures were composites, as Kavanagh admitted elsewhere, Chestertonian Paddy was probably his arch artistic enemy Austin Clarke. But Kavanagh was a Chestertonian Paddy himself. In an unpublished 1940s sequel to Tarry Flynn, his alter ego is an innocent abroad in bourgeois Dublin, for whom Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (a defence of Christianity, published 1908) serves as a bible.
To many in Ireland now, familiarity with Chesterton’s writings has been reduced to a single verse from his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse, viz: “For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad,/For all their wars are merry,/And all their songs are sad.”
But he was long synonymous here with his fictional detective Father Brown, the hero of 53 short stories, based partly on the Tipperary-born priest John O’Connor, who played a part in Chesterton’s conversion.
Orwell was not a fan of the Catholic Church in general. In a postwar essay, he placed it alongside the Soviet Union among enemies of the democratic socialism
Father Brown had some unlikely admirers, including the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who saw him as a Catholic version of the Protestant Sherlock Holmes. The latter worked his cases from the outside in, using science and induction. The former relied primarily on intuition, informed in part by listening to confession.
But as Gramsci wrote from prison in the 1930s, “Chesterton is a great artist while Conan Doyle was a mediocre writer”. Hence, he found in the former, “a subtle irony [that] renders these stories so delicious”.
For all their public jousting, Shaw called Chesterton “a man of colossal genius”. Another intellectual opponent, the ardently atheist HG Wells, said after his death that they had always been “close friends” and that in fact Chesterton had no enemies “except some literary men who did not know him”.
This last category must have included George Orwell. He posthumously damned Chesterton as “a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda”.
Orwell was not a fan of the Catholic Church in general. In a postwar essay, he placed it alongside the Soviet Union among enemies of the democratic socialism for which he hoped. But there is an irony to his dislike of Chesterton, in that some observes suspect the latter to have been a big influence on his own writing.
One possible example was Chesterton’s fantasy novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). That, by the way, was a favourite of Michael Collins, who as a young London post office clerk would live in Notting Hill and was said to have been “almost fanatically attached” to the book.
But as a futuristic satire on British politics, the story was set seven decades later. As such, whether this was a direct influence on Orwell or not, the year in question was 1984.