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Chesterton, GK

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 5 months ago
Source: Wikipedia

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (May 29, 1874 – June 14, 1936) was a prolific English writer of the early 20th century. He was both a popular and an influential writer during this period, inspiring many historic figures with his works. He was notably concerned in what he wrote with religious matters, and was received into the Catholic Church in 1922.

Chesterton has been called the "prince of paradox". He wrote in an off-hand, whimsical prose studded with startling formulations. For example: "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it."

 

Born in Campden Hill, Kensington, London, Chesterton was educated at St Paul's School, and later went to the Slade School of Art in order to become an illustrator. In 1900, Chesterton was asked to write a few magazine articles on art criticism, which sparked his interest in writing. He went on to become one of the most prolific writers of all time.

 

Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 21 stone (134 kg or 294 lb). His girth gave rise to one of his famous anecdotes. During World War I a lady in London asked why he wasn't 'out at the Front'; he replied 'if you go round to the side, you will see that I am'. He usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and had a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Chesterton rarely remembered where he was supposed to be going and would even miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It was not uncommon for him to send a telegram to his wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, from some distant (and incorrect) location writing such things as, "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home."

 

Chesterton loved to debate, often publicly debating with friends such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. Chesterton was usually considered the winner. According to his autobiography, he and George Bernard Shaw played cowboys in a silent movie that was never released.

 

The homily at Chesterton's Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox. Chesterton is buried in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in the Catholic Cemetery.

 

On October 1, 1936, Chesterton's estate was probated at 28,389 pounds sterling.

 

Writing

 

Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4000 essays and a few plays. He was a columnist for the Daily News, Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G. K.'s Weekly. In the United States, his writings on distributism were popularized through The American Review, published by Seward Collins in New York.

 

Chesterton's writings consistently displayed wit and a sense of humour. He deployed paradox, while making serious comments on the world, government, politics, economics, philosophy, theology and many other topics. In this he was a follower of Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw whom he knew well; but Chesterton's style and thinking were all his own.

 

He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic Christian theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. His most well-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel. He converted to Catholicism in 1922. Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing, and he often presented himself in the role of the Church's champion.'

 

Chesterton is often associated with Hilaire Belloc, a close friend from the Edwardian period; Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc for their partnership, and this stuck. Though they were very different men, they had in common many beliefs, including the Catholic faith (in the end) and critical attitudes to capitalism and socialism (see distributism). G. K.'s Weekly, which occupied much of Chesterton's energy in the last 15 years of his life, was the successor to Belloc's New Witness, taken over from Cecil Chesterton, Gilbert's brother who died in World War I.

 

Both, however, have been accused of anti-Semitism in their work; in Chesterton's case this can amount to guilt by association. (For Belloc's case see discussion in that article.) Bernard Levin, a leading British columnist who frequently quoted Chesterton, (The Case for Chesterton, 26 May 1974 in The Observer) brought up some of his light verse, and said "The best one can say of Chesterton's anti-semitism is that it was less vile than Belloc's; let us leave it at that."

 

Chesterton's hatred of capitalism and his dread of the monolithic state were the generous responses of a man who saw the sickness of his society far more clearly than the ordinary Liberal and felt it far more deeply than the self-confident Fabian social engineers. Unfortunately, though, a sense of outrage often proved as bad a counsellor in his case as it had done in Carlyle's. His diatribes against usury and corruption were those of a man on the edge of hysteria; his anti-semitism was an illness. Despite this, his fundamental decency is never obscured for long. He hated oppression; he belonged to the world before totalitarianism. But the positive side of his politics — Distributism, peasant smallholdings, Merrie Englandism — led him into a hopeless cul-de-sac.

 

Chesterton's novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill was a favorite of Michael Collins who would later go on to lead the movement for Irish independence. His physical appearance and apparently some of his mannerisms were a direct inspiration for the character of Dr. Gideon Fell, a well-known fictional detective created in the early 1930s by the Anglo-American mystery writer John Dickson Carr.

 

Chesterton's detective stories are laid out in a classic mould: a crime - usually a murder or a theft - is committed and solved by deduction. Within this simple form, however, Chesterton indulges in a surrealistic game of tricks and paradoxes, teasing us with apparent impossibilities which turn out to be obvious - if one only looks at them the right way. Chesterton's detectives tend to be men (all are male) with the power to perceive everyday things in new ways; they take nothing for granted but work always from first principles. Chesterton takes risks: sometimes they don't come off and the reader is left feeling flat and disappointed, But the vast majority of Chesterton's detective stories are brilliant successes.

 

Father Brown

 

Father Brown stars in 48 short stories, later compiled in five books. He was based on Father John O'Connor (1870 - 1952), whom Chesterton knew in the days when he was a parish priest in Bradford, Yorkshire, and who was involved in his conversion to Catholicism in 1922. The relationship was recorded by O'Connor (by then Monsignor) in his 1937 book Father Brown on Chesterton.

 

Father Brown is a short, stumpy Catholic priest, "formerly of Cobhole in Essex, and now working in London," with shapeless clothes and a large umbrella, but an uncanny insight into human evil.

 

He made his first appearance in the famous story "The Blue Cross" and continued through the five volumes of short stories, often assisted by the reformed criminal Flambeau. Unlike his more famous near-contemporary Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown's methods tended to be intuitive rather than deductive: indeed, he explained his method in The Secret of Father Brown thus: "You see, I had murdered them all myself... I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was." In "The Blue Cross", when asked by Flambeau, who had been masquerading as a priest, how he knew of all sorts of criminal "horrors", he responded: "Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?". He also stated a reason why he knew Flambeau was not a priest: "You attacked reason. It's bad theology." And indeed, the stories normally contain a rational explanation of who the murderer was and how Brown worked it out.

 

Despite his devoutness, Father Brown always emphasises rationality: some stories such as "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" and "The Blast of the Book" poke fun at initially skeptical characters who become convinced of a supernatural explanation for some strange occurrence, while Father Brown, despite his religiousness and his belief in God and miracles, easily sees the perfectly ordinary, natural explanation. In fact, he seems to represent an ideal of a devout, yet considerably educated and "civilised" clergyman, due to his familiarity with contemporary and secularist thought.

 

Father Brown was the perfect vehicle for conveying Chesterton's view of the world, and of all of his characters, is perhaps closest to Chesterton's own point of view, or at least the effect of his point of view. Father Brown solves his crimes through a strict reasoning process more concerned with spiritual and philosophic truths rather than scientific details, making him an almost equal counterbalance with Sherlock Holmes, which Chesterton read and admired, the stories of which had been discontinued just a couple years before.

 

While the earlier stories enjoyed great popularity and acclaim due to their conciseness, philosophical issues and wit, the response to the later Father Brown stories is somewhat mixed. After Chesterton converted to Catholicism, the tone of the stories seemed to change in the eyes of some. Many readers saw the new stories as less punchy and more dogmatic, Father Brown being turned into a vehicle for espousing Chesterton's Catholic views. Certainly of the five volumes, the best known (The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown) are the earlier works.

 

Others consider the canon of Father Brown stories to be marred by elements of alleged racism and bigotry in some of the stories. In particular "The God of the Gongs" and some stories featuring Hindu fakirs are seen by some to perpetuate stereotypes of cultures and belief systems foreign to Chesterton's orthodoxy and the times he lived in.

 

Most of Chesterton's mysteries are available as free downloads from Gutenberg Australia and Project Gutenberg.

 

Mike Grost on GK Chesterton

 

G.K Chesterton wrote five story collections about Father Brown. The best are the first, The Innocence of Father Brown, which contains Chesterton's most ingenious paradoxes serving as detective concepts, and the third, The Incredulity of Father Brown, which offers his best put together impossible crimes. Chesterton's impossible crimes in Incredulity all involve action - they focus on some ingenious way of committing murder, often involving moving both the killer and/or the victim's body from place to place. Chesterton's vision is architectural, as well, involving the layout of buildings and rooms. As in John Dickson Carr, Chesterton's solutions are even more imaginative than the impossible problems themselves.

 

These books are among the high points of the puzzle plot mystery story. Chesterton's fiction seems to be the main model for the great works of the Big Three puzzle plot detective novelists, Christie, Queen and Carr.

 

The influence of Chesterton's impossible crime tales on Carr is well understood, but their similar impact on Agatha Christie is less often cited. Some of Agatha Christie's works are straight out impossible crime stories. For example, take "The Million Dollar Bond Robbery" from Poirot Investigates. In this work, some stolen bonds are smuggled of a ship in a manner that seems impossible. Unlike Chesterton and Carr, Christie does not try to bring in any supernatural atmosphere. The general tone of the inquiry is, "Gee, this is really puzzling!" - there is never an eerie suggestion of supernatural menace. But it is a very Chestertonian tale, all the same. Many of Agatha Christie's other tales are what one might call disguised impossible crime tales. In these stories, one of the characters has an alibi, because it looks like it is impossible for him or her to have committed the crime. Eventually it is revealed that this person is the real killer, who used an ingenious method to pull off what seemed impossible. Chesterton would probably have used this impossible crime method to construct a tale in which it would have looked impossible for anyone to have committed the crime. Christie took a different approach, but her underlying basic technique is identical. Some of Christie's tales are even closer to the impossible crime proper. Take "The Regatta Mystery". In that tale, a diamond mysteriously disappears from a room, and only one man had any apparent way of smuggling it from the chamber. He is the natural suspect, but Parker Pyne wonders... Christie could have not included this one suspect's "obvious" smuggling method, and then she would have had an impossible crime tale. This is the approach that would have been taken by Chesterton or Carr. Instead she has a tale where it looks as if only one person could be guilty. This is a very common pattern in her work, and it is very closely aligned with the impossible crime tale.

 

Chesterton's superb literary style has some obvious ancestors. His prose style, with its rich descriptions of atmosphere and light, comes from Robert Louis Stevenson. So does his sense of adventure lurking in every corner of London. Chesterton's love of paradox, and his ability to sustain a philosophical argument with wit and invention, is modeled after the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

 

Chesterton's "The Vampire of the Village" shows one of his techniques in pure form. First we see the character as the conventions of society have it, such as the Rebellious Son, or the Society Widow. Then we have Chesterton and Father Brown commenting on what the character is really like, morally and socially. This allows for a great deal of paradoxical reversal of conventional ideas, and much social commentary and even satire. It also allows for a hidden plot to be built up, with the characters and their relationships being Not What They Seem. This sort of technique was heavily used at an early date by Fergus Hume. It shows up in many impossible crime writers, and the intuitionist tradition in general: Hume, Orczy, Chesterton, Christie, Leslie Ford. To solve such stories, you have to look at the relationships in The Right Way. The world has to be looked at upside down. You have to change your point of view 180 degrees, and 100 percent. When you get ahold of the idea and the hidden relationships, then you can understand the mystery.

 

Chesterton wrote many books about other detectives than Father Brown. Most of these works contain some gems, as well as a lot of more ordinary material. I have read all of these, and was going to offer some detailed suggestions for further reading, but there is now no need. Marie Smith has edited two anthologies that contain nearly all the best tales from these collections, Thirteen Detectives and Seven Suspects. (I haven't felt in such detailed agreement with a critic's judgment on an author's work since I read Francis M. Nevins' Ellery Queen study, Royal Bloodline.) She has also included some really good rare works, that I had never read.

 

Chesterton's Father Brown stories largely stick closely to the paradigms of the detective story, while his non-Father Brown stories often go beyond them. Many of these latter tales have to be described as extravaganzas, not conventional fiction at all, with unusual themes, strange situations and events. Some are not conventional murder mysteries, but instead focus on some other kind of puzzle: one story's mystery centers on locating an elusive address.

 

Chesterton's novels are nowhere as good as his short fiction. Ideas are stretched out to their breaking point, and a great deal of uninspired philosophical and religious matter is introduced. The Man Who Was Thursday is particularly overrated, although it contains an interesting central gimmick. Manalive (1910), which has never had much of a reputation, is a mildly interesting novel, barely on the borderlines of mystery fiction - today's authors are not the only ones publishing works that weirdly stretch the boundaries of the genre. By contrast, Chesterton is certainly a major author in the realm of the short story.

 

Bibliography

The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

The Club of Queer Trades (1905)

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)

The Innocence of Father Brown (1911)

Manalive (1912)

The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922)

Tales of the Long Bow (1925)

The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926)

The Secret of Father Brown (1927)

The Poet and the Lunatics (1929)

Four Faultless Felons (1930)

The Scandal of Father Brown (1935)

The Paradoxes of Mr Pond (1937)

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