The Sins of G K Chesterton by Richard Ingrams - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

A Convivial Chap Led Easily Astray

The Sins of G K Chesterton


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The title of this book is a surprise. Chesterton’s admirers have regarded him as a saintly figure; indeed he has been proposed for canonisation. Even those, like Bernard Shaw and H G Wells, who engaged in fierce argument with him regarded him with affection. He was a master of paradox whose sincerity was nevertheless rarely questioned. Orwell’s complaint that everything Chesterton wrote was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Catholic Church was nonsense, and not only because he didn’t convert until 1922, when he was forty-eight, by which time he had, as Richard Ingrams observes, written his best books. It would be truer, though still an exaggeration, to say that everything he wrote was intended to demonstrate the good sense of the ordinary man. He might well, like a certain Tory politician today, have said we have had enough of experts.

Gilbert Chesterton, a middle-class Londoner who was educated at St Paul’s and the Slade School of Fine Art, was essentially a journalist of a type rare today. He wrote intellectually challenging essays for newspapers that occupied the now deserted middle ground between the qualities and the tabloids. In his best years, between 1900 and 1912, his main outlet was the Daily News, a Liberal newspaper owned by the teetotal Quaker Cadbury family. Chesterton himself, a lover of beer and wine and the Fleet Street pubs, probably shocked some of the paper’s Nonconformist readers while delighting others. The paper’s outstanding editor, A G Gardiner, adored him.

Chesterton was an unworldly man who preached to the world. His wife, Frances, assumed complete control of his affairs. Dismayed by the amount of time and money he spent in pubs, she removed him to Beaconsfield. His friends resented this; there is no evidence that Chesterton did. He was content to have Frances manage his life. Ingrams remarks that Chesterton wrote often about women, but based his understanding of the sex, and generalisations about them, almost entirely on his wife, the only woman he knew well. His subservience to Frances may be seen as evidence of his gentle decency or alternatively as a weakness. Ingrams, I think, inclines to the latter view.

But what of the ‘sins’ of the title? Here too it may be a question of weakness. Ingrams has Chesterton led astray, like a medieval king, by evil counsellors. There were two: his adored younger brother, Cecil, and his admired mentor Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton had a better mind and sharper intellect than either of them, as well as a kinder and more generous, if weaker, character. He and Cecil had always loved arguing, but Gilbert argued for the pleasure of disputing, Cecil for victory. Cecil, short and ugly, seemed to Leonard Woolf to have ‘a grudge against the universe’, whereas Gilbert ‘gave one the immediate impression of goodwill, particular and general’.

Cecil was a formidable journalist; Belloc was much more than that. Son of a French father and English mother who was a Catholic convert from a Nonconformist background, Belloc was brilliant and magnetic: a poet, essayist and historian, though one careless of research. His mind closed when he was young and no new ideas were ever allowed entry.

The chief sin with which Ingrams charges Chesterton was anti-Semitism, which he contracted first from Belloc and then, more virulently, from Cecil. Belloc’s anti-Semitism was of the French variety. He felt that Jewish finance was corrupting Catholic Europe. He was an anti-Dreyfusard, maintaining to the end of his long life that Captain Dreyfus was a German spy: ‘poor darling, he was guilty as sin,’ he would say, long after it had been proved that he was innocent.

Four years as a Liberal MP (1906–10) convinced Belloc that parliamentary democracy was rotten and a sham – perhaps because he failed to make a mark in the Commons. Cecil eagerly swallowed Belloc’s prejudices and gave them virulent expression in New Witness, his weekly magazine. In this he was aided and encouraged by his future wife, a remarkable freelance journalist usually known as ‘Keith’; she later became a communist and would survive both brothers to write a biography of them.

These prejudices came to the fore during the Marconi scandal. A British monopoly of the new wireless technology was granted by the attorney general Rufus Isaacs, the son of a Jewish merchant, to the British Marconi Company, whose managing director was his brother Godfrey. Prior to this, several members of the cabinet had bought shares in the American Marconi Company in the expectation that its value would rise in parallel with the British one. It was a piece of shoddy insider trading, but no more than that. Cecil denounced it as a Jewish ramp. Gilbert followed loyally in his wake. For the rest of their lives, he and Belloc vastly exaggerated the importance of the Marconi scandal. Cecil’s accusations petered out humiliatingly in court.

When war came in 1914, Gilbert and Belloc were too old to enlist, while Cecil was deemed medically unfit for service. He was eventually – to his credit – accepted and served in France, though never on the front line. He collapsed after a route march and died in hospital of chronic kidney disease. For the rest of his life Gilbert maintained that he had been killed in action – and even held Rufus Isaacs responsible. He took over New Witness, later retitled GK’s Weekly, and devoted himself to the sad business of polishing the memory of the heroic Cecil.

I still read Belloc and Chesterton with pleasure. Few others seem to. Ingrams opines that only Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories remain popular. This is probably true, though The Flying Inn, a fantastic novel about an Islamic takeover of England, has considerable vitality. (It’s not much use, I would add, to modern-day Islamophobes, Chesterton’s Islam being very different from theirs.) His book on Thomas Aquinas has been judged one of the best popular accounts of his philosophy. Chesterton is still admired in American Catholic universities, and a few years ago I was sent a copy of a French intellectual journal devoted entirely to Chesterton. All the same, today’s Catholic Church is very different from the one Belloc and Chesterton defended.

Ingrams has written an admirable book. It is lucid, intelligent, sometimes disturbing and generally fair. It won’t please zealots, but as a study of the man and his milieu it could scarcely be bettered.

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