Michael de la Bedoyere was the editor of The Catholic Herald and a friend both of G. K. Chesterton’s and his biographer Maisie Ward. Here he reviews the biography, titled simply Gilbert Keith Chesterton, which appeared in early 1944. The full review can be read here. It appeared in the issue of 14 April 1944.
He begins describing his feeling of picking up the book with “all the excitement of a child receiving the toy for which he has longed,” but then being “unable to drive away the rather critical and disappointed thoughts to which the reading of the book has given rise.” He hopes the readers of his review will disagree with him.
This abridged version begins about one-fifth of the way through. He has called the book “fascinating,” and added that “Nowhere in the book, the fruit of six years of patient and painstaking research, is there any attempt to disguise the weaknesses of a genius.”
As a conducted tour to Chesterton, written in the easy and personal style that so well suited Mrs. Sheed’s earlier works, this book is admirable and, of course, indispensable to Chesterton’s biographer. And there’s the rub: it doesn’t seem to me a biography. I readily grant the difficulty of writing a biography of a man like Chesterton. Apart from a comparatively few simple facts, in themselves not so very dissimilar from the lives of many others, apart from anecdote and oddities of manner and personality, Chesterton was the mind and soul and personal radiance of Chesterton, as expressed in his books, articles, letters. conversation.
And even then one hasn’t merely to deal with half-a-dozen great works, but with a lifetime’s unceasing flow of literary activity of all kinds, every bit of which was spontaneous in the sense that it was the immediately stimulated reaction of a rich and original imagination feeding on an immense accumulation of impressions and ideas in constant process of intellectual digestion — if so offensive a phrase may be allowed for what was really a poet’s power of evoking fresh perception of reality even in the course of the rational process of arguing.
With a man like Chesterton, I feel, the biographer cannot be content with journeying from A to Z either in following the development of his mind or in following the sequence of events which made his outward life. And I think, too, that with Chesterton the biographer’s contribution should be confined to the heavy enough task of seeking the pattern or form within which Chesterton will be presented as a whole and that otherwise his personal views and comments should be reduced to a minimum.
On the other hand, even if we take the view that Chesterton’s real biographer will be someone who did not know him well personally and who was not intimately associated with his life and friends, we (and that future biographer) owe very much to Mrs. Sheed. Much of what she has told us of Chesterton’s private and domestic life comes from no books or research, but from her personal knowledge of him, and, thank God, she has dealt well and truly with accusations and insinuations about the relations between Gilbert and Frances that have been published. But all this once more is valuable material for a future work rather than one of the pieces already fitted into the pattern.
Chesterton the Catholic
Another point I would make — and it may seem to come strangely from the columns of this newspaper — and it is that the author has paid relatively too much attention to Chesterton, the Roman Catholic. I use Roman Catholic purposely and in the sense which it connotes for most Englishmen.
To Chesterton the Catholic in potentia and in actu she could not pay too much attention. The magnificent Catholic mind always at work in literary criticism, in history, in politics, in art, in journalism, in poetry, in debate, in sociology, in philosophy, must surely give the key to the pattern to which I have referred.
No one in our day — and perhaps never — has so amply demonstrated the catholicity of the Church. Mrs. Sheed has done much to make this clear, more particularly in the case of the poetry — all the more reason, then (in my view which may be completely wrong), why she might have cut down a little on the more external Catholic life and activities which tills so much of the later pages.
Chesterton was a Catholic like the simplest and humblest of Catholics. Anything like a merely intellectual Catholicism would have been abhorrent to his nature and indeed to his genius, and this point should most certainly be made with many an illustration. But is there need for much more in a work that can do so much to show one great side of Catholicity, its universality, its rationality, its humanity?
The Indirect Prophet
Of the other side, its mysticism and its sacramentality, its devotion and its asceticism, Chesterton was more indirectly a prophet. How many of us will sympathise with his remark on getting up early to go to Masse: “What but religion would bring us to such an evil pass!”
Mrs. Sheed admits that he was no ascetic or mystic. in the ordinary sense, but suggests that the intensity and difficulty of his never ceasing intellectual work was a form of asceticism leading to mysticism. “Is there not,” she asks, “for the thinker an asceticism of the mind, very searching, very purifying?”
The question leads one into very difficult country, but it does not seem to me necessary to deny that Chesterton did not live in those particular mansions which are inhabited by the religious in the narrower sense. Indeed, I like to think that he was one of the too few who can live great Catholic lives in mansions more open to the generality of men.
There will be special interest in the letters from Shaw and Wells which are published, and many will be glad to learn of the uniformly genial relations between men so opposed to one another in outlook as G.K.C. and the secularist prophets. That, too, is a lesson to us smaller fry.
Chesterton and Ward at Their Best
If then I have started (reluctantly) with criticism and maintained a querulous note, I hope I have also helped to show what a tremendous task Mrs. Sheed so courageously undertook and how the very reading of her great work (for in its order it is a great work) suggests all the time the attempt to do the impossible: to bring Chesterton back to life in pen and ink. But it would be wrong to leave the reader without an example of Chesterton at his best and his biographer rising to her subject:
“After he got home,” she writes in reference to his last journey abroad,
I remember how delightedly Gilbert quoted the captions on two banners hung in the heart of a London slum. One read, “Down with Capitalism — God Save the King.” The other read, “Lousy but Loyal.” He knew that it was true and it served in increase the passionate quality of his pity. Patient he could be for himself, but the lot of the poor amused in him a terrible anger — and in a broadcast on Liberty he gave that anger vent.
For worse than the presence of lice in our slums was the absence of liberty. He would gladly, he said, have spoken as an Englishman, hut he had been asked to speak as a Catholic, and therefore, “I am going to point out that Catholicism created English liberty; that the freedom has remained exactly in so far as the Faith has remained; and where it is true that all our faith has gone, all our freedom is going. If I do this, I cannot ask most of you to agree with me; if I did anything else, I could not ask any of you to respect me.”
The Catholic Herald has published many articles on Chesterton. See Francis Phillips’ Chesterton was a unique and loveable writer. Was he also a saint?; Michael Duggan’s Chesterton’s message for postmodern man; Stephen Bullivant’s Continuing the hunt for a fabled GK Chesterton quote; David Mills’ A (Needed) Guide to Reading G. K. Chesterton; William Oddie’s Chesterton’s prophetic voice, now increasingly being heard once more, is still relevant to the new age; and many others to be found by searching “Chesterton.”