There was bound to be disappointment when, two years ago, the Church in the person of Rev Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton rejected the campaign by a group of (mainly American] devotees to canonise GK Chesterton. The bishop’s grounds for that decision reached after months of investigation by Canon John Udris, were very specific: that there was no pattern of personal spirituality, no “local cult” and more importantly there was the obstacle of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism, a very topical issue at the time of the Canon’s enquiry, as it still is.
The interesting question for many, knowing little of Chesterton and even less of the complex procedures leading to sainthood, is this: how was it possible for a prolific author and journalist of the Edwardian age, famous for his Father Brown detective stories, to be seriously considered as worthy of sainthood in the first place?
The conversion of Chesterton in 1922 was a particular cause for celebration in the Catholic Church because of the immense popularity he enjoyed not only in Britain but throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Like his friend Bernard Shaw, Chesterton was a “character” famous for his cloak and swordstick, for his jokes and detective stories, and the significance of his conversion was compared by many Catholics to that of John Henry Newman in 1845. From then on, Chesterton came to be regarded as the special property of the Catholic Church, while his official biography by Maisie Ward, wife of the Catholic publisher Wilfred Sheed, issued in 1944, set the tone for a succession of biographies and studies which were to follow. Taking their cue from Maisie Ward and Chesterton’s friend and co-religionist Hilaire Belloc, his admirers built up and maintained the picture of an innocent and unworldly man whose conversion had been the climax of his career. That picture has persisted for nearly 100 years and it is not surprising that it should have bred in America, where Chesterton tends to be better appreciated than in Britain, a movement crusading for his canonisation. Thus in his “short history” of Chesterton, published as recently as 2018, Dale Ahlquist, the president of The American Chesterton Society and the leader of the canonisation campaign, writes:
“The path to sainthood leads through beatification. It would do us well to point out the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those that mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. These are all descriptions of GK Chesterton. It is not difficult at all to make the case that he epitomizes each of the beatitudes with his humility, his sympathy, his kindness, his search for justice, his purity and goodness and his patience with those who attacked him…
“The Church does not have to convince anyone who reads his books that Chesterton’s goodness is still very present in his words. It seeps through the pages like sweet perfume.”
Maintaining this image of an innocent and saintly Chesterton has meant suppressing, as far as possible, the damaging influence exercised on him by his younger brother Cecil and the friend of both men, Hilaire Belloc, especially when it comes to considering the anti Semitism to which Bishop Peter referred when rejecting the claims of sanctity.
Belloc is not much mentioned in Mr Alquist’s book and you may search in vain the 745 pages of Fr Ian Ker’s massive 2018 biography of Chesterton for any mention of the name of Alfred Dreyfus, the man who at the turn of the century inspired Belloc’s anti-Semitism which in turn corrupted both Chesterton brothers with fatal results. Questioned in old age by the writers Hugh Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson, Belloc gave a two-word answer – “The crucifixion” – when asked why he spoke of Jews as “the enemy of the human race”. He explained that: “It was the Dreyfus affair that opened my mind to the Jew question.” Like thousands of fellow Frenchmen, Belloc insisted on the guilt of the Jewish army officer Dreyfus, convicted as a German agent and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island off the coast of Africa. Even when it had been proved that the evidence against him was forged by a man who had since committed suicide, Belloc asserted, in private, that Dreyfus was “guilty as sin” and in public that the evidence was too complex for anyone to reach a final verdict. From this affair, Belloc developed a lifelong obsession with Jewry, and a belief in a powerful conspiracy which had weakened France and was to bring about the Russian Revolution in 1917 at the same time infiltrating the British aristocracy and taking control of the press.
Along with all his fellow-Liberals in England, the young Chesterton had sided with the Dreyfusards, writing a poem, published in his first book of verse The Wild Knight (1902), crying shame on France for betraying the ideals of the Revolution but, very significantly, after meeting Belloc and falling under his spell, he changed sides. When his poem was republished in 1905, by which time Dreyfus had been pardoned and was about to be reinstated in the French Army and given the Légion d’honneur, he added a footnote describing himself as “not able to reach any final conclusion about the proper verdict on the individual”.
Belloc aside, those of his disciples seeking to acquit Chesterton of the charge of anti-Semitism seldom take into account the extent to which it was inextricably entangled with his lifelong subservience to his younger brother Cecil, whose blatant anti-Semitism cannot be denied – though Maisie Ward does her best, referring only to his “rather fierce way of handling such matters as race questions”.
Belloc, who always boosted Cecil as a much better writer than his brother, urged him on when the Marconi scandal – involving insider share-dealing by Liberal Party ministers – was exposed, seeming to confirm all Belloc’s forebodings about the Jewish threat. In the pages of his paper The New Witness, Cecil lambasted the Postmaster General Herbert Samuel and Attorney General Rufus Isaacs, later Lord Reading, along with his brother Godfrey, managing director of the Marconi Company, who eventually brought a successful criminal libel action against him. He was fined £100.
Ever afterwards, the Marconi scandal obsessed Chesterton, who forecast in his 1936 autobiography that in years to come it would be seen as one of the major turning points in British history. He wrote a vicious open letter to Rufus Isaacs later comparing Herbert Samuel, innocent of any offence, to Rasputin, the Mad Monk. When Cecil, who had joined the army in 1916, died of nephritis in France shortly after the Armistice was declared, he turned him into a heroic martyr, insisting falsely that he had been killed in action (“Cecil had as good as died in battle,” Fr Ker writes in his biography, “and his brother cannot be blamed for a very excusable slight exaggeration.”).
But was he a saint? GK Chesterton with his wife Frances (far left) and friends (Getty)
I had little notion of this tragic story when I embarked some years ago on a biography of Chesterton. The idea had been in my mind for some time, though in retrospect it seems like a misguided enterprise as there had been a steady stream of Chesterton biographies since Maisie Ward’s, and Fr Ker’s magnum opus was already in the pipeline. Long ago, in 1974, I had been commissioned to write an introduction to Chesterton’s autobiography republished in honour of his centenary. Rereading it now, I can see that at the time I had fully accepted the traditional picture of Chesterton as a saintly childlike man – innocence being the most frequently used word if not by me then others of his disciples.
Anyone like me who writes biographies is familiar with the way certain, often obscure, books or articles are brought to our attention seemingly by the unseen power described by John Betjeman as “the Management”. In this case it was a stray bundle of The Chesterton Review, the invaluable then-quarterly periodical published in Canada by Fr Ian Boyd, which I came across in the dusty basement of a Charing Cross Road bookshop. One of these contained the first instalment of a very long review by Professor Owen Dudley Edwards of Denis Judd’s newly published biography of Rufus Isaacs. I knew nothing of the professor, a historian who was plainly a very well-read Chesterton devotee. He was also a Catholic which made it remarkable that his review was written in defence of Chesterton’s bête noire Rufus Isaacs and was highly critical of both Chesterton brothers, describing Gilbert at the time of the Marconi scandal as “unhinged”.
This review was enough to persuade me that beneath the sunny landscape painted by Maisie Ward and others there might be a different, darker picture to be uncovered, one which had been deliberately concealed by Catholic commentators determined to preserve the image of Chesterton’s essential innocence. It was only when I had almost finished my book and was quarrelling about the title with a publisher anxious not to upset American Catholics that I came across another Dudley Edwards review, in this case of a biography of Chesterton by Michael Ffinch published in 1986. Chesterton, he wrote, “during the Marconi Scandal and his own breakdown and again after the death of his brother Cecil emitted sentiments disgraceful to himself and detestable to human kind. The unfortunate man hardly realised that the sins he had committed were as injurious to the Christianity that he loved as the wildest charges of its gravest traducers”.
How to explain that damning verdict so much at odds with the traditional view? How to explain the extraordinary hold that Cecil even after his death had had over his more talented older brother? (It might have helped had Chesterton not destroyed most of his brother’s papers following their father’s death.) I cannot answer these questions anymore than I can explain how Chesterton was apparently able to suppress all awareness of what he had done.
So far from being as sunny and serene as Belloc, as Maisie Ward and others would have us believe, Chesterton’s life was full of confusion and conflict. This cannot detract from his many achievements and he remains a lovable Toby Jug figure. But it is a Toby Jug with cracks. And no halo.
The Sins of GK Chesterton by Richard Ingrams (Quartet Books) is out in September