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G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton (1874-1936)

 

Prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories. Along with George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc and H.G. Wells, Chesterton was one the great Edwardian men of letters. Between 1900 and 1936 he published some one hundred books. Chesterton also gained fame for his series about the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared in 50 stories

"The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared. There are a large number of cultivated persons who doubt these maxims of daily life, just there are a large number of persons who believe they are the Prince of Wales; and I am told that both classes of people are entertaining conversationalists." (from 'A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls', 1901)

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in London into a middle-class family. Edward, his father, whom Chesterton described as "serene, humorous and full of hobbies," was a member of the well-known Kensington auctioneer and estate agents business of Chesterton. Marie-Louise Grosjean, his mother, was of Franco-Scottish ancestry. Chesterton did not learn to read until he was over eight, but later he could quote whole passages of books from memory. One of his teachers told him, "If we opened your head, we should not find brain but only a lump of white fat." Chesterton studied at University College, where he registred for courses in art, Latin, French, and English, and the Slade School of Art (1893-96), which was an unhappy period in his life. At the age of sixteen he started a magazine called The Debater.

Around 1893 Chesterton had gone through a crisis of skepticism and depression. During this period he experimented with the Ouija board and grew fascinated with diabolism. In 1895 Chesterton left University College without a degree and worked for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin (1896-1902). Much of his early writings were first published in such publications as The Speaker, Daily News, Illustrated London News, Eye Witness, New Witness, and in his own G.K.'s Weekly, which he edited for the last eleven years of his life. Chesterton renewed his Christian faith; also the courtship of his future wife, Frances Blogg, whom he married in 1901, pulled him out of the crisis. Frances was the eldest daughter of a deceased diamond merchant. She was convicted her husband was ment to be a novelist, rather than a prolific journalist.

At the start of the twentieth century, Chesterton had formed strong relationships with a range of writers. His impact on English literature has been compared to that of Joseph Conrad and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Greybeards at Play, Chesterton's first collection of poems, appeared in 1900. Robert Browning (1903) and Charles Dickens (1906) were literary biographies, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) was Chesterton's first novel, a political fantasy. The Defendant (1901), gathered together from a series essays, which had appeared in Speaker, caused considerable debate – Chesterton defended popular culture, including detective stories, which reviewers had scorned to waste ink upon them.

Between the years 1890 and 1914 Chesterton produced his most imaginative works, such as The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a depiction of fin-de-siècle decadence. The protagonist, Syme, is a poet turned an employee of Scotland Yard, who reveals a vast conspiracy against civilization. The members of the secret anarchist gang are named for days of the week. Sunday is the most mysterious character who tells that since "the beginning of the world, all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet." Sunday, the president of the Central Anarchist Coucil gives a simple advice about disguise: "You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless, a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb? Why then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool! Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then." Perhaps Chesterton had in mind the 'Bloody Sunday' of 22 January 1905, when the priest and double-agent Gapon, led the crowds to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburgh. A stage adaptation of the story by Mrs Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale was produced in 1926.

In 1909 Chesterton moved with his wife to Beaconsfield, a village twenty-five miles west of London, and continued to write, lecture, and travel energetically. Wherever he went, he was recognized. He was six feet four inches tall, and weighted three hundred pounds. His wife dressed him in a huge cape and wide-brimmed hat. He also carried a swordstick. I his youth he had carried a gun and when he heard someone say that life was not worth living, he would offer to shoot the person, "and always with the most satisfactory results."

Between 1913 and 1914 Chesterton was regular contributor for the Daily Herald. When the First World War began, he suffered a physical and nervous breakdown. At the call of Charles Masterman, a member of H.H. Asquith's Cabined, he joined a group of editors from the British press and senior writers – among them Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Gilbert Murray, George Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Israel Zangwill – whose task was to represent the British viewpoint and counterbalance German propaganda in Allied and neutral nations. The War Propaganda Bureau was set up at Wellington House, Buckingham Gate, in London. Chesterton wrote several pamphlets, beginning from a tract called The Barbarism of Berlin (1914).

After the war Chesterton became leader of the Distributist movement and later the President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that private property should be divided into smallest possible freeholds and then distributed throughout society. In his writings Chesterton also expressed his distrust of world government and evolutionary progress.

During the Boer War Chesterton took a pro-Boer standpoint. He was very popular radio lecturer, engaging in a series of debates with George Bernard Shaw. His younger brother, Cecil, died in 1918 and Chesterton edited his brother's the New Witness and his own G.K.'s Weekly. The editorial work occupied a considerable amount of his time and energy.

"Observed Chesterton on seeing for the first time the sparkling bright light of Broadway: "How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read." (from The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, 1990)

In 1922 Chesterton was converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thereafter he wrote several theologically oriented works, including lives of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. "Existence is still a strange thing to me; and as a stranger, I gave it welcome", he wrote in Autobiography (1936). Chesterton received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities. In 1934 he was made Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield. His coffin, too big to be carried down the staircase, had to be lowered from the window to the ground. Dorothy Collins, Chesterton's secretary, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988.

Father Brown debuted in 'The Blue Cross' in the Storyteller (1910). To wider public the character became first known from Chesterton's book The Innocence of Father Brown  (1911), a collection of twelve cases. The rest of the stories appeared in The Wisdom of Farher Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown  (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). In Autobiography Chesterton explained the passive character of his creation: "His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on." Basically these stories can be read as an attempt to wrestle with the problem of evil.

The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published (Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987). Before creating father Brown he had hailed in 'Defence of Detective Stories' this somewhat scorned genre of tales as "the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." Father Brown is gentle, quiet cleric, with ever-furled umbrella and round face, whose mission is to identify the culprit so that he/she might repent and save his/her soul. Among his opponents is the French jewel thief Flambeau, who reforms and becomes a London private investigator, and helps occasionally Father Brown. "Has it never struck you," Brown explains to Flambeau in 'The Blue Cross', "that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of human evil?" Father Brown was based on father John O'Connor (later Monsignor), Chesterton's friend, who in 1922 received the author into the Roman Catholic Church. John Dickson Carr used Chesterton as the model for his detective Dr. Gideon Fell.

In his verse Chesterton was a master of ballad form, as shown in his "Lepanto", published in 1911. His other works include plays, historical studies, essays, and biographies of such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Thackeray, George Bernard Shaw, and William Blake. Chesterton's subjects were very varied: the biography of Chaucer (1932) celebrated the Middle Ages, Takes a Long Bow (1925) propounded his social and political views, and The Thing (1929), a collection of essays examined his own conversion to Roman Catholicism. Chesterton's play The Magic (1913) was one of the favorites of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, who reworked it into his movie Ansiktet (1958, The Magician), starring Max von Sydow.

Chesterton wrote quickly and refused to edit his publications carefully. Religious perspective was the center of much of his writings. "Personally, I am all for propaganda," he once said, "and a great dealt of what I write is deliberately propagandist." When the Illustrated London News hired him to write a weekly column on all sorts of topics, except religion and politics, Chesterton responded by saying there was nothing else worth writing about.

For further reading: G. K. Chesterton: A Biography by Ian Ker (2012); Chesterton and Evil by Mark Knight (2004); G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense by Dale Ahlquist (2003); Mystery & Suspense Writers, Vol. 1, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); G.K. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, ed. by D.J. Conlon (1987); G.K. Chesterton by Michael F. Finch (1986); Chesterton and the Edwardian Cultural Crisis by John Coates (1984); A Chesterton Celebration by R.W. Rauch (1983); The Outline of Sanity by A.S. Dale (1982); Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc by Jay P. Corrin (1981); G.K. Chesterton: Explorations in Allegory by Lynette Hunter (1979); G.K. Chesterton by Margaret Canovan (1977); G.K. Chesterton, ed. by D.J. Conlon (1976); The Novels of G.K. Chesterton by Ian Boyd (1975); G.K. Chesterton: A Centenary Appraisal, ed. by John Sullivan (1974); G.K. Chesterton by Lawrence Clipper (1974); The Chesterton Review, publ. by the G.K. Chesterton Society (1974-); G.K. Chesterton by Dudley Barker (1973); The Mind of Chesterton by C. Hollis (1970); Chesterton: Man and Mask by Garry Wills (1961); G.K. Chesterton: A Bibliography by J. Sullivan (1958); Return to Chesterton by Maisie Ward (1952); Paradox in Chesterton by Hugh Kenner (1947); Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward (1944); The Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters by Hilaire Belloc (1940); Chesterton and the Victorian Age by A.M.A. Bogaerts (1940); Chesterton as Seen by His Contemporaries by Cyril Clemens (1939); G.K. Chesterton by M. Evans (1939); G.K. Chesterton by W.R. Titterton (1936) - Father Brown films: Father Brown, Detective, dir. by Edward Sedgewick, starring Walter Connolly as Father Brown and Paul Lukas as Flambeau, (1934); Father Brown, dir. by Robert Hamer, starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Peter Finch (1954); Pater Brown findet Daniel Boom (TV film), dir. Peter A. Horn, starring Walter Janssen (1955); Das schwarze Schaf, dir. by Helmut Ashley, starring Heinz Rühmann (1960), Er kann's nicht lassen, dir. by Axel von Ambesser, starring again Heinz Rühmann, who also played in television films Inspector Maigret (1962); The Quick One (episode in Detective, TV series), dir. Gilchrist Calder, with Mervyn Johns as Father Brown (1964); Pater Brown (TV series), with Josef Meinrad (1966-72); Une soirée au bungalow (TV film), dir. Lazare Iglesis, with Giani Esposito (1969); I racconti di Padre Brown (TV series), dir. Vittorio Cottafavi, with Renato Rascel (1970); Father Brown (TV series), with Kenneth More (1974); Sanctuary of Fear (TV film), dir. by John Llewellyn Moxey, starring Bernard Hughes (1979); Sei delitti per padre Brown (TV mini-series), dir. Vittorio De Sisti, with Emrys James (1988).

Selected writings:

  • Greybeards at Play, 1900
  • The Wild Knight and Other Poems, 1900
  • The Defendant, 1901
  • Defence of Detective Story, 1901
  • Twelve Types, 1902
  • Thomas Carlyle, 1902 (with J.E.H. Williams)
  • Robert Browning, 1903
  • Leo Tolstoy, 1903 (with others)
  • Tennyson, 1903 (with R. Garnett)
  • Thackeray, 1903 (with L. Melville)
  • G.F. Watts, 1904
  • The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904
  • The Club of Queer Trades, 1905
  • Heretics, 1905
  • Charles Dickens, 1906
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908
    - Mies joka oli Torstaina: painajainen (suom. Risto Raitio, 1989)
    - TV movie Der Mann, der Donnerstag war (1960), prod. Bavaria Atelier, Nord- und Westdeutscher Rundfunkverband (West Germany), dir. Fritz Umgelter, with Katinka Hoffmann, Klaus Bauer, Werner Hessenland, Willy Leyrer
  • Orthodoxy, 1908
    - Oikea oppi (suom. Antti Nylén, 2012)
  • All Things Considered, 1908
  • Tremendous Trifles, 1909
  • George Bernard Shaw, 1909
  • A Defence of Nonsense, 1909
  • The Ball and the Cross, 1910
  • What's Wrong With the World, 1910
  • Five Types, 1910
  • William Blake, 1910
  • Alarms and Discursions, 1910
  • The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911
  • The Innocence Of Father Brown, 1911
    - Sininen risti: n:o 1 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1915) / Lentävät tähdet: n:o 2 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916) / Ruhtinas Saradinen synnit: n:o 3 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916) / Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus (suom. Eino Palola, 1925) / Jumalan vasara ja muita kertomuksia isä Brownista (suom. Lea ja Timo Kukkola, 1988) / Sininen risti ja muita kertomuksia Isä Brownista (suom. Lea Kukkola ja Timo Kukkola, 1994)
  • Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, 1911
  •  Manalive, 1912
    - Film 2011, dir. and sc. Joey Odendahl, starring Kaiser Johnson (as Michael Moon), Mark P. Shea, Andrew Weir, Ashley Ahlquist
  • A Miscellany Of Men, 1912
  • Magic, 1913
    - TV movie (1939), with A. Bromley Davenport, Aubrey Mather, Walter Hudd, Jack Allen
  • The Victorian Age in Literature, 1913
  • The Flying Inn, 1914
  • The Wisdom Of Father Brown, 1914
    - Varkaitten paratiisi: n:o 1 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1915) / Koneen erehdys: n:o 2 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin viisaus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916) / Rumpujen jumala: n:o 3 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin viisaus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916) / Eversti Gray’n vihannekset: n:o 4 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin viisaus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916) / Mies Murto-kadulla: n:o 4 Salapoliisikertomussarjasta "Isä Brownin yksinkertaisuus" (suomentanut Eino Palola, 1916; huom: novelli ilmestyi alunperin kokoelmassa The Wisdom of Father Brown, ei teoksessa The Innocence of Father Brown) / Isä Brownin viisaus (suom. Eino Palola, 1925) / Jumalan vasara ja muita kertomuksia isä Brownista (suom. Lea ja Timo Kukkola, 1988)
  • London, 1914
  • The Barbarism of Berlin, 1914
  • The Appetite of Tyranny, 1915
  • The Crimes of England, 1915
  • Poems, 1915
  • Wine, Water And Song, 1915
  • Divorce Versus Democracy, 1916
  • A Shilling for My Thoughts, 1916
  • Temperance and The Great Alliance, 1916
  • A Short History of England, 1917
  • Utopia Of Usurers, 1917
  • Lord Kitchener, 1917
  • Irish Impressions, 1919
  • The New Jerusalem, 1920
  • The Superstition of Divorce, 1920
  • The Uses of Diversity, 1920
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much and Other Stories, 1922
  • Eugenics and other Evils, 1922
  • What I Saw in America? 1922
    - Mitä on Amerikka? (suom. Salla Rissanen, 2007)
  • The Ballad of St. Barbara and Other Poems, 1922
  • Fancies Versus Fads, 1923
  • The End of the Roman Road, 1924
  • Exclusive Luxury of Enoch Oates, 1925
  • William Cobbett, 1925
  • Tales Of The Long Bow, 1925
  • The Superstitions of the Sceptic, 1925
  • The Incredulity Of Father Brown, 1926
    - Isä Brownin vähäuskoisuus (suom. Lea ja Timo Kukkola, 2000)
  • Collected Works, 1926 (9 vols.)
  • Collected Poems, 1926
  • The Return of Don Quixote, 1926
  • The Outline of Sanity, 1926
  • The Queen of Seven Swords, 1926
  • The Catholic Church and Conversion, 1926
  • Culture and the Coming Peril, 1927
  • Social Reform vs. Birth Control, 1927
  • The Judgment of Dr. Johnson, 1927
  • Gloria in Profundis, 1927
  • The Secret Of Father Brown, 1927
    - Isä Brownin salaisuus (suom. Aarre Lehto, 1948)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, 1927
  • The Poet and the Lunatics, 1927
  • The Sword of Wood, 1928
  • Do We Agree?, 1928
  • Generally Speaking, 1929
  • The Thing: Why I am a Catholic, 1929
  • The Moderate Murderer, and The Honest Quack, 1929
  • New and Collected Poems, 1929
  • Ubi Ecclesia, 1929
  • The Father Brown Stories, 1929
  • The Ecstatic Thief, 1930
  • Four Faultless Felons, 1930
  • Come to Think of It, 1930
  • The Grave of Arthur, 1930
  • The Turkey and the Turk, 1930
  • The Resurrection of Rome, 1930
  • The Floating Admiral, 1931
  • All is Grist, 1931
  • Christendom in Dublin, 1932
  • New Poems, 1932
  • Chaucer, 1932
  • Sidelights of New London and Newer York, 1933
  • All I Survey, 1933
  • Collected Poems, 1933
  • St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, 1933
  • Avowals and Denials, 1934
  • The Well and the Shallows, 1935
  • The Scandal Of Father Brown, 1935
  • The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, 1936
  • Autobiography, 1936
  • As I Was Saying, 1936
  • A G.K. Chesterton Omnibus, 1936
  • The Coloured Lands, 1938
  • The End of the Armistice, 1940 (edited by Frank Sheed)
  • The Vampire of the Village, 1947
  • The Father Brown Omnibus, 1951
  • The Surprise, 1952  (play)
    - TV movie 2007, prod. Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), dir. Steve Beaumont, adaptation Dale Ahlquist, with Jeremy Stanbary, Nathan Allen, Kevin O'Brien, Ashley Ahlquist
  • The Spice of Life, 1965 (edited by Dorothy Collins)
  • Chesterton on Shakespeare, 1972 (edited by Dorothy Collins)
  • The Bodley Head G.K. Chesterton, 1985 (ed. by P.J. Kavanagh)
  • The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, 1986-
  • Daylight and Nightmare, 1986 (edited by Marie Smith)
  • Thirteen Detectives, 1987 (edited by Marie Smith)
  • The Best of Father Brown, 1987 (selection and introduction by H.R.F. Keating)
  • Brave New Family: G.K. Chesterton on Men and Women, Children, Sex, Divorce, Marriage & the Family , 1990 (edited by Alvaro de Silva)
  • G.K. Chesterton’s Early Poetry, 2004 (introductions by Michael W. Perry)
  • Father Brown: The Essential Tales, 2005 (introduction by P.D. James)
  • The Everyman Chesterton, 2011 (edited and introduced by Ian Ker)
  • In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton, 2011 (selected by Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, Aidan Mackey; edited by Dale Ahlquist)


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