Catholics in Britain today may be most familiar with G. K. Chesterton as the author of the wonderful Father Brown detective stories, in which the diminutive and dumpy priest from Essex uses his knowledge of the mysteries of the human heart in the service of solving fantastical crimes. In America, by contrast, Chesterton has something of the stature of a Catholic C. S. Lewis, as an apologist for Christianity and the Catholic faith. Dr Oddie’s study, however, is of the young Chesterton, who grew up liberal both in politics and religion, and it delineates his intellectual and spiritual development up to the year 1908. This great year saw the publication of his fantasy, The Man Who Was Thursday, which examines the view of life which takes the form of ‘that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe’ (p. 328), and his autobiographical work of apologetics, Orthodoxy, which, Oddie argues, seeks to demonstrate ‘that Christian dogma is the very opposite of a constriction of the human spirit, to set the Christian creeds flying in the wind like great banners above a conquering army of liberation’ (p. 360).
At this point in his life, Chesterton had become a Christian but was still an Anglican, and part of Dr Oddie’s aim is to explore the journey of Chesterton to faith as analogous to that of another famous Catholic convert, John Henry Newman. The present (Anglican) reviewer much appreciates the way in which Oddie recognises the theological influence of Anglicans such as the credally orthodox Charles Gore and the colourful Anglo-Catholic Christian Socialist Conrad Noel (who displayed the Red Flag in Thaxted Church), on Chesterton’s developing thought. It was in the period under discussion that Chesterton acquired his strong belief in God’s transcendence and in human free will, his sacramental view of life, and his acceptance of orthodox Christian faith as utterly exciting and liberatory. Orthodoxy still has the power to transfix and even convert its readers because, as Oddie convincingly argues, all the secularising forces that shape our present world were already in place in 1908. And Chesterton’s brilliant defence of fairy-stories as more logical and scientific than science in the chapter, ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ can still shock and astonish my world-weary undergraduate students.
Oddie’s is an important biography because it is the first to make extensive use of the manuscript notebooks and other materials held in the British Library – including Chesterton’s first effort at fiction transcribed by his aunt when Gilbert was only three! This makes it necessarily a highly scholarly work, but there is much to interest the general reader because this research allows access to the depths of the spiritual crisis that Chesterton faced as an adolescent at the Slade School of Art during the 1890’s, when Decadence was fashionable. It wasn’t just the green carnation world of Wildeanism that Chesterton disliked, but the philosophy of subjectivism and impressionism that undergirded it, in which there was nothing beyond one’s own experiences. The child Gilbert had felt ‘the sunrise of wonder’ of a world beyond the self that was truly real in all its marvellous otherness; the world of the Slade both in art theory and philosophy seemed to question that realism. Chesterton suffered a deep depression from which he only recovered by restoring his sense of God as someone to thank. As he wrote in his Autobiography much later: ‘I hung onto religion by one thin thread of thanks. I thanked whatever gods might be, not like Swinburne, because no life lived for ever, but because any life lived for ever’ (quoted on p. 123). Building on this sense of gratitude, it would be the otherness – the transcendence – of God that allowed a relation to God as his creator and began his journey to full Christian faith, as well as a renewed love of the world as beyond our appropriation in all its reality as God’s work of art.
Another interesting aspect of this biography is the uncovering of Chesterton’s earliest attempts at writing while a student at St Paul’s School in London. Later in life, his hatred of the ethics of international capitalism, as well as his friendship with Hilaire Belloc, led him to be accused of anti-Semitism. He was, of course, appalled by the later Nazi attacks on Jewish people, but it is interesting to read his impassioned defence as a boy of the Jews under persecution in Russia, influenced, no doubt, by his close friendship with Jewish boys at school. The canard of his marriage as non-consummated, based on a book by his sister-in-law, is also put to rest by Dr Oddie in a manner as chivalrous as Chesterton’s own: on the day of his wedding Chesterton famously insisted on buying a revolver and cartridges to defend his wife, ‘because it was the great adventure of my youth, with a general notion of protecting her from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads, to which we were bound’ (p. 217). Chesterton was a great eccentric, as well as a very funny writer, so the biography offers some wonderful stories at the same time as it analyses its subject’s intellectual difficulties. It is a pity, however, that the book lacks illustrations. Chesterton was an artist and a cartoonist of genius, and it would also have helped to have had pictures of the then thin and lanky young man before he turned into a parody of Doctor Johnson. Overall, however, this is a book with much to offer: original material, substantial historical contextualisation and the story of one of the great men of the twentieth century who has much to teach us today.
The reviewer, Alison Milbank, lectures in Literature and Theology at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (Continuum, 2009)