An edifying but still incomplete sampling from the work of the great British novelist, moralist and philosopher.
Though he died 75 years ago, Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s (1874–1936) influence is still strong, particularly among Catholic intellectuals of a moderately conservative bent—the same audience, say, that reads Garry Wills and Cardinal Newman for fun. Ker, whose biography of Chesterton will appear later this year, does a good job of selecting material that readily illustrates why this influence should continue. It also shows what a fluent, often entertaining writer Chesterton was. The selections from the fiction, apart from the beloved Father Brown stories, are lighter than some might wish; particularly noticeable is the absence of what many hold to be Chesterton’s best novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. Ker explains that the absence owes to the fact that it and The Napoleon of Notting Hill are readily available—but so are the Father Brown yarns. The editor does help reestablish Chesterton as a literary critic with a particularly extensive knowledge of the Victorian era in which he came of age; the selections from Chesterton’s studies of Victorian literature, from the novels of Dickens to the poetry of Browning and the essays of Ruskin, are extensive and satisfying. Welcome, if also too brief, are selections from Chesterton’s autobiography, in which he confesses, “I look back to that landscape of my first days with a pleasure that should doubtless be reserved for the Utopias of the Futurist.” Was he a happy writer? Yes, and even when Chesterton was locking horns with Marxists and reactionaries on either side, he tended to be gently civil—even if he dismissed his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche for harboring “a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil.” Of particular interest are Chesterton’s thoughtful notes on Christianity (“In a word, St Thomas was making Christendom more Christian in making it more Aristotelian”), which are of a piece and lineage with the better-known writings of C.S. Lewis.
A welcome taste of Chesterton, who remains most readable today. Now for a second volume to fill in the gaps.