G.K. Chesterton was a well-known if controversial writer in his own day, though he is perhaps less of a household name now. However, a recent BBC series based on his Father Brown stories has brought him back to popular attention. In this research conversation, Michael Shallcross explains why Chesterton deserves to be revived as an important political commentator, literary critic, and author.
Can you remind us of who Chesterton was, and why he’s an interesting figure to study?
Chesterton first achieved fame as a journalist, poet, and wit, at the turn of the twentieth century. In the years that followed he went on to develop a pretty singular set of creative interests, exploring a picaresque, fantastical style of novel writing; reimagining detective fiction as a sort of madcap theological fairy tale; and producing works of irreverent meta-theatre which give Pirandello a run for his money. So to many of his contemporaries it came as a somewhat dismaying surprise when, towards the end of the Edwardian era, this apparent trickster figure began to produce the relatively sober works of Christian apologetics which have come to dominate subsequent commentary on his life and work.
It’s fair to say that his irreverent attitude towards his creative work, combined with his reverent attitude towards his religion, have contributed to the subsequent decline in his academic and popular standing—Wyndham Lewis’s dismissal of Chesterton as a ‘dogmatic Toby Jug’ might stand as a pithy summary of the consensus.
Chesterton verbally dictated nearly all of the stories to his secretaries, often while charging around his garden with a swordstick
Chesterton’s fame was initially built upon his opposition towards contemporary orthodoxies. For example, he first came to notice with a stream of articles that challenged the legitimacy of the then-popular Boer War. Nonetheless, in some ways he has suffered the intermediate posthumous fate of any cultural critic who opposes virtually all of the received opinions and dominant ideologies of his/her age. For a long time he seemed, to academics at least, to be on the wrong side of history, but as with the recent critical recalibration of a number of similar figures from the period, such as H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley, Chesterton is now beginning to benefit from our greater sense of distance from the culture wars of the mid-to-late twentieth century.
Of course, discovering a figure who has endured neglect through misapprehension is the dream scenario for any literary researcher, and my work particularly sets out to show that Chesterton’s creative work was considerably more rich, complex, and sophisticated than either his own assessment or that of posterity would suggest.
If people have heard of Chesterton, it will probably be through his detective-priest, Father Brown, recently reinvented in a BBC drama series. Why was Father Brown one aspect of Chesterton’s work that did survive his posthumous decline?
I should start by saying that the BBC adaptation of Father Brown has been a pretty depressing spectacle for me, especially since it has encouraged a lot of the misconceptions about his work that have contributed to his neglect.
The original stories are not twee, Miss Marple-style exercises in nostalgia for a mythic pastoral Middle England. They’re better described as freewheeling lysergic fairy tales, full of disturbing imaginative flights, biting satire, and challenging moral and philosophical paradoxes. A contemporary reviewer remarked of the first collection of Father Brown stories,
dreadful is the way some peaceful secondary thing—a group of trees, or a distant passer-by, or a quiet country church—will suddenly writhe out of its place and rush into the foreground, waxing horribly, like a face in a fever, as though struggling to express something too monstrous for speech.
In my experience, this is an authentic account of how it feels to read these strange, unsettling stories for the first time, but you would never know it from watching the TV series!
If the originals endure, it’s because they’re often quite beautifully written, with a lyrical, impressionistic prose that one doesn’t, perhaps, expect to encounter in genre writing of this kind. I think it’s also relevant that Chesterton verbally dictated nearly all of the stories to his secretaries, often while charging around his garden with a swordstick. An element of improvisational performance comes through clearly in the teasing, playful engagement with the reader, the wry scene-setting, and the witty repartee that suffuses the dialogue. In short, all of the elements which the BBC thought it necessary to expunge.
Your own take on Chesterton is that he is more than just a comic writer, but a significant parodist. Parodying who?
I think Chesterton turned so often to parody in his creative and critical work because he saw that it possessed a unique combination of political, philosophical, and psychological utilities. He frequently used parody as a vehicle for satire when expressing his opposition to the various ideological standpoints—imperialism, social engineering, unreflective deference to wealth and power—which he perceived to exercise a pernicious influence on his culture. For example, he delighted in debunking logical fallacies through a rather lawyerly rhetorical manoeuvre that might be termed the ‘one might just as well say…’ technique, which exploits the combination of structural repetition with thematic deviation that is also a hallmark of parody. One of my favourite examples occurs in his essay, ‘A Defence of Patriotism’:
“My country, right or wrong,” is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, “My mother, drunk or sober.” No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.
My view is that Chesterton also used parody to satisfy more personal psychological requirements. From his earliest adolescent pastiches of Wilde, Swinburne, and Kipling, to his much later parodies of T.S. Eliot, Chesterton consistently employs parody as a way of working through his anxieties in relation to writers whose work held a disturbing fascination for him, and which he felt a compulsion both to assimilate and reject. I think this is why Chesterton’s definition of parody, which I refer to in the title of my thesis, adopts such a scrupulous balance between adherence and irreverence: ‘the worshipper’s half-holiday’. In Chesterton’s writing, parody doesn’t function merely as a comic means of mocking the work of superior artists (as was the prevalent critical view of parody at the time), but represents a sophisticated method of establishing a relationship of identification and differentiation with one’s early influences, and of maintaining an imaginative dialogue with one’s most avant-garde contemporaries.
In my thesis, I argue that the political, philosophical, and psychological utilities of parody come together most completely in Father Brown—an act of literary homage to Sherlock Holmes which nonetheless exposes the materialistic methodology of Conan Doyle’s hero to merciless parody.
If I wanted to pick up Chesterton, what book should I read first?
When I’m asked this I usually say The Man Who Was Thursday, because I think it’s probably the book with the clearest contemporary appeal, as well as being his most artistically successful novel—charming, disturbing, and heartening in equal measures.
It’s amazing how an encounter with a single story can change the whole course of your life.
In terms of non-fiction, despite its forbidding title, Orthodoxy is an extremely approachable and thought-provoking spiritual autobiography. I’d also recommend the Defendant essays, which are full of iconoclastic perspectives on culture that have become commonplaces of cultural studies a century later. In a similar vein, Chesterton is a massively underrated literary critic. His essays on nineteenth-century literature in particular are full of sophisticated close readings that anticipate later theoretical approaches to literature, from reception theory to post-colonialism, while articulating difficult concepts in the kind of lucid, playful terms that are not always a conspicuous feature of literary theory.
Ultimately, though, I think Father Brown is his greatest work. I still have a vivid memory of the afternoon in December 2006 when I began reading the stories. I’d picked up a battered copy of the Penguin Complete Father Brown, knowing almost nothing about Chesterton, but guided by the half-formed idea that the stories might offer some undemanding reading over the Christmas holidays. I remember setting the book down after reading the first story and thinking, ‘there’s a thesis in this,’ with a mounting sense of nervous excitement. It’s amazing how an encounter with a single story can change the whole course of your life. Everything that I’ve gone on to do academically in the last seven years has grown out of that half-hour of reading, and for that reason, the first Father Brown story, ‘The Blue Cross,’ would be the one piece of writing by Chesterton that I would recommend above all others.
I recently contributed a chapter on ‘The Blue Cross’ to an essay collection, G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, and I’m particularly pleased to have been involved in a book conceived with the explicit aim of bringing a more vital Chesterton to public attention – Matthew Ingleby’s introduction even sets out to pinpoint exactly why the TV series is such a missed opportunity. I hope that in time I’ll be able to work up my own thesis into a monograph, so as to contribute further to this process of critical renewal.
Michael Shallcross recently completed his PhD thesis on The Worshipper’s Half-Holiday: G.K. Chesterton and Parody. His book chapter “A Playground for Adults: Urban Recreation in Chesterton’s Detective Fiction” can be found in G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, published by Bloomsbury.