G. K. Chesterton, A Critical Study
by Julius West
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I HAVE to express my gratitude to Messrs. Burns and Oates, Messrs. Methuen and Co., and Mr. Martin Seeker for their kind permission to quote from works by Mr. G. K. Chesterton published by them. I have also to express my qualified thanks to Mr. John Lane for his conditional permission to quote from books by the same author published by him. My thanks are further due, for a similar reason, to Mr. Chesterton himself.






THE habit, to which we are so much addicted, of writing books about other people who have written books, will probably be a source of intense discomfort to its practitioners in the twenty-first century. Like the rest of their kind, they will pin their ambition to the possibility of indulging in epigram at the expense of their contemporaries. In order to lead up to the achievement of this desire they will have to work in the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Between the two they will find an obstacle of some terror. The eighteen nineties will lie in their path, blocking the way like an unhealthy moat, which some myopes might almost mistake for an aquarium. All manner of queer fish may be discerned in these unclear waters.

To drop the metaphor, our historians will find themselves confronted by a startling change. The great Victorians write no longer, but are succeeded by eccentrics. There is Kipling, undoubtedly the most gifted of them all, but not everybody's darling for all that. There is that prolific trio of best-sellers, Mrs. Humphry Ward, Miss Marie Corelli, and Mr. Hall Caine. There is Oscar Wilde, who has a vast reputation on the Continent, but never succeeded in convincing the British that he was much more than a compromise between a joke and a smell. There is the whole Yellow Book team, who never succeeded in convincing anybody. The economic basis of authorship had been shaken by the abolition of the three-volume novel. The intellectual basis had been lulled to sleep by that hotchpotch of convention and largeness that we call the Victorian Era. Literature began to be an effort to express the inexpressible, resulting in outraged grammar and many dots. . . .

English literature at the end of the last century stood in sore need of some of the elementary virtues. If obviousness and simplicity are liable to be overdone, they are not so deadly in their after-effects as the bizarre and the extravagant. The literary movement of the eighteen nineties was like a strong stimulant given to a patient dying of old age. Its results were energetic, but the energy was convulsive. We should laugh if we saw a man apparently dancing in mid-air—until we noticed the rope about his neck. It is impossible to account for the success of the Yellow Book school and its congeners save on the assumption that the rope was, generally speaking, invisible.

In this Year of Grace, 1915, we are still too close to the eighteen nineties, still too liable to be influenced by their ways, to be able to speak for posterity and to pronounce the final judgment upon those evil years. It is possible that the critics of the twenty-first century, as they turn over the musty pages of the Yellow Book, will ejaculate with feeling: "Good God, what a dull time these people must have had!" On the whole it is probable that this will be their verdict. They will detect the dullness behind the mechanical brilliancy of Oscar Wilde, and recognize the strange hues of the whole AEsthetic Movement as the garments of men who could not, or would not see. There is really no rational alternative before our critics of the next century; if the men of the eighteen nineties, and the queer things they gave us, were not the products of an intense boredom, if, in strict point of fact, Wilde, Beardsley, Davidson, Hankin, Dowson, and Lionel Johnson were men who rollicked in the warm sunshine of the late Victorian period, then the suicide, drunkenness and vice with which they were afflicted is surely the strangest phenomenon in the history of human nature. To many people, those years actually were dull.

The years from 1885 to 1898 were like the hours of afternoon in a rich house with large rooms; the hours before teatime. They believed in nothing except good manners; and the essence of good manners is to conceal a yawn. A yawn may be defined as a silent yell.

So says Chesterton, yawning prodigiously.

One may even go farther, and declare that in those dark days a yawn was the true sign of intelligence. It is no mere coincidence that the two cleverest literary debutants of that last decade, Mr. Max Beerbohm and the subject of this essay, both stepped on the stage making a pretty exhibition of boredom. When the first of these published, in 1896, being then twenty-four years old, his Works of Max Beerbohm he murmured in the preface, "I shall write no more. Already I begin to feel myself a trifle outmoded. . . . Younger men, with months of activity before them . . . have pressed forward. . . . Cedo junioribus."

So too, when Chesterton produced his first book, four years later, he called it Greybeards at Play: Literature and Art for Old Gentlemen, and the dedication contained this verse:

Now we are old and wise and grey, And shaky at the knees; Now is the true time to delight In picture books like these.

The joke would have been pointless in any other age. In 1900, directed against the crapulous exoticism of contemporary literature, it was an antidote, childhood was being used as a medicine against an assumed attack of second childhood. The attack began with nonsense rhymes and pictures. It was a complete success from the very first. There is this important difference between the writer of nonsense verses and their illustrator; the former must let himself go as much as he can, the latter must hold himself in. In Greybeards at Play, Chesterton took the bit between his teeth, and bolted faster than Edward Lear had ever done. The antitheses of such verses as the following are irresistible:

For me, as Mr. Wordsworth says, The duties shine like stars; I formed my uncle's character, Decreasing his cigars.


The Shopmen, when their souls were still, Declined to open shops— And cooks recorded frames of mind, In sad and subtle chops.

The drawings which accompanied these gems, it may be added, were such as the verses deserved. They exhibit a joyous inconsistency, the disproportion which is the essence of parody combined with the accuracy which is the sine qua non of satire.

About a month after Chesterton had produced his statement of his extreme senility (the actual words of the affidavit are

I am, I think I have remarked, [he had not], Terrifically old.)

he published another little book, The Wild Knight and Other Poems, as evidence of his youth. For some years past he had occasionally written more or less topical verses which appeared in The Outlook and the defunct Speaker. Greybeards at Play was, after all, merely an elaborate sneer at the boredom of a decade; the second book was a more definite attack upon some points of its creeds and an assertion of the principles which mattered most.

There is one sin: to call a green leaf grey, Whereat the sun in heaven shuddereth. There is one blasphemy: for death to pray, For God alone knoweth the praise of death.

Or again (The World's Lover)

I stood and spoke a blasphemy— "Behold the summer leaves are green."

It was a defence of reality, crying for vengeance upon the realists. The word realism had come to be the trade-mark of Zola and his followers, especially of Mr. George Moore, who made a sacrifice of nine obvious, clean and unsinkable aspects of life so as to concentrate upon the submersible tenth. Chesterton came out with his defence of the common man, of the streets

Where shift in strange democracy The million masks of God,

the grass, and all the little things of life, "things" in general, for our subject, alone among modern poets, is not afraid to use the word. If on one occasion he can merely

. . . feel vaguely thankful to the vast Stupidity of things,

on another he will speak of

The whole divine democracy of things,

a line which is a challenge to the unbeliever, a statement of a political creed which is the outgrowth of a religious faith.

The same year Chesterton formally stepped into the ranks of journalism and joined the staff of The Daily News. He had scribbled poems since he had been a boy at St. Paul's School. In the years following he had watched other people working at the Slade, while he had gone on scribbling. Then he had begun to do little odd jobs of art criticism and reviewing for The Bookman and put in occasional appearances in the statelier columns of The Speaker. Then came the Boer War, which made G. K. Chesterton lose his temper but find his soul. In 1900 The Daily News passed into new hands—the hands of G.K.C.'s friends. And until 1913, when the causes he had come to uphold were just diametrically opposed to the causes the victorious Liberal Party had adopted, every Saturday morning's issue of that paper contained an article by him, while often enough there appeared signed reviews and poems. The situation was absurd enough. The Daily News was the organ of Nonconformists, and G.K.C. preached orthodoxy to them. It advocated temperance, and G.K.C. advocated beer. At first this was sufficiently amusing, and nobody minded much. But before Chesterton severed his connection with the paper, its readers had come to expect a weekly article that almost invariably contained an attack upon one of their pet beliefs, and often enough had to be corrected by a leader on the same page. But the Chesterton of 1900 was a spokesman of the Liberalism of his day, independent, not the intractable monster who scoffed, a few years later, at all the parties in the State.

At this point one is reminded of Watts-Dunton's definition of the two kinds of humour in The Renascence of Wonder: "While in the case of relative humour that which amuses the humorist is the incongruity of some departure from the laws of convention, in the case of absolute humour it is the incongruity of some departure from the normal as fixed by nature herself." We have our doubts as to the general application of this definition: but it applies so well to Chesterton that it might almost have come off his study walls. What made a series of more than six hundred articles by him acceptable to The Daily News was just the skilful handling of "the laws of convention," and "the normal as fixed by nature herself." On the theory enunciated by Watts-Dunton, everything except the perfect average is absolutely funny, and the perfect average, of course, is generally an incommensurable quantity. Chesterton carefully made it his business to present the eccentricity—I use the word in its literal sense—of most things, and the humour followed in accordance with the above definition. The method was simple. Chesterton invented some grotesque situation, some hypothesis which was glaringly absurd. He then placed it in an abrupt juxtaposition with the normal, instead of working from the normal to the actual, in the usual manner. Just as the reader was beginning to protest against the reversal of his accustomed values, G.K.C. would strip the grotesque of a few inessentials, and, lo! a parable. A few strokes of irony and wit, an epigram or two infallibly placed where it would distract attention from a weak point in the argument, and the thing was complete. By such means Chesterton developed the use of a veritable Excalibur of controversy, a tool of great might in political journalism. These methods, pursued a few years longer, taught him a craftsmanship he could employ for purely romantic ends. How he employed it, and the opinions which he sought to uphold by its means will be the subjects of the following chapters. Chesterton sallied forth like a Crusader against the political and literary Turks who had unjustly come into possession of a part of the heritage of a Christian people. We must not forget that the leading characteristic of a Crusader is his power of invigorating, which he applies impartially to virtues and to vices. There is a great difference between a Crusader and a Christian, which is not commonly realized. The latter attempts to show his love for his enemy by abolishing his unchristianness, the former by abolishing him altogether. Although the two methods are apt to give curiously similar results, the distinction between a Crusader and a Christian is radical and will be considered in greater detail in the course of this study. This study does not profess to be biographical, and only the essential facts of Chesterton's life need be given here. These are, that he was born in London in 1873, is the son of a West London estate agent who is also an artist and a children's poet in a small but charming way, is married and has children. Perhaps it is more necessary to record the fact that he is greatly read by the youth of his day, that he comes in for much amused tolerance, that, generally speaking, he is not recognized as a great or courageous thinker, even by those people who understand his views well enough to dissent from them entirely, and that he is regarded less as a stylist, than as the owner of a trick of style. These are the false beliefs that I seek to combat. The last may be disposed of summarily. When an author's style is completely sincere, and completely part of him, it has this characteristic; it is almost impossible to imitate. Nobody has ever successfully parodied Shakespeare, for example; there are not even any good parodies of Mr. Shaw. And Chesterton remains unparodied; even Mr. Max Beerbohm's effort in A Christmas Garland rings false. His style is individual. He has not "played the sedulous ape."

But, on the other hand, it is not proposed to acquit Chesterton of all the charges brought against him. The average human being is partly a prig and partly a saint; and sometimes men are so glad to get rid of a prig that they are ready to call him a saint—Simon Stylites, for example. And it is not suggested that the author of the remark, "There are only three things that women do not understand. They are Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," is not a prig, for a demonstration that he is a complete gentleman would obviously leave other matters of importance inconveniently crowded out. We are confronted with a figure of some significance in these times. He represents what has been called in other spheres than his "the anti-intellectualist reaction." We must answer the questions; to what extent does he represent mere unqualified reaction? What are his qualifications as a craftsman? What, after all, has he done?

And we begin with his romances.



In spite of Chesterton's liberal production of books, it is not altogether simple to classify them into "periods," in the manner beloved of the critic, nor even to sort them out according to subjects. G.K.C. can (and generally does) inscribe an Essay on the Nature of Religion into his novels, together with other confusing ingredients to such an extent that most readers would consider it pure pedantry on the part of anybody to insist that a Chestertonian romance need differ appreciably from a Chestertonian essay, poem, or criticism. That a book by G.K.C. should describe itself as a novel means little more than that its original purchasing price was four shillings and sixpence. It might also contain passages of love, hate, and other human emotions, but then again, it might not. But one thing it would contain, and that is war. G.K.C. would be pugnacious, even when there was nothing to fight. His characters would wage their wars, even when the bone of contention mattered as little as the handle of an old toothbrush. That, we should say, is the first factor in the formula of the Chestertonian romance—and all the rest are the inventor's secret. Imprimis, a body of men and an idea, and the rest must follow, if only the idea be big enough for a man to fight about, or if need be, even to make himself ridiculous about.

In The Napoleon of Notting Hill we have this view of romance stated in a manner entirely typical of its author. King Auberon and the Provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, are speaking. The latter says:

"I know of a magic wand, but it is a wand that only one or two may rightly use, and only seldom. It is a fairy wand of great fear, stronger than those who use it—often frightful, often wicked to use. But whatever is touched with it is never again wholly common; whatever is touched with it takes a magic from outside the world. If I touch, with this fairy wand, the railways and the roads of Notting Hill, men will love them, and be afraid of them for ever."

"What the devil are you talking about?" asked the King.

"It has made mean landscapes magnificent, and hovels outlast cathedrals," went on the madman. "Why should it not make lamp-posts fairer than Greek lamps, and an omnibus-ride like a painted ship? The touch of it is the finger of a strange perfection."

"What is your wand?" cried the King, impatiently.

"There it is," said Wayne; and pointed to the floor, where his sword lay flat and shining.

If all the dragons of old romance were loosed upon the fiction of our day, the result, one would imagine, would be something like that of a Chestertonian novel. But the dragons are dead and converted into poor fossil ichthyosauruses, incapable of biting the timidest damsel or the most corpulent knight that ever came out of the Stock Exchange. That is the tragedy of G.K.C.'s ideas, but it is also his opportunity. "Man is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by catch-words," says Stevenson. "Give me my dragons," says G.K.C. in effect, "and I will give you your catch-words. You may have them in any one of a hundred different ways. I will drop them on you when you least expect them, and their disguises will outrange all those known to Scotland Yard and to Drury Lane combined. You may have catastrophes and comets and camels, if you will, but you will certainly have your catch-words."

The first of Chesterton's novels, in order of their publication, is The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904). This is extravagance itself; fiction in the sense only that the events never happened and never could have happened. The scene is placed in London, the time, about A.D. 1984. "This 'ere progress, it keeps on goin' on," somebody remarks in one of the novels of Mr. H. G. Wells. But it never goes on as the prophets said it would, and consequently England in those days does not greatly differ from the England of to-day. There have been changes, of course. Kings are now chosen in alphabetical rotation, and the choice falls upon a civil servant, Auberon Quin by name. Now Quin has a sense of humour, of absolute humour, as the Watts-Dunton definition already cited would have it called. He has two bosom friends who are also civil servants and whose humour is of the official variety, and whose outlook upon life is that of a Times leader. Quin's first official act is the publication of a proclamation ordering every London borough to build itself city walls, with gates to be closed at sunset, and to become possessed of Provosts in mediaeval attire, with guards of halberdiers. From his throne he attends to some of the picturesque details of the scheme, and enjoys the joke in silence. But after a few years of this a young man named Adam Wayne becomes Provost of Notting Hill, and to him his borough, and more especially the little street in which he has spent his life, are things of immense importance. Rather than allow that street to make way for a new thoroughfare, Wayne rallies his halberdiers to the defence of their borough. The Provosts of North Kensington and South Kensington, of West Kensington and Bayswater, rally their guards too, and attack Notting Hill, purposing to clear Wayne out of the way and to break down the offending street. Wayne is surrounded at night but converts defeat into victory by seizing the offices of a Gas Company and turning off the street lights. The next day he is besieged in his own street. By a sudden sortie he and his army escape to Campden Hill. Here a great battle rages for many hours, while one of the opposing Provosts gathers a large army for a final attack. At last Wayne and the remnants of his men are hopelessly outnumbered, but once more he turns defeat into victory. He threatens, unless the opposing forces instantly surrender, to open the great reservoir and flood the whole of Notting Hill. The allied generals surrender, and the Empire of Notting Hill comes into being. Twenty years later the spirit of Adam Wayne has gone beyond his own city walls. London is a wild romance, a mass of cities filled with citizens of great pride. But the Empire, which has been the Nazareth of the new idea, has waxed fat and kicked. In righteous anger the other boroughs attack it, and win, because their cause is just. King Auberon, a recruit in Wayne's army, falls with his leader in the great battle of Kensington Gardens. But they recover in the morning.

"It was all a joke," says the King in apology. "No," says Wayne; "we are two lobes of the same brain . . . you, the humorist . . . I, the fanatic. . . . You have a halberd and I have a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials."

So ends the story.

Consider the preposterous elements of the book. A London with blue horse-'buses. Bloodthirsty battles chiefly fought with halberds. A King who acts as a war correspondent and parodies G. W. Stevens. It is preposterous because it is romantic and we are not used to romance. But to Chaucer let us say it would have appeared preposterous because he could not have realized the initial premises. Before such a book the average reader is helpless. His scale of values is knocked out of working order by the very first page, almost by the very first sentence. ("The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.") The absence of a love affair will deprive him of the only "human interest" he can be really sure of. The Chestertonian idiom, above all, will soon lead him to expect nothing, because he can never get any idea of what he is to receive, and will bring him to a proper submissiveness. The later stages are simple. The reader will wonder why it never before occurred to him that area-railings are very like spears, and that a distant tramcar may at night distinctly resemble a dragon. He may travel far, once his imagination has been started on these lines. When romantic possibilities have once shed a glow on the offices of the Gas Light and Coke Company and on the erections of the Metropolitan Water Board, the rest of life may well seem filled with wonder and wild desires.

Chesterton may be held to have invented a new species of detective story—the sort that has no crime, no criminal, and a detective whose processes are transcendental. The Club of Queer Trades is the first batch of such stories. The Man who was Thursday is another specimen of some length. More recently, Chesterton has repeated the type in some of the Father Brown stories. In The Club of Queer Trades, the transcendental detective is Basil Grant, to describe whom with accuracy is difficult, because of his author's inconsistencies. Basil Grant, for instance, is "a man who scarcely stirred out of his attic," yet it would appear elsewhere that he walked abroad often enough. The essentials of this unprecedented detective are, however, sufficiently tangible. He had been a K.C. and a judge. He had left the Bench because it annoyed him, and because he held the very human but not legitimate belief that some criminals would be better off with a trip to the seaside than with a sentence of imprisonment. After his retirement from public life he stuck to his old trade as the judge of a Voluntary Criminal Court. "My criminals were tried for the faults which really make social life impossible. They were tried before me for selfishness, or for an impossible vanity, or for scandal-mongering, or for stinginess to guests or dependents." It is regrettable that Chesterton does not grant us a glimpse of this fascinating tribunal at work. However, it is Grant's job, on the strength of which he becomes the president and founder of the C.Q.T.—Club of Queer Trades. Among the members of this Club are a gentleman who runs an Adventure and Romance Agency for supplying thrills to the bourgeois, two Professional Detainers, and an Agent for Arboreal Villas, who lets off a variety of birds' nest. The way in which these people go about their curious tasks invariably suggests a crime to Rupert Grant, Basil's amateur detective brother, whereupon Basil has to intervene to put matters right. The author does not appear to have been struck by the inconsistency of setting Basil to work to ferret out the doings of his fellow club-members. The book is, in fact, full of joyous inconsistencies. The Agent for Arboreal Villas is clearly unqualified for the membership of the Club. Professor Chadd has no business there either. He is elected on the strength of having invented a language expressed by dancing, but it appears that he is really an employee in the Asiatic MSS. Department of the British Museum. Things are extremely absurd in The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady. At the instigation of Rupert, who has heard sighs of pain coming out of a South Kensington basement, Basil, Rupert, and the man who tells the story, break into the house and violently assault those whom they meet.

Basil sprang up with dancing eyes, and with three blows like battering-rams knocked the footman into a cocked hat. Then he sprang on top of Burrows, with one antimacassar in his hand and another in his teeth, and bound him hand and foot almost before he knew clearly that his head had struck the floor. Then Basil sprang at Greenwood . . . etc. etc.

There is a good deal more like this. Having taken the citadel and captured the defenders (as Caesar might say), Basil and company reach the sighing lady of the basement. But she refuses to be released. Whereupon Basil explains his own queer trade, and that the lady is voluntarily undergoing a sentence for backbiting. No explanation is vouchsafed of the strange behaviour of Basil Grant in attacking men who, as he knew, were doing nothing they should not. Presumably it was due to a Chestertonian theory that there should be at least one good physical fight in each book.

It will be seen that The Club of Queer Trades tends to curl up somewhat (quite literally, in the sense that the end comes almost where the beginning ought to be) when it receives heavy and serious treatment. I should therefore explain that this serious treatment has been given under protest, and that its primary intention has been to deal with those well-meaning critics who believe that Chesterton can write fiction, in the ordinary sense of the word. His own excellent definition of fictitious narrative (in The Victorian Age in Literature) is that essentially "the story is told . . . for the sake of some study of the difference between human beings." This alone is enough to exculpate him of the charge of writing novels. The Chestertonian short story is also in its way unique. If we applied the methods of the Higher Criticism to the story just described, we might base all manner of odd theories upon the defeat (inter alios) of Burrows, a big and burly youth, by Basil Grant, aged sixty at the very least, and armed with antimacassars. But there is no necessity. If Chesterton invents a fantastic world, full of fantastic people who speak Chestertonese, then he is quite entitled to waive any trifling conventions which hinder the liberty of his subjects. As already pointed out, such is his humour. The only disadvantage, as somebody once complained of the Arabian Nights, is that one is apt to lose one's interest in a hero who is liable at any moment to turn into a camel. None of Chesterton's heroes do, as a matter of fact, become camels, but I would nevertheless strongly advise any young woman about to marry one of them to take out an insurance policy against unforeseen transformations.

Although it appears that a few reviewers went to the length of reading the whole of The Man who was Thursday (1908), it is obvious by their subsequent guesswork that they did not notice the second part of the title, which is, very simply, A Nightmare. The story takes its name from the Supreme Council of Anarchists, which has seven members, named after the days of the week. Sunday is the Chairman. The others, one after the other, turn out to be detectives. Syme, the nearest approach to the what might be called the hero, is a poet whom mysterious hands thrust into an Anarchists' meeting, at which he is elected to fill the vacancy caused by the death of last Thursday. A little earlier other mysterious hands had taken him into a dark room in Scotland Yard where the voice of an unseen man had told him that henceforth he was a member of the anti-anarchist corps, a new body which was to deal with the new anarchists—not the comparatively harmless people who threw bombs, but the intellectual anarchist. "We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher," somebody explains to him. The bewildered Syme walks straight into further bewilderments, as, one after the other, the week-days of the committee are revealed. But who is Sunday? Chesterton makes no reply. It was he who in a darkened room of Scotland Yard had enrolled the detectives. He is the Nightmare of the story. The first few chapters are perfectly straightforward, and lifelike to the extent of describing personal details in a somewhat exceptional manner for Chesterton. But, gradually, wilder and wilder things begin to happen—until, at last, Syme wakes up.

The trouble about The Man who was Thursday is not its incomprehensibility, but its author's gradual decline of interest in the book as it lengthened out. It begins excellently. There is real humour and a good deal of it in the earlier stages of Syme. And there are passages like this one on the "lawless modern philosopher":

Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. . . . Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage.

But his amiable flow of paradox soon runs out. The end of the book is just a wild whirl, a nightmare with a touch of the cinematograph. People chase one another, in one instance they quite literally chase themselves. And the ending has all the effect of a damaged film that cannot be stopped, on the large blank spaces of which some idiot has been drawing absurd pictures which appear on the screen, to the confusion of the story. One remembers the immense and dominating figure of Sunday, only because the description of him reads very much like a description of Chesterton himself. But if the person is recognizable, the personality remains deliberately incomprehensible. He is just an outline in space, who rode down Albany Street on an elephant abducted from the Zoological Gardens, and who spoke sadly to his guests when they had run their last race against him.

Until recent years the word mysticism was sufficiently true to its derivation to imply mystery, the relation of God to man. But since the cheaper sort of journalist seized hold of the unhappy word, its demoralization has been complete. It now indicates, generally speaking, an intellectual defect which expresses itself in a literary quality one can only call woolliness. There is a genuine mysticism, expressed in Blake's lines:

To see the world in a grain of sand And a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

And there is a spurious mysticism, meaningless rubbish of which Rossetti's Sister Helen is a specimen. What could be more idiotic than the verse:

"He has made a sign and called Halloo! Sister Helen, And he says that he would speak with you." "Oh tell him I fear the frozen dew, Little brother." (O Mother, Mary Mother, Why laughs she thus between Hell and Heaven?)

The trouble about the latter variety is its extreme simplicity. Anybody with the gift of being able to make lines scan and rhyme can produce similar effects in a similar way. Hence the enormous temptation exercised by this form of mysticism gone wrong. There is a naughty little story of a little girl, relating to her mother the mishaps of the family coal merchant, as seen from the dining-room window. He slipped on a piece of orange-peel, the child had explained. "And what happened then?" "Why, mummy, he sat down on the pavement and talked about God." Chesterton (and he is not alone in this respect) behaves exactly like this coal-heaver. When he is at a loss, he talks about God. In each case one is given to suspect that the invocation is due to a temporarily overworked imagination.

This leads us to The Ball and the Cross (1906). In The Man who was Thursday, when the author had tired of his story, he brought in the universe at large. But its successor is dominated by God, and discussions on him by beings celestial, terrestrial, and merely infernal. And yet The Ball and the Cross is in many respects Chesterton's greatest novel. The first few chapters are things of joy. There is much said in them about religion, but it is all sincere and bracing. The first chapter consists, in the main, of a dialogue on religion, between Professor Lucifer, the inventor and the driver of an eccentric airship, and Father Michael, a theologian acquired by the Professor in Western Bulgaria. As the airship dives into the ball and the cross of Saint Paul's Cathedral, its passengers naturally find themselves taking a deep interest in the cross, considered as symbol and anchor. Lucifer plumps for the ball, the symbol of all that is rational and united. The cross

"is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. . . . The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms." Michael replies, "But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen."

Defeated on points, Lucifer leaves the Father clinging literally to the cross and flies away. Michael meets a policeman on the upper gallery and is conducted downwards. The scene changes to Ludgate Circus, but Michael is no longer in the centre of it. A Scot named Turnbull keeps a shop here, apparently in the endeavour to counterbalance the influence of St. Paul's across the way. He is an atheist, selling atheist literature, editing an atheist paper. Another Scot arrives, young Evan MacIan, straight from the Highlands. Unlike the habitual Londoner, MacIan takes the little shop seriously. In its window he sees a copy of The Atheist, the leading article of which contains an insult to the Virgin Mary. MacIan thereupon puts his stick through the window. Turnbull comes out, there is a scuffle, and both are arrested and taken before a Dickensian magistrate. The sketch of Mr. Cumberland Vane is very pleasing: it is clear that the author knew what he was copying. Lord Melbourne is alleged to have said, "No one has more respect for the Christian religion than I have; but really, when it comes to intruding it into private life. . . ." Mr. Vane felt much the same way when he heard MacIan's simple explanation: "He is my enemy. He is the enemy of God." He said, "It is most undesirable that things of that sort should be spoken about—a—in public, and in an ordinary Court of Justice. Religion is—a—too personal a matter to be mentioned in such a place." However, MacIan is fined. After which he and Turnbull, as men of honour, buy themselves swords and proceed to fight the matter out. With interruptions due to argument and the police, the fight lasts several weeks. Turnbull and MacIan fight in the back garden of the man from whom they bought the swords,[1] until the police intervene. They escape the police and gain the Northern Heights of London, and fight once more, with a madness renewed and stimulated by the peace-making efforts of a stray and silly Tolstoyan. Then the police come again, and are once more outdistanced. This time mortal combat is postponed on account of the sanguinolence of a casual lunatic who worshipped blood to such a nauseating extent that the duellists deferred operations in order to chase him into a pond. Then follows an interminable dialogue, paradoxical, thoroughly Shavian, while the only two men in England to whom God literally is a matter of life and death find that they begin to regard the slaughter of one by the other as an unpleasant duty. Again they fight and are separated. They are motored by a lady to the Hampshire coast, and there they fight on the sands until the rising tide cuts them off. An empty boat turns up to rescue them from drowning; in it they reach one of the Channel Islands. Again they fight, and again the police come. They escape from them, but remain on the island in disguise, and make themselves an opportunity to pick a quarrel and so fight a duel upon a matter in keeping with local prejudice. But Turnbull has fallen in love. His irritatingly calm and beautiful devotee argues with him on religion until he is driven to cast off his disguise. Then the police are on his tracks again. A lunatic lends Turnbull and MacIan his yacht and so the chase continues. But by this time Chesterton is getting just a trifle bored. He realizes that no matter how many adventures his heroes get into, or how many paradoxes they fling down each other's throats, the end of the story, the final inevitable end which alone makes a series of rapid adventures worth while, is not even on the horizon. An element of that spurious mysticism already described invades the book. It begins to be clear that Chesterton is trying to drag in a moral somehow, if need be, by the hair of its head. The two yachters spend two weeks of geographical perplexity and come to a desert island. They land, but think it wiser, on the whole, to postpone fighting until they have finished the champagne and cigars with which their vessel is liberally stored. This takes a week. Just as they are about to begin the definitive duel they discover that they are not upon a desert island at all, they are near Margate. And the police are there, too. So once more they are chased. They land in a large garden in front of an old gentleman who assures them that he is God. He turns out to be a lunatic, and the place an asylum. There follows a characteristic piece of that abuse of science for which Chesterton has never attempted to suggest a substitute. MacIan and Turnbull find themselves prisoners, unable to get out. Then they dream dreams. Each sees himself in an aeroplane flying over Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, where a battle is raging. But the woolly element is very pronounced by this time, and we can make neither head nor tail of these dreams and the conversations which accompany them. The duellists are imprisoned for a month in horrible cells. They find their way into the garden, and are told that all England is now in the hands of the alienists, by a new Act of Parliament: this has been the only possible manner of putting a stop to the revolution started by MacIan and Turnbull. These two find all the persons they had met with during their odyssey, packed away in the asylum, which is a wonderful place worked by petroleum machinery. But the matter-of-fact grocer from the Channel Island, regarding the whole affair as an infringement of the Rights of Man, sets the petroleum alight. Michael, the celestial being who had appeared in the first chapter and disappeared at the end of it, is dragged out of a cell in an imbecile condition. Lucifer comes down in his airship to collect the doctors, whose bodies he drops out, a little later on. The buildings vanish in the flames, the keepers bolt, the inmates talk about their souls. MacIan is reunited to the lady of the Channel Island, and the story ends.

When a stone has been tossed into a pond, the ripples gradually and symmetrically grow smaller. A Chesterton novel is like an adventurous voyage of discovery, which begins on smooth water and is made with the object of finding the causes of the ripples. As ripple succeeds ripple—or chapter follows chapter—so we have to keep a tighter hold on such tangible things as are within our reach. Finally we reach the centre of the excitement and are either sucked into a whirlpool, or hit on the head with a stone. When we recover consciousness we feebly remember we have had a thrilling journey and that we had started out with a misapprehension of the quality of Chestertonian fiction. A man whose memory is normal should be able to give an accurate synopsis of a novel six months after he has read it. But I should be greatly surprised if any reader of The Ball and the Cross could tell exactly what it was all about, within a month or two of reading it. The discontinuity of it makes one difficulty; the substitution of paradox for incident makes another. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conviction that this novel will survive its day and the generation that begot it. If it was Chesterton's endeavour (as one is bound to suspect) to show that the triumph of atheism would lead to the triumph of a callous and inhuman body of scientists, then he has failed miserably. But if he was attempting to prove that the uncertainties of religion were trivial things when compared with the uncertainties of atheism, then the verdict must be reversed. The dialogues on religion contained in The Ball and the Cross are alone enough and more than enough to place it among the few books on religion which could be safely placed in the hands of an atheist or an agnostic with an intelligence.

If we consider Manalive (1912) now we shall be departing from strict chronological order, as it was preceded by The Innocence of Father Brown. It will, however, be more satisfactory to take the two Father Brown books together. In the first of these and Manalive, a change can be distinctly felt. It is not a simple weakening of the power of employing instruments, such as befell Ibsen when, after writing The Lady from the Sea, he could no longer keep his symbols and his characters apart. It is a more subtle change, a combination of several small changes, which cannot be studied fairly in relation only to one side of Chesterton's work. In the last chapter an attempt will be made to analyze these, for the present I can only indicate some of the fallings-off noticeable in Manalive, and leave it at that. Chesterton's previous romances were not constructed, the reader may have gathered, with that minute attention to detail which makes some modern novels read like the report of a newly promoted detective. But a man may do such things and yet be considered spotless. Shakespeare, after all, went astray on several points of history and geography. The authors of the Old Testament talked about "the hare that cheweth the cud." And, if any reader should fail to see the application of these instances to modern fiction, I can only recommend him to read Vanity Fair and find out how many children had the Rev. Bute Crawley, and what were their names. No, the trouble with Manalive is not in its casual, happy-go-lucky construction. It is rather in a certain lack of ease, a tendency to exaggerate effects, a continual stirring up of inconsiderable points. But let us come to the story.

There is a boarding-house situated on one of the summits of the Northern Heights. A great wind happens, and a large man, quite literally, blows in. His name is Innocent Smith and he is naturally considered insane. But he is really almost excessively sane. His presence makes life at the house a sort of holiday for the inmates, male and female. Smith is about to run for a special licence in order to marry one of the women in the house, and the other boarders have just paired off when a telegram posted by one of the ladies in a misapprehension brings two lunacy experts around in a cab. Smith adds to the excitement of the moment by putting a couple of bullets through a doctor's hat.

Now Smith is what somebody calls "an allegorical practical joker." But Chesterton gives a better description of him than that.

He's comic just because he's so startlingly commonplace. Don't you know what it is to be in all one family circle, with aunts and uncles, when a schoolboy comes home for the holidays? That bag there on the cab is only a schoolboy's hamper. This tree here in the garden is only the sort of tree that any schoolboy would have climbed. Yes, that's the sort of thing that has haunted us all about him, the thing we could never fit a word to. Whether he is my old schoolfellow or no, at least he is all my old schoolfellows. He is the endless bun-eating, ball-throwing animal that we have all been.

Innocent has an idea about every few minutes, but so far as the book is concerned we need mention only one of them. That one is—local autonomy for Beacon House. This may be recommended as a game to be played en famille. Establish a High Court, call in a legal member, and get a constitution. The rest will be very hilarious. The legal member of the Beacon House menage is an Irish ex-barrister, one Michael Moon, who plans as follows:

The High Court of Beacon, he declared, was a splendid example of our free and sensible constitution. It had been founded by King John in defiance of Magna Carta, and now held absolute power over windmills, wine and spirit licences, ladies travelling in Turkey, revision of sentences for dog-stealing and parricide, as well as anything whatever that happened in the town of Market Bosworth. The whole hundred and nine seneschals of the High Court of Beacon met about once in every four centuries; but in the intervals (as Mr. Moon explained) the whole powers of the institution were vested in Mrs. Duke [the landlady]. Tossed about among the rest of the company, however, the High Court did not retain its historical and legal seriousness, but was used somewhat unscrupulously in a riot of domestic detail. If somebody spilt the Worcester Sauce on the tablecloth, he was quite sure it was a rite without which the sittings and findings of the Court would be invalid; and if somebody wanted a window to remain shut, he would suddenly remember that none but the third son of the lord of the manor of Penge had the right to open it. They even went the length of making arrests and conducting criminal inquiries.

Before this tribunal Innocent Smith is brought. One alienist is an American, who is quite prepared to acknowledge its jurisdiction, being by reason of his nationality not easily daunted by mere constitutional queerness. The other doctor, being the prosecutor and a boarder, has no choice in the matter. The doctors, it should be added, have brought with them a mass of documentary evidence, incriminating Smith.

How the defence has time to collect this evidence is not explained, but this is just one of the all-important details which do not matter in the Chestertonian plane. Smith is tried for attempted murder. The prosecution fails because the evidence shows Smith to be a first-class shot, who has on occasion fired life into people by frightening them. Then he is tried for burglary on the basis of a clergyman's letter from which it is gathered that Smith tried one night to induce him and another cleric to enter a house burglariously in the dark. This charge breaks down because a letter is produced from the other clergyman who did actually accompany Smith over housetops and down through trap-doors—into his own house! Smith, it is explained, is in the habit of keeping himself awake to the romance and wonder of everyday existence by such courses. From the second letter, however, it appears that there is a Mrs. Smith, so the next charge is one of desertion and attempted bigamy. A series of documents is produced, from persons in France, Russia, China, and California recounting conversations with Smith, a man with a garden-rake, who left his house so that he might find it, and at the end leapt over the hedge into the garden where Mrs. Smith was having tea. In the words of the servant "he looked round at the garden and said, very loud and strong: 'Oh, what a lovely place you've got,' just as if he'd never seen it before." After which the court proceeds to try Smith on a polygamy charge. Documentary evidence shows that Smith has at one time or another married a Miss Green, a Miss Brown, a Miss Black, just as he is now about to marry a Miss Gray, Moon points out that these are all the same lady. Innocent Smith has merely broken the conventions, he has religiously kept the commandments. He has burgled his own house, and married his own wife. He has been perfectly innocent, and therefore he has been perfectly merry. Innocent is acquitted, and the book ends.

In the course of Manalive, somebody says, "Going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already." These are the words of an overworked epigrammatist, and upon them hangs the whole story. If Manalive is amusing, it is because Chesterton has a style which could make even a debilitated paradox of great length seem amusing. The book has a few gorgeous passages. Among the documents read at the trial of Innocent Smith, for example, is a statement made by a Trans-Siberian station-master, which is a perfectly exquisite burlesque at the expense of the Russian intelligenzia. The whole series of documents, in fact, are delightful bits of self-expression on the part of a very varied team of selves. While Chesterton is able to turn out such things we must be content to take the page, and not the story, as his unit of work. Manalive, by the way, is the first of the author's stories in which women are represented as talking to one another. Chesterton seems extraordinarily shy with his feminine characters. He is a little afraid of woman. "The average woman is a despot, the average man is a serf."[2] Mrs. Innocent Smith's view of men is in keeping with this peculiar notion. "At certain curious times they're just fit to take care of us, and they're never fit to take care of themselves." Smith is the Chestertonian Parsifal, just as Prince Muishkin is Dostoievsky's.

The transcendental type of detective, first sketched out in The Club of Queer Trades, is developed more fully in the two Father Brown books. In the little Roman priest who has such a wonderful instinct for placing the diseased spots in people's souls, we have Chesterton's completest and most human creation. Yet, with all their cleverness, and in spite of the fact that from internal evidence it is almost blatantly obvious that the author enjoyed writing these stories, they bear marks which put the books on a lower plane than either The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Ball and the Cross. In the latter book Chesterton spoke of "the mere healthy and heathen horror of the unclean; the mere inhuman hatred of the inhuman state of madness." His own critical work had been a long protest against the introduction of artificial horrors, a plea for sanity and the exercise of sanity. But in The Innocence of Father Brown these principles, almost the fundamental ones of literary decency, were put on the shelf. Chesterton's criminals are lunatics, perhaps it is his belief that crime and insanity are inseparable. But even if this last supposition is correct, its approval would not necessarily license the introduction of some of the characters. There is Israel Gow, who suffers from a peculiar mania which drives him to collect gold from places seemly and unseemly, even to the point of digging up a corpse in order to extract the gold filling from its teeth. There is the insane French Chief of Police, who commits a murder and attempts to disguise the body, and the nature of the crime, by substituting the head of a guillotined criminal for that of the victim. In another story we have the picture of a cheerful teetotaller who suffers from drink and suicidal mania. There is also a doctor who kills a mad poet, and a mad priest who drops a hammer from the top of his church-tower upon his brother. Another story is about the loathsome treachery of an English general. It is, of course, difficult to write about crime without touching on features which revolt the squeamish reader, but it can be done, and it has been done, as in the Sherlock Holmes stories. There are subjects about which one instinctively feels it is not good to know too much. Sex, for example, is one of them. Strindberg, Weininger, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, knew too much about sex, and they all went mad, although it is usual to disguise the fact in the less familiar terms of medical science. Madness itself is another such subject. There are writers who dwell on madness because they cannot help themselves—Strindberg, Edgar Allan Poe, Gogol, and many others—but they scarcely produce the same nauseating sensation as the sudden introduction of the note of insanity into a hitherto normal setting. The harnessing of the horror into which the discovery of insanity reacts is a favourite device of the feeble craftsman, but it is illegitimate. It is absolutely opposed to those elementary canons of good taste which decree that we may not jest at the expense of certain things, either because they are too sacred or not sacred enough. The opposite of a decadent author is not necessarily a writer who attacks decadents. Many decadents have attacked themselves, by committing suicide, for example. The opposite of a decadent author is one to whom decadent ideas and imagery are alien, which is a very different thing. For example, the whole story The Wrong Shape is filled with decadent ideas; one is sure that Baudelaire would have entirely approved of it. It includes a decadent poet, living in wildly Oriental surroundings, attended by a Hindoo servant. Even the air of the place is decadent; Father Brown on entering the house learns instinctively from it that a crime is to be committed.

Considered purely as detective stories, these cannot be granted a very good mark. There is scarcely a story that has not a serious flaw in it. A man—Flambeau, of whom more later—gains admittance to a small and select dinner party and almost succeeds in stealing the silver, by the device of turning up and pretending to be a guest when among the waiters, and a waiter when among the guests. But it is not explained what he did during the first two courses of that dinner, when he obviously had to be either a waiter or a guest, and could not keep up both parts, as when the guests were arriving. Another man, a "Priest of Apollo," is worshipping the sun on the top of a "sky-scraping" block of offices in Westminster, while a woman falls down a lift-shaft and is killed. Father Brown immediately concludes that the priest is guilty of the murder because, had he been unprepared, he would have started and looked round at the scream and the crash of the victim falling. But a man absorbed in prayer on, let us say, a tenth floor, is, in point of fact, quite unlikely to hear a crash in the basement, or a scream even nearer to him. But the most astonishing thing about The Eye of Apollo is the staging. In order to provide the essentials, Mr. Chesterton has to place "the heiress of a crest and half a county, as well as great wealth," who is blind, in a typist's office! The collocation is somewhat too singular. One might go right through the Father Brown stories in this manner. But, if the reader wishes to draw the maximum of enjoyment out of them, he will do nothing of the sort. He will believe, as fervently as Alfred de Vigny, that L'Idee C'est Tout, and lay down all petty regard for detail at the feet of Father Brown. This little Roman cleric has listened to so many confessions (he calls himself "a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins," but this seems to be excessive, even for a Roman Catholic) that he is really well acquainted with the human soul. He is also extremely observant. And his greatest friend is Flambeau, whom he once brings to judgment, twice hinders in crime, and thenceforward accompanies on detective expeditions.

The Innocence of Father Brown had a sequel, The Wisdom of Father Brown, distinctly less effective, as sequels always are, than the predecessor. But the underlying ideas are the same. In the first place there is a deep detestation of "Science" (whatever that is) and the maintenance of the theory incarnate in Father Brown, that he who can read the human soul knows all things. The detestation of science (of which, one gathers, Chesterton knows nothing) is carried to the same absurd length as in The Ball and the Cross. In the very first story, Father Brown calls on a criminologist ostensibly in order to consult him, actually in order to show the unfortunate man, who had retired from business fourteen years ago, what an extraordinary fool he was.

The Father Brown of these stories—moon-faced little man—is a peculiar creation. No other author would have taken the trouble to excogitate him, and then treat him so badly. As a detective he never gets a fair chance. He is always on the spot when a murder is due to be committed, generally speaking he is there before time. When an absconding banker commits suicide under peculiar circumstances in Italian mountains, when a French publicist advertises himself by fighting duels with himself (very nearly), when a murder is committed in the dressing-room corridor of a theatre, when a miser and blackmailer kills himself, when a lunatic admiral attempts murder and then commits suicide, when amid much incoherence a Voodoo murder takes place, when somebody tries to kill a colonel by playing on his superstitions (and by other methods), and when a gentleman commits suicide from envy, Father Brown is always there. One might almost interpret the Father Brown stories by suggesting that their author had written them in order to illustrate the sudden impetus given to murder and suicide by the appearance of a Roman priest.

Here we may suspend our reviews of Chestertonian romance. There remains yet The Flying Inn, which shall be duly considered along with the other debris of its author. In summing up, it may be said of Chesterton that at his best he invented new possibilities of romance and a new and hearty laugh. It may be said of the decadents of the eighteen nineties, that if their motto wasn't "Let's all go bad," it should have been. So one may say of Chesterton that if he has not selected "Let's all go mad" as a text, he should have done. Madness, in the Chestertonian, whatever it is in the pathological sense, is a defiance of convention, a loosening of visible bonds in order to show the strength of the invisible ones; perhaps, as savages are said to regard lunatics with great respect, holding them to be nearer the Deity than most, so Chesterton believes of his own madmen. Innocent Smith, of course, the simple fool, the blithering idiot, is a truly wise man.


[1] Chesterton jeers at this man's "Scottish" ancestry because his surname was Gordon and he was obviously a Jew. The author is probably unaware that there are large numbers of Jews bearing that name in Russia. If he had made his Jew call himself Macpherson, the case would have been different.

[2] All Things Considered, p. 106.



CHESTERTON'S only play, Magic, was written at the suggestion of Mr. Kenelm Foss and produced by him in November, 1913, at the Little Theatre, where it enjoyed a run of more than one hundred performances. This charming thing does not make one wish that Chesterton was an habitual playwright, for one feels that Magic was a sort of tank into which its author's dramatic talents had been draining for many years—although, in actual fact, Chesterton allowed newspaper interviewers to learn that the play had been written in a very short space of time. His religious ideas were expressed in Magic with great neatness. Most perhaps of all his works this is a quotable production.

Patricia Carleon, a niece of the Duke, her guardian, is in the habit of wandering about his grounds seeing fairies. On the night when her brother Morris is expected to return from America she is having a solitary moonlight stroll when she sees a Stranger, "a cloaked figure with a pointed hood," which last almost covers his face. She naturally asks him what he is doing there. He replies, mapping out the ground with his staff:

I have a hat, but not to wear; I have a sword, but not to slay; And ever in my bag I bear A pack of cards, but not to play.

This, he tells her, is the language of fairies. He tells her that fairies are not small things, but quite the reverse. After a few sentences have been spoken the prologue comes to an end, and the curtain rises upon the scene of the play, the drawing-room of the Duke. Here is seated the Rev. Cyril Smith, a young clergyman, "an honest man and not an ass." To him enters the Duke's Secretary, to tell him the Duke is engaged at the moment, but will be down shortly. He is followed by Dr. Grimthorpe, an elderly agnostic, the red lamp of whose house can be seen through the open French windows. Smith is erecting a model public-house in the village, and has come to ask the Duke for a contribution towards the cost. Grimthorpe is getting up a league for opposing the erection of the new public-house, and has also come to the Duke for help. They discover the nature of each other's errand. Smith's case is, "How can the Church have a right to make men fast if she does not allow them to feast?"; Grimthorpe's, that alcohol is not a food. The Duke's Secretary enters and gives Smith a cheque for L50, then he gives the Doctor another—also for L50. This is the first glimpse we have of the Duke's eccentricity, an excessive impartiality based on the theory that everybody "does a great deal of good in his own way," and on sheer absence of mind—an absence which sometimes is absolutely literal. The Doctor explains in confidence to the Clergyman that there is something wrong about the family of Patricia and Morris, who are of Irish origin. . . . "They saw fairies and things of that sort."

SMITH. And I suppose, to the medical mind, seeing fairies means much the same as seeing snakes?

DOCTOR. [With a sour smile.] Well, they saw them in Ireland. I suppose it's quite correct to see fairies in Ireland. It's like gambling at Monte Carlo. It's quite respectable. But I do draw the line at their seeing fairies in England. I do object to their bringing their ghosts and goblins and witches into the poor Duke's own back garden and within a yard of my own red lamp. It shows a lack of tact.

Patricia, moreover, wanders about the park and the woods in the evenings. "Damp evenings for choice. She calls it the Celtic twilight. I've no use for the Celtic twilight myself. It has a tendency to get on the chest." The Duke, annoyed by this love of fairies, has blundered, in his usual way, on an absurd compromise between the real and the ideal. A conjuror is to come that very night. When explanations have gone so far, the Duke at last makes his entry. The stage directions tell us that "in the present state of the peerage it is necessary to explain that the Duke, though an ass, is a gentleman." His thoughts are the most casual on earth. He is always being reminded of something or somebody which has nothing to do with the case. As for instance, "I saw the place you're putting up . . . Mr. Smith. Very good work. Very good work, indeed. Art for the people, eh? I particularly liked that woodwork over the west door—I'm glad to see you're using the new sort of graining . . . why, it all reminds one of the French Revolution." After one or two dissociations of this sort, the expected Morris Carleon enters through the French window; he is rather young and excitable, and America has overlaid the original Irishman. Morris immediately asks for Patricia and is told that she is wandering in the garden. The Duke lets out that she sees fairies; Morris raves a bit about his sister being allowed out alone with anything in the nature of a man, when Patricia herself enters. She is in a slightly exalted state; she has just seen her fairy, him of the pointed hood. Morris, of course, is furious, not to say suspicious.

DOCTOR. [Putting his hand on MORRIS'S shoulder.] Come, you must allow a little more for poetry. We can't all feed on nothing but petrol.

DUKE. Quite right, quite right. And being Irish, don't you know, Celtic, as old Buffle used to say, charming songs, you know, about the Irish girl who has a plaid shawl—and a Banshee. [Sighs profoundly.] Poor old Gladstone! [Silence.]

SMITH. [Speaking to DOCTOR.] I thought you yourself considered the family superstition bad for the health?

DOCTOR. I consider a family superstition is better for the health than a family quarrel.

A figure is seen to stand in front of the red lamp, blotting it out for a moment. Patricia calls to it, and the cloaked Stranger with the pointed hood enters. Morris at once calls him a fraud.

SMITH. [Quickly.] Pardon me, I do not fancy that we know that. . . .

MORRIS. I didn't know you parsons stuck up for any fables but your own.

SMITH. I stick up for the thing every man has a right to. Perhaps the only thing every man has a right to.

MORRIS. And what is that?

SMITH. The benefit of the doubt.

Morris returns to the attack. The Stranger throws off his hood and reveals himself to the Duke. He is the Conjuror, ready for the evening's performance. All laugh at this denouement, except Patricia, between whom and the Conjuror this bit of dialogue ensues:

STRANGER. [Very sadly.] I am very sorry I am not a wizard.

PATRICIA. I wish you were a thief instead.

STRANGER. Have I committed a worse crime than thieving?

PATRICIA. You have committed the cruellest crime, I think, that there is.

STRANGER. And what is the cruellest crime?

PATRICIA. Stealing a child's toy.

STRANGER. And what have I stolen?

PATRICIA. A fairy tale.

And the curtain falls upon the First Act.

An hour later the room is being prepared for the performance. The Conjuror is setting out his tricks, and the Duke is entangling him and the Secretary in his peculiar conversation. The following is characteristic:

THE SECRETARY. . . . The only other thing at all urgent is the Militant Vegetarians.

DUKE. Ah! The Militant Vegetarians! You've heard of them, I'm sure. Won't obey the law [to the CONJUROR] so long as the Government serves out meat.

CONJUROR. Let them be comforted. There are a good many people who don't get much meat.

DUKE. Well, well, I'm bound to say they're very enthusiastic. Advanced, too—oh, certainly advanced. Like Joan of Arc.

[Short silence, in which the CONJUROR stares at him.]

CONJUROR. Was Joan of Arc a Vegetarian?

DUKE. Oh, well, it's a very high ideal, after all. The Sacredness of Life, you know—the Sacredness of Life. [Shakes his head.] But they carry it too far. They killed a policeman down in Kent.

This conversation goes on for some time, while nothing in particular happens, except that the audience feels very happy. The Duke asks the Conjuror several questions, receiving thoroughly Chestertonian answers. ["Are you interested in modern progress?" "Yes. We are interested in all tricks done by illusion."] At last the Conjuror is left alone. Patricia enters. He attempts to excuse himself for the theft of the fairy tale. He has had a troublesome life, and has never enjoyed "a holiday in Fairyland." So, when he, with his hood up, because of the slight rain, was surprised by Patricia, as he was rehearsing his patter, and taken for a fairy, he played up to her. Patricia is inclined to forgive him, but the conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Morris, in a mood to be offensive. He examines the apparatus, proclaims the way it is worked, and after a while breaks out into a frenzy of free thought, asking the universe in general and the Conjuror in particular for "that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes." The Clergyman and the Doctor enter, and the conversation turns on religion, and then goes back to the tricks. Morris is still extremely quarrelsome, and for the second time has to be quieted down. The Conjuror is dignified, but cutting. The whole scene has been, so far, a discussion on Do Miracles Happen? Smith makes out a case in the affirmative, arguing from the false to the true. Suppose, as Morris claims, the "modern conjuring tricks are simply the old miracles when they have once been found out. . . . When we speak of things being sham, we generally mean that they are imitations of things that are genuine." Morris gets more and more excited, and continues to insult the Conjuror. At last he shouts . . . "You'll no more raise your Saints and Prophets from the dead than you'll raise the Duke's great-grandfather to dance on that wall." At which the Reynolds portrait in question sways slightly from side to side. Morris turns furiously to the Conjuror, accusing him of trickery. A chair falls over, for no apparent cause, still further exciting the youth. At last he blurts out a challenge. The Doctor's red lamp is the lamp of science. No power on earth could change its colour. And the red light turns blue, for a minute. Morris, absolutely puzzled, comes literally to his wits' end, and rushes out, followed shortly afterwards by his sister and the Doctor. The youth is put to bed, and left in the care of Patricia, while the Doctor and the Clergyman return to their argument. Smith makes out a strong case for belief, for simple faith, a case which sounds strangely, coming from the lips of a clergyman of the Church of England.

DOCTOR. Weren't there as many who believed passionately in Apollo?

SMITH. And what harm came of believing in Apollo? And what a mass of harm may have come of not believing in Apollo? Does it never strike you that doubt can be a madness, as well be faith? That asking questions may be a disease, as well as proclaiming doctrines? You talk of religious mania! Is there no such thing as irreligious mania? Is there no such thing in the house at this moment?

DOCTOR. Then you think no one should question at all?

SMITH. [With passion, pointing to the next room.] I think that is what comes of questioning! Why can't you leave the universe alone and let it mean what it likes? Why shouldn't the thunder be Jupiter? More men have made themselves silly by wondering what the devil it was if it wasn't Jupiter.

DOCTOR. [Looking at him.] Do you believe in your own religion?

SMITH. [Returning the look equally steadily.] Suppose I don't: I should still be a fool to question it. The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night's rest.

DOCTOR. You are a Pragmatist.

SMITH. That is what the lawyers call vulgar abuse. But I do appeal to practice. Here is a family over which you tell me a mental calamity hovers. Here is the boy who questions everything and a girl who can believe anything. Upon whom has the curse fallen?

At this point the curtain was made to fall on the Second Act. The Third and last Act takes place in the same room a few hours later. The Conjuror has packed his bag, and is going. The Doctor has been sitting up with the patient. Morris is in a more or less delirious state, and is continually asking how the trick was done. The Doctor believes that the explanation would satisfy the patient and would probably help him to turn the corner. But the Conjuror will not provide an explanation. He has many reasons, the most practical of which is that he would not be believed. The Duke comes in and tries to make a business matter of the secret, even to the extent of paying L2000 for it. Suddenly the Conjuror changes his mind. He will tell them how the trick was done, it was all very simple. "It is the simplest thing in the world. That is why you will not laugh. . . . I did it by magic." The Doctor and the Duke are dumbfounded. Smith intervenes; he cannot accept the explanation. The Conjuror lets himself go, now he is voicing Chesterton's views. The clergyman who merely believes in belief, as Smith does, will not do. He must believe in a fact, which is far more difficult.

CONJUROR. I say these things are supernatural. I say this is done by a spirit. The doctor does not believe me. He is an agnostic; and he knows everything. The Duke does not believe me; he cannot believe anything so plain as a miracle. But what the devil are you for, if you don't believe in a miracle? What does your coat mean if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as the supernatural? What does your cursed collar mean if it doesn't mean that there is such a thing as a spirit? [Exasperated.] Why the devil do you dress up like that if you don't believe in it? [With violence.] Or perhaps you don't believe in devils?

SMITH. I believe . . . [After a pause.] I wish I could believe.

CONJUROR. Yes. I wish I could disbelieve.

Here Patricia enters. She wants to speak to the Conjuror, with whom she is left alone. A little love scene takes place: rather the result of two slightly sentimental and rather tired persons of different sexes being left alone than anything else. But they return to realities, with an effort. Patricia, too, wants to know how the trick was done, in order to tell her brother. He tells her, but she is of the world which cannot believe in devils, even although it may manage to accept fairies as an inevitable adjunct to landscape scenery by moonlight. In order to convince her the Conjuror tells her how he fell, how after dabbling in spiritualism he found he had lost control over himself. But he had resisted the temptation to make the devils his servants, until the impudence of Morris had made him lose his temper. Then he goes out into the garden to see if he can find some explanation to give Morris. The Duke, Smith, the Doctor, and the Secretary drift into the room, which is now tenanted by something impalpable but horrible. The Conjuror returns and clears the air with an exorcism. He has invented an explanation, which he goes out to give to Morris. Patricia announces that her brother immediately took a turn for the better. The Conjuror refuses to repeat the explanation he gave Morris, because if he did, "Half an hour after I have left this house you will all be saying how it was done." He turns to go.

PATRICIA. Our fairy tale has come to an end in the only way a fairy tale can come to an end. The only way a fairy tale can leave off being a fairy tale.

CONJUROR. I don't understand you.

PATRICIA. It has come true.

And the curtain falls for the last time.

No doubt Magic owed a great deal of its success to the admirable production of Mr. Kenelm Foss and the excellence of the cast. Miss Grace Croft was surely the true Patricia. Of the Duke of Mr. Fred Lewis it is difficult to speak in terms other than superlative. Those of my readers who have suffered the misfortune of not having seen him, may gain some idea of his execution of the part from the illustrations to Mr. Belloc's novels. The Duke was an extraordinarily good likeness of the Duke of Battersea, as portrayed by Chesterton, with rather more than a touch of Mr. Asquith superadded. Mr. Fred Lewis, it may be stated, gagged freely, introducing topical lines until the play became a revue in little—but without injustice to the original. Several of those who saw Magic came for a third, a fourth, even a tenth time.

The Editor of The Dublin Review had the happy idea of asking Chesterton to review Magic. The result is too long to quote in full, but it makes two important points which may be extracted.

I will glide mercifully over the more glaring errors, which the critics have overlooked—as that no Irishman could become so complete a cad merely by going to America—that no young lady would walk about in the rain so soon before it was necessary to dress for dinner—that no young man, however American, could run round a Duke's grounds in the time between one bad epigram and another—that Dukes never allow the middle classes to encroach on their gardens so as to permit a doctor's lamp to be seen there—that no sister, however eccentric, could conduct a slightly frivolous love-scene with a brother going mad in the next room—that the Secretary disappears half-way through the play without explaining himself; and the conjuror disappears at the end, with almost equal dignity. . . .

By the exercise of that knowledge of all human hearts which descends on any man (however unworthy) the moment he is a dramatic critic, I perceive that the author of Magic originally wrote it as a short story. It is a bad play, because it was a good short story. In a short story of mystery, as in a Sherlock Holmes story, the author and the hero (or villain) keep the reader out of the secret. . . . But the drama is built on that grander secrecy which was called the Greek irony. In the drama, the audience must know the truth when the actors do not know it. That is where the drama is truly democratic: not because the audience shouts, but because it knows—and is silent. Now I do quite seriously think it is a weakness in a play like Magic that the audience is not in the central secret from the start. Mr. G. S. Street put the point with his usual unerring simplicity by saying that he could not help feeling disappointed with the Conjuror because he had hoped he would turn into the Devil.

A few additions may easily be made to the first batch of criticisms. Patricia's welcome to her brother is not what a long-lost brother might expect. There is really no satisfactory reason for the Doctor's continued presence. Patricia and Morris can only be half Irish by blood, unless it is possible to become Irish by residence. Why should the Conjuror rehearse his patter out in the wet? Surely the Duke's house would contain a spare room? Where did the Conjuror go, at the end of the Third Act, in the small hours of the morning? And so on.

But these are little things that do not matter in an allegory. For in Magic "things are not what they seem." The Duke is a modern man. He is also the world, the flesh, and the devil. He has no opinions, no positive religion, no brain. He believes in his own tolerance, which is merely his fatuousness. He follows the line of least resistance, and makes a virtue of it. He sits on the fence, but he will never come off. The Clergyman is the church of to-day, preaching the supernatural, but unwilling to recognize its existence at close quarters. As somebody says somewhere in The Wisdom of Father Brown, "If a miracle happened in your office, you'd have to hush it up, now so many bishops are atheists." The Doctor is a less typical figure. He is the inconsistencies of science, kindly but with little joy of life, and extremely Chestertonian, which is to say unscientific. Morris is the younger generation, obsessed with business and getting on, and intellectually incapable of facing a religious fact. Patricia is the Chestertonian good woman, too essentially domestic to be ever fundamentally disturbed. The Conjuror, if not the Devil, is at any rate that inexplicable element in all life which most people do not see.

Nevertheless there is a flaw in Magic which really is serious. If I were to see, let us say, a sheet of newspaper flying down the road against the wind, and a friend of mine, who happened to be a gifted liar, told me that he was directing the paper by means of spirits, I should still be justified in believing that another explanation could be possible. I should say, "My dear friend, your explanation is romantic; I believe in spirits but I do not believe in you. I prefer to think that there is an air-current going the wrong way." That is the matter with the Conjuror's explanation. Why should the Clergyman or the Doctor—professional sceptics, both of them, which is to say seekers after truth—take the word of a professional deceiver as necessarily true?

There are two works which the critic of Chesterton must take into special consideration. They are Magic and Orthodoxy; and it may be said that the former is a dramatized version of the latter. The two together are a great work, striking at the very roots of disbelief. In a sense Chesterton pays the atheist a very high compliment. He does what the atheist is generally too lazy to do for himself; he takes his substitute for religion and systematizes it into something like a philosophy. Then he examines it as a whole. And he finds that atheism is dogma in its extremist form, that it embodies a multitude of superstitions, and that it is actually continually adding to their number. Such are the reasons of the greatness of Magic. The play, one feels, must remain unique, for the prolegomenon cannot be rewritten while the philosophy is unchanged. And Chesterton has deliberately chosen the word orthodox to apply to himself, and he has not limited its meaning.



THE heroes of Chesterton's romances have an adipose diathesis, as a reviewer has been heard to remark. In plain English they tend towards largeness. Flambeau, Sunday, and Innocent Smith are big men. Chesterton, as we have seen, pays little attention to his women characters, but whenever it comes to pass that he must introduce a heroine, he colours her as emphatically as the nature of things will admit. Which is to say that the Chestertonian heroine always has red hair.

These things are symptomatic of their author. He loves robustness. If he cannot produce it, he can at any rate affect it, or attack its enemies. This worship of the robust is the fundamental fact of all Chesterton's work. For example, as a critic of letters he confines himself almost exclusively to the big men. When Mr. Bernard Shaw a few years ago committed what Chesterton imagined was an attack upon Shakespeare, he almost instinctively rushed to the defence in the columns of The Daily News. When Chesterton wrote a little book on The Victorian Age in Literature he showed no interest in the smaller people. The book, it may be urged in his excuse, was a little one, but we feel that even if it was not, Chesterton would have done much the same thing. Among the writers he omitted to mention, even by name, are Sir Edwin Arnold, Harrison Ainsworth, Walter Bagehot, R. Blackmore, A. H. Clough, E. A. Freeman, S. R. Gardiner, George Gissing, J. R. Green, T. H. Green, Henry Hallam, Jean Ingelow, Benjamin Jowett, W. E. H. Lecky, Thomas Love Peacock, W. M. Praed, and Mrs. Humphry Ward. The criticism which feeds upon research and comparison, which considers a new date or the emendation of a mispunctuated line of verse, worthy of effort, knows not Chesterton. He is the student of the big men. He has written books about Dickens, Browning, and Shaw, of whom only one common quality can be noted, which is that they are each the subjects of at least twenty other books. To write about the things which have already yielded such a huge crop of criticism savours at first of a lack of imagination. The truth is quite otherwise. Anybody, so to speak, can produce a book about Alexander Pope because the ore is at the disposal of every miner. But that larger mine called Dickens has been diligently worked by two generations of authors, and it would appear that a new one must either plagiarize or labour extremely in order to come upon fresh seams. But Chesterton's taste for bigness has come to his service in criticism. It has given him a power of seeing the large, obvious things which the critic of small things misses. He has the "thinking in millions" trick of the statistician transposed to literary ends.

Or as a poet. The robustness is omnipresent, and takes several forms. A grandiloquence that sways uneasily between rodomontade and mere verbiage, a rotundity of diction, a choice of subjects which can only be described as sanguinolent, the use of the bludgeon where others would prefer a rapier.

Or as a simple user of words. Chesterton has a preference for the big words: awful, enormous, tremendous, and so on. A word which occurs very often indeed is mystic: it suggests that the noun it qualifies is laden with undisclosable attributes, and that romance is hidden here.

Now all these things add up, as it were, to a tendency to say a thing as emphatically as possible. Emphasis of statement from a humorist gifted with the use of words results sometimes in epigram, sometimes in fun, in all things except the dull things (except when the dullness is due to an unhappy succession of scintillations which have misfired). For these reasons Chesterton is regarded as entirely frivolous—by persons without a sense of humour. He is, in point of fact, extremely serious, on those frequent occasions when he is making out a case. As he himself points out, to be serious is not the opposite of to be funny. The opposite of to be funny is not to be funny. A man may be perfectly serious in a funny way.

Now it has befallen Chesterton on more than one occasion to have to cross swords with one of the few true atheists, Mr. Joseph MacCabe, the author of a huge number of books, mostly attacking Christianity, and as devoid of humour as an egg-shell is of hair. The differences and the resemblances between Chesterton and Mr. MacCabe might well be the occasion of a parable. Chesterton has written some of the liveliest books about Christianity, Mr. MacCabe has written some of the dullest. Chesterton has written the most amusing book about Mr. Bernard Shaw; Mr. MacCabe has written the dullest. Chesterton and Mr. MacCabe have a habit of sparring at one another, but up to the present I have not noticed either make any palpable hits. It is all rather like the Party System, as Mr. Hilaire Belloc depicts it. The two antagonists do not understand each other in the least. But, to a certain degree, Mr. MacCabe's confusion is the fault of Chesterton and not of his own lack of humour. When Chesterton says, "I also mean every word I say," he is saying something he does not mean. He is sometimes funny, but not serious, like Mr. George Robey. He is sometimes irritating, but not serious, like a circus clown. And he sometimes appears to be critical, but is not serious, like the young lady from Walworth in front of a Bond Street shop-window, regretting that she could not possibly buy the crockery and glass displayed because the monogram isn't on right. Chesterton's readers have perhaps spoiled him. He has pleaded, so to speak, for the inalienable and mystic right of every man to be a blithering idiot in all seriousness. So seriously, in fact, that when he exercised this inalienable and mystic right, the only man not in the secret was G. K. Chesterton.

There are few tasks so ungrateful as the criticism of a critic's criticisms, unless it be the job of criticizing the criticisms of a critic's critics. The first is part of the task of him who would write a book in which all Chesterton's works are duly and fitly considered; and the second will not be wholly escaped by him. Concerned as we are, however, with the ideas of one who was far more interested in putting the world to rights than with guiding men and women around literary edifices, there is no need for us to give any very detailed study to Chesterton's critical work. Bacon said "distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things." A second distillation, perhaps even a third, suggests a Euclidean flatness. The sheer management of a point of view, however, is always instructive. We have seen an author use his exceptional powers of criticism upon society in general, and ideas at large. How is he able to deal with ideas and inventions stated in a more definite and particular manner? The latter task is the more difficult of the two. We all know perfectly well, to take an analogous illustration, how to deal with the Prussian militarist class, the "Junker caste," and so on. But we differ hopelessly on the treatment to be meted out to the National Service League.

The outstanding feature of Chesterton's critical work is that it has no outstanding features which differentiate it from his other writings. He is always the journalist, writing for the day only. This leads him to treat all his subjects with special reference to his own day. Sometimes, as in the essay on Byron in Twelve Types, his own day is so much under discussion that poor Byron is left out in the cold to warm himself before a feebly flickering epigram. In writing of Dickens, Chesterton says that he "can be criticized as a contemporary of Bernard Shaw or Anatole France or C. F. G. Masterman . . . his name comes to the tongue when we are talking of Christian Socialists or Mr. Roosevelt or County Council Steamboats or Guilds of Play." And Chesterton does criticize Dickens as the contemporary of all these phenomena. In point of fact, to G.K.C. everybody is either a contemporary or a Victorian, and "I also was born a Victorian." Little Dorrit sets him talking about Gissing, Hard Times suggests Herbert Spencer, American Notes leads to the mention of Maxim Gorky, and elsewhere Mr. George Moore and Mr. William Le Queux are brought in. If Chesterton happened to be writing about Dickens at a time when there was a certain amount of feeling about on the subject of rich Jews on the Rand, then the rich Jews on the Rand would appear in print forthwith, whether or not Dickens had ever depicted a rich Jew or the Rand, or the two in conjunction. Chesterton's first critical work of importance was Robert Browning in the "English Men of Letters Series." It might be imagined that the austere editorship of Lord Morley might have a dejournalizing effect upon the style of the author. Far otherwise. The t's are crossed and the i's are dotted, so to speak, more carefully in Robert Browning than in works less fastidiously edited, but that is all. The book contains references to Gladstone and Home Rule, Parnell, Pigott, and Rudyard Kipling, Cyrano de Bergerac, W. E. Henley, and the Tivoli. But of Browning's literary ancestors and predecessors there is little mention.

It is conventional to shed tears of ink over the journalistic touch, on the ground that it must inevitably shorten the life of whatever book bears its marks. If there is anything in this condemnation, then Chesterton is doomed to forgetfulness, and his critical works will be the first to slip into oblivion, such being the nature of critical works in general. But if this condemnation holds true, it includes also Macaulay, R. L. Stevenson, Matthew Arnold, and how many others! The journalistic touch, when it is good, means the preservation of a work. And Chesterton has that most essential part of a critic's mental equipment—what we call in an inadequately descriptive manner, insight. He was no mean critic, whatever the tricks he played, who could pen these judgments:

The dominant passion of the artistic Celt, such as Mr. W. B. Yeats or Sir Edward Burne-Jones, lies in the word "escape"; escape into a land where oranges grow on plum trees and men can sow what they like and reap what they enjoy. (G. F. Watts.)

The supreme and most practical value of poetry is this, that in poetry, as in music, a note is struck which expresses beyond the power of rational statement a condition of mind, and all actions arise from a condition of mind. (Robert Browning.)

This essential comedy of Johnson's character is one which has never, oddly enough, been put upon the stage. There was in his nature one of the unconscious and even agreeable contradictions loved by the true comedian. . . . I mean a strenuous and sincere belief in convention, combined with a huge natural inaptitude for observing it. (Samuel Johnson.)

Rossetti could, for once in a way, write poetry about a real woman and call her "Jenny." One has a disturbed suspicion that Morris would have called her "Jehanne." (The Victorian Age in Literature.)

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