TCW recently published an excellent piece titled Chesterton’s ‘Flying Inn’ – hope from a bygone age, in which A W Edensdale showed how GKC’s 1914 fiction The Flying Inn, depicting England suffering a compulsory closure of pubs under a ‘health and safety’ approach to alcohol and an equally elitist fad for Islam, is in many respects now coming true.
I can make a modest claim to expertise in this area of controversy, having waded into it with my 2015 book Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender. In it I examined how Chesterton, widely popular in his own lifetime (he died in 1936) and for some years after the war, began to be viewed through the lens of the Holocaust as anti-Semitic. Nowadays any reference to Jewish issues tends to be seen as controversial, thus pre-Holocaust commentators are often treated as contributing to that appalling stain on human history, on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc – ‘after this, therefore because of this’.
Chesterton revered Judaism, but it might be argued that since it is the foundation of Christianity, he could hardly risk delegitimising his own religion. Religious Jews are absent from his fiction, but even so, in The Flying Inn, the atheism of Dr Moses Meadows is described humorously, and his dubious origins – he ‘had certainly come in the first instance from a little town in Germany’ – are treated sympathetically. When challenged about his famous ‘health cure’ – watered milk – Meadows is described as shaking his fists aloft ‘in a way unknown to all the English around him’.
In his fiction Chesterton’s Jewish characters are not entirely good but neither are they entirely bad; in The Flying Inn he depicts the whole spectrum of morality, featuring the good, bad, and indifferent characters Leveson, Gluck and Meadows. GKC also ‘balanced’ the bad Jew with the bad non-Jew, painting negative portraits of Gentile as well as Jewish doctors, scientists, and millionaires.
He portrayed far fewer Jewish than Gentile villains, especially in his Father Brown stories, while other works – The Poet and the Lunatics (1929) and The Paradoxes of Mr Pond (1937) – link the bad behaviour of Jewish characters to their secularisation. Despite this, Chesterton’s secular Jews, whether good or bad, are mostly treated sympathetically, and he also takes the trouble to explain the origins of their behaviour – not in their race, but in their circumstances and of course their own choices. His belief in free will, explored in his fiction, was antagonistic to racial theory; he saw free will, a religious concept – crucial to Father Brown’s approach to solving crime – as the basis of democracy; neither did he exclude Jews from this concept. While Darwinian thinkers insisted that criminals ‘could not help themselves’, Chesterton knew that eliminating good and evil from the universe would usher in a grim dystopia where people would be imprisoned indefinitely at the behest of doctors and scientists, not for what they had done, but for what they might do.
Like a skilled magician, GKC uses Jewish and other stereotypes to distract the reader, especially in his Father Brown stories; most often the villain turns out not to be the luridly painted stereotypical character. And Chesterton is an ‘equal opps’ author: unlike today, when according to the tenets of wokeness, ‘minority’ characters always turn out to be completely blameless – even the dimmest viewer and reader knows in advance who didn’t ‘dunnit’ – GKC included blameworthy as well as blameless Jewish characters alongside blameworthy and blameless non-Jewish ones.
In real life, while criticising the negative influence of wealthy Jews as well as wealthy non-Jews on politics and commerce, he attributed such Jewish ‘interference’ to their lack of a homeland; consequently, he supported the establishment of a modern Jewish state in Palestine. Neither was Chesterton personally anti-Semitic, responding readily to a Jewish critic, the poet Humbert Wolfe, who on meeting him became a firm friend, while ignoring an invitation to collaborate with his second cousin A K Chesterton, a journalist and activist who during the 1930s joined the British Union of Fascists and later became involved in what eventually became the National Front.
Many historical figures who made problematical pronouncements are now excused as being ‘of their times’, but while Chesterton used common phrases and expressions about Jewish individuals and the Jewish people, he was an early critic of Nazi anti-Semitism and an even earlier critic of eugenics. While other prominent individuals promoted eugenics, Chesterton condemned it long before the Nazis began to murder the mentally ill and disabled, most notably in his 1922 work Eugenics and Other Evils. Like the racial theories that he also condemned, he saw eugenics as dangerous nonsense, which when stripped of the bad science that underpinned it, turned out to be old-fashioned snobbery.
Today, while references to Chesterton are often met with accusations of anti-Semitism, racism and even fascism, literary giants such as H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw – both of whom he counted as personal friends – have escaped present-day opprobrium. This is not entirely unconnected with the fact that Wells and Shaw were explicitly left-wing, while the anti-capitalist, localist Chesterton was equally critical of socialism. He was also a Christian, which counts as a sin against the religion of wokery, but although his opinion on ‘trans’ issues will never be known, he was always a friend and defender of that now-neglected section of society, the poor.
If we were to listen only to those voices from history who never said anything offensive to our more enlightened ears, we would be left with those who never said anything worth hearing. And if we cancelled Chesterton for sins against Diversity, Inclusion and Equity we would have to cancel all of history.
That would certainly be easier than having to cut out news items from The Times because they conflict with the latest narrative of the ruling elites, and push them down the ‘memory hole’, as Winston Smith did in 1984. However, in placing all the historical issues that provoke wokeist ire – the racism, sexism, bigotry and of course anti-Semitism – as beyond discussion, we can bet our boots that the kind of left-wing anti-Semitism that demonises the State of Israel would be left untouched, on the grounds that ‘it’s just fair comment’.
Thankfully, however, there is now a rising tide of discontent with wokeness – a growing desire for a return to common sense, something that Chesterton championed. And as in The Rolling English Road, we are now beginning to go a very long way round just to return to the place where we began.