The fiction of G K Chesterton
After completing Chesterton and the Jews: Friend, Critic, Defender (2015) I embarked on a re-reading of his novels and this summer met Father John Udris, tasked with the preliminary investigations into Chesterton’s credentials for sainthood; but whether or not the creator of clerical detective Father Brown is declared a saint, the novels confirm his reputation as a devout believer in common sense – in objective reality.
Arguing an issue from every angle has left him a hostage to hindsight, but on a purely literary level he was a genius, taking detective fiction to a higher plane. To Chesterton, the world was a mystery waiting to be solved by investigating the clues left behind by the Master Craftsman on His work of art.
From the fog of pessimism shrouding the end of the Victorian age emerged eugenics, fin-de-siècle hedonism, the dreary plays of Ibsen and the depressing philosophy of Schopenhauer, under which influences the world was viewed as the scene of a crime against humanity – with God as the criminal. Chesterton turned this nightmare cloud inside out, revealing the silver lining within. The pessimists, who took their privileges for granted, saw only tragedy; but Chesterton, like God viewing His creation, looked upon the world and saw that it was good.
His novels, in many ways prophetic, play with serious ideas – politics, philosophy and theology – conveyed with characteristic humour. The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), a futuristic tale concerning the demolition of an old part of London to make way for a road, illustrates how a joke – the adoption of Medieval pageantry – can go seriously wrong when embraced by a humourless ideologue; how patriotism, when it tramples on other countries’ patriotisms, becomes imperialism. George Orwell’s first article appeared in G K’s Weekly, and the story is thought to have inspired 1984.
In The Club of Queer Trades (1905), a club for the inventors of wholly original professions includes the Monty Pythonesque ‘Organiser of Repartee’.
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) unveils a series of conspiracies as the anarchists – so open about their plots that everyone ignores them – bring chaos out of order; the policemen who infiltrate their disorganised organisation would restore order, while the mysterious ‘Sunday’ recalls the God who brought order out of chaos. Best of all, it features a hot-air balloon and an elephant chase.
Set against the backdrop of the growing eugenics movement, The Ball and the Cross (1909) involves a duel between Christianity and atheism as the ‘unemployables’ are destroyed from the air; people are forced to prove their own sanity as England becomes an open-air lunatic asylum – a scenario not unfamiliar to modern readers.
In Manalive (1912) ‘Innocent Smith’, accused of burglary, abduction and attempted murder, is merely guilty of valuing what many take for granted – property, love, life itself.
In The Flying Inn (1914) the atheistic Lord Ivywood embraces Islam for its ‘simplicity’ and bans alcohol (available solely to members of Parliament for medicinal purposes), while the parasitic peer, in his quest for unlimited progress, ends in total insanity as a kind of Nietzschean Superman. Along the way there are some very funny poems, including The Rolling English Road.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922), a political parable and possibly Chesterton’s most subdued collection, has a world-weary amateur detective – a member of the political class – solving scandals in his own circle, and some intriguing tall tales include a ‘closed tower’ mystery involving precious jewels, monks and murder.
In Tales of the Long Bow (1925) ‘big business’ ruins the environment with enormous advertising billboards and chemicals released into the waterways, while the poor are banned from keeping pigs for health and safety reasons. The eccentric Robert Owen Hood champions the poor in a ‘return’ to Medievalism that ends in a kind of English fascism. Meanwhile, innovative Hilary Pierce evades the pig-transportation ban by dropping them from the air in parachutes, thus demonstrating that after all pigs can fly.
The Return of Don Quixote (1927) also explores the ‘Medieval’ fad. While Herne the historian lives in the past, and the socialist Braintree fails to listen to the poor, the upper-class Douglas Murrel relates to all people, saving an elderly man from the lunatic asylum. Murrel is Sancho Panza to the humourless Herne’s Don Quixote, helping real people rather than playing at historical re-enactment or tilting at the windmills of inequality.
In The Poet and the Lunatics (1929) the hero, a ‘spiritual detective’, solves crimes perpetrated by madmen while being pursued by two doctors determined to certify him mad; meanwhile real crooks live in luxury, escaping justice by being certified by crooked doctors.
The Four Faultless Felons (1930) involves a club for the blameless inventors of new ‘crimes’, upending the traditional detective story by solving the mystery of innocence.
In The Paradoxes of Mr Pond (1937) a deceptively drab government official solves crimes by spotting paradoxes, the most chilling involving the murder of a rationalist with the application of reason.
As with Father Brown, Chesterton’s novels feature some baffling ‘closed room’ mysteries, but the deeper message is that life itself is a detective story; the world is a ‘closed room’ whose natural limits we yearn to escape even while they keep us safe. Struggling to distinguish real from unreal, we discover that the spiritual is more solid than the material. All Chesterton’s romances end in true romance for his heroes and heroines, and his most serious works are seasoned with jokes; however, the biggest joke – contra the most hopeful pessimist – is that there is always a happy ending.
The real-life mystery is why this country has such a problem with geniuses like Chesterton. Once their time is past we tend to mislay them – until we have need of them again. But at a time when public debate is routinely silenced by bullying and censorship, his commonsense approach has never been so much in demand.