November 24, 2010


St Gilbert of Fleet Street: a review of The Wit and Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, Selected by Bevis Hillier (Paul Johnson, December 2010, Stanpoint)

GKC was, and is, a source of envy. He was prolific without being commonplace. His extraordinary facility did not make him a hack. His versatility was never superficial. He wrote a certain amount of nonsense but it was not, I'd say, more than five per cent of his huge output. He was often profound. He was nearly always original. He usually makes you think, even on hackneyed subjects, and even if, after you have thought, you decide he is wrong, you feel the effort worthwhile. He gives value. He seldom arouses resentment. You don't throw the book down in disgust. You may put it aside for a time but you come back to it. If you have a Chesterton shelf, it is well used: dingy, battered perhaps, scruffy volumes, often without covers or spines, dog-eared, scrawled in, but never dusty. He was, and is, envied because there is so much to envy, above all that wonderful flow of thoughts and that astonishing capacity to set them down on paper.

Bevis Hillier's little book is excellent in its way, and I have enjoyed it and recommend it. But what I would really like is a complete GKC — everything he ever wrote, including his countless articles for the Illustrated London News and his own papers, the Eye-Witness and GK's Weekly, all put sturdily between hard covers. I believe something of the sort is being attempted in America, but I would like to see a good university press doing it here, in facsimile, as has been done with Mark Twain, and sold cheaply. Failing that, I would like some republications. St Francis and Thomas Aquinas, for instance, both short, should be made into one volume. So should his best literary biographies, Dickens and Browning, possibly with Stevenson added to make a trilogy. Heretics and Orthodoxy ought to be published together. And, say, half a dozen volumes of essays, and two of poetry. That would do for a start.

Although GKC aroused, and continues to arouse, hostility in academia and certain official establishments, I don't think anyone who actually knew him well ever disliked him. Most loved him. He has attracted few biographies because there was no dark side or hidden side. He attracts legends and anecdotes, though. Some are true. It is true, for instance, that, incessantly travelling to and from speaking engagements, he got muddled and once sent a telegram to his wife: "Am in Market Harborough where ought I to be Gilbert." The telegram has been preserved and Hillier has tracked it down: British Library Add. Mss. 73276A.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 24, 2010 5:26 PM
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