The Sins of G K Chesterton, by Richard Ingrams Dan Hitchens
The Sins of G K Chesterton By Richard Ingrams Harbour Books £20
Invited to give a reading at the Catholic Poetry Society, G K Chesterton sat in miserable silence, unable to remember a single poem. ‘Will you recite The Donkey?’ someone asked. ‘Don’t know it,’ came the doleful reply. He brightened only when an audience member produced a volume by Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc. ‘Ah! That’s real poetry.’
Perhaps no writer of Chesterton’s stature has exhibited such a complete lack of literary vanity. He dismissed his writing as hackwork, was bemused when admirers quoted his words back to him (‘I may have written something of the sort’) and had not a trace of the writer’s usual vices, envy and backbiting.
This humility, combined with his gifts for friendship and personal kindness, has moved some Catholics to propose him as a candidate for sainthood. But the Church has so far refused – quite rightly, as far as Richard Ingrams is concerned.
In this short but ambitious book, Ingrams aims to undermine the generally accepted story of Chesterton’s life as one of childlike innocence. And it all goes back to that man Hilaire Belloc.
For all his brilliance, Belloc was
capable of the most poisonous bigotry. During the Dreyfus affair, almost the entire British press was united in indignation at such a flagrant injustice – except Belloc, on the grounds that Dreyfus was Jewish and must therefore be involved in an international conspiracy. When stories began to emerge about Belgian atrocities in the Congo, Belloc alone sided with King Leopold II: after all, the King was Catholic – so the coverage had to be unfair.
On the other hand, Belloc declared war on the chocolate magnate George Cadbury, a kindly philanthropist who campaigned for social reform, treated his workers with exceptional gentleness and respect, and bankrolled the Daily News, Chesterton’s employer. Cadbury was a Quaker, you see, and therefore – Belloc concluded – motivated solely by greed and moral puritanism.
Belloc managed to bewitch not only Chesterton’s journalist brother, Cecil, who became a full-time acolyte, but G K himself. Chesterton changed his view on the Dreyfus case, from outrage to feeble both-sides-ism. He hysterically denounced Cadbury, which meant leaving the Daily News. And he abandoned some of his oldest friends in public life when Belloc began including them in his conspiracy theories.
Next, Belloc and Cecil plunged into the Marconi affair – a genuine scandal, where government ministers engaged in insider trading. Yet the pair somehow managed to commit (and be convicted of) libel, by inventing a Jewish plot between the main actors. Chesterton regarded this embarrassing episode as a moral triumph for his friends, not to mention ‘one of the turning points in the whole history of England and the world’.
As Ingrams shows, Chesterton’s loyalty to Belloc and Cecil defined a good deal of his political engagement. It led him to look sympathetically on antisemitism. As editor of the New Witness, he published – and later defended – a grotesquely hate-filled diatribe penned by Cecil’s wife. It led him, after Cecil’s death, to devote much of his energy to keeping alive his brother’s old paper. And it led him to adopt a variety of strange positions – opposing National Insurance, downplaying Mussolini’s crimes – which intruded a permanent element of confusion into his otherwise lucid prose. Sometimes more than confusion: Ingrams has found sentences in the Autobiography that actively distort the historical record.
The Sins of G K Chesterton is no hatchet job: it takes for granted that
Chesterton was, for the most part, a man of profound integrity. Precisely because Chesterton loved truth, Ingrams speculates, ignoring it caused him tremendous, unconscious stress; hence his near-fatal breakdown in 1914, and his final illness in 1936. For Ingrams, the whole story is a ‘heroic tragedy’.
The Devil can turn even our virtues against us – and, in Chesterton, humility was sometimes twisted into something very different: an absurdly low estimation of his own gifts, combined with deluded hero-worship of other people’s. If Chesterton had realised that his own mind was far mightier than Belloc’s and Cecil’s put together, perhaps he would not have wasted so much effort on their pet causes.
What does intellectual humility mean? As with a thousand other things, Chesterton himself put it best: ‘A man who really has a head with brains in it ought to know that this head has been gratuitously clapped on top of him like a new hat. A man who by genius can make masterpieces ought to know that he cannot make genius.’
Chesterton’s fans have sometimes assumed that such beautiful books could have been written only by a saint. The author knew better. In that sense, refusing to canonise him is its own kind of tribute.