Simon Parke: The caped crusader

10 June 2009

STANDING six feet four inches tall and weighing 21 stone, he was a man of striking appearance — all the more so for his chosen uniform of cape, large hat, swordstick, and cigar. Sunday is the anniversary of his death.

G. K. Chesterton was a prolific writer. He regarded himself as a journalist, but also wrote poetry, philo­­sophy, biography, detective fic­tion, Christian apologetics, and fantasy.

He was rated an under-achiever by his teachers, but George Bernard Shaw — his “friendly enemy” — called Chesterton “a man of colossal genius”. He was secretive, but pas­sionate in his loves and hates. More at home with opinions than feelings, he remains more quotable than any book of quotes.

His sartorial choice revealed a man who craved attention; but he also directed great willpower to­wards his chosen goals. Using para­dox and laughter as weapons, his writing was a constant assault on complacent acceptance of conventional views.

He railed against the dark side of English imperialism, and, with his friend Hilaire Belloc, promoted the social system of “distributism”, which called for a greater sharing of wealth. When The Times asked various lead­ing figures of the day to say what was wrong with the world, Chesterton famously replied: “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

If his most famous fictional char­acter was the detective Father Brown, his best-known novel was The Man Who Was Thursday, published in 1908. Filled with Christian allegory, Chesterton — who suffered from depression all his life — wished this book to be an affirmation of good­ness, to encourage his family and himself away from their melancholic tendencies. He wrote: “Man seems capable of great virtues, but not small virtues: capable of defying his torturers, but not of keeping his temper.”

Orthodoxy, his spiritual autobio­graphy, described people’s spiritual need for “the combination of some­thing that is strange with something that is secure”. His Everlasting Man was described by C. S. Lewis as “the best defence of the full Christian position I know”.

Chesterton, with his utopian ideals, could not abide pessimism, and declared against it constantly, whether in Nietzsche, Ibsen, or H. G. Wells. Known for his warmth, he wrote: “If the arms of a man could be a fiery circle embracing the whole world, I think I should be that man.”

He died on 14 June 1936, in Bea­cons­field, where he had lived with his wife, Frances. The parish priest, Mgr Smith, gave him the last rites, and Fr McNabb “kissed the pen with which he’d written so many noble words”. His secretary, Dorothy Collins, managed his literary estate until her death in 1988. She was, perhaps, the child the Chestertons never had.


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