G. K. Chesterton 1874-–1936
(Full name Gilbert Keith Chesterton) English novelist, short story writer, playwright, critic, essayist, journalist, autobiographer, biographer, and poet. For additional coverage of Chesterton's short fiction, see SSC, Vol. 1.
Chesterton holds an enduring place in English literature. His presence was formidable—as a writer, critical essayist, Catholic polemicist, the proponent of the social philosophy of Distributism, and in his large physical form. He gained the widest distinction, however, with his Father Brown mysteries, particularly his use of them to consider the darker aspects of human nature.
Chesterton was born into a middle-class London family and he later recalled his childhood with affection, attributing it with endowing in him a religious—at the time, Protestant—perspective. As a young man, Chesterton studied art and literature, enrolling at the Slade School of Art from 1892 to 1895; in fact, his background in drawing and painting is credited for Chesterton's lifelong affinity for vividly detailed, visual prose descriptions. During his time at the Slade School, Chesterton suffered a profound emotional and philosophical crisis, fearing that the external world might be only a projection of the mind. Chesterton emerged from this spiritual breakdown with a much clearer understanding of the more sinister facets of the human mind. And his continued examination of that dusky region was to permeate his entire career. Chesterton delved into the nature of evil and madness with an unique persistence and sensitivity. His wife, the former Frances Blogg, fulfilled an important role in Chesterton's artistry by assisting him in the achievement of a more sanguine view of life and in the continued formation of his religious convictions. Chesterton first came to public notice with his critical essays—both social and literary. His collection of essays entitled What's Wrong with the World (1910) brought him attention, along with Hilaire Belloc, as a leading advocate for Distributism: a social philosophy that argued for a small property-owning democracy which would allocate ownership to as many people as possible, as opposed to supporting the formation of large states, organizations, or corporations. Chesterton continued to actively promote Distributism for the rest of his life, and began in 1916 to edit the magazine New Witness, which later became G. K.'s Weekly. In order to support this periodical, Chesterton wrote the Father Brown stories, which were first published in the Saturday Evening Post.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Chesterton is perhaps most popularly known as the author of the Father Brown detective series, which he wrote from the early 1900s into the 1930s. The stories were collected in The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), The Wisdom of Father Brown (1914), The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), The Secret of Father Brown (1927), and The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). Chesterton loosely based the title character upon his friend, Roman Catholic priest John O'Connor. O'Connor conveyed to Chesterton the variety of iniquity and perversity confided to him in the confessional. The contrast between the priest's humble demeanor, his knowledge of earthly evil, and his willingness to explore his own soul for the roots of sin within himself, all had a profound influence on Chesterton, and it was those qualities with which he endowed his Father Brown character. When Father Brown is asked by an apprehended criminal whether he is, in fact, the devil himself he responds accordingly: “I am a man and therefore have all devils in my heart.” Throughout his writings, Chesterton consistently strove to instruct his readers. In addition to being an artist, he was committed to influencing the philosophies of his contemporaries. All of his works contain some element of paradox, parable, or allegory to illustrate essential spiritual truths. In Chesterton's essay “A Defense of Nonsense,” he explicated upon his chief purpose in writing: “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.” Although he did not actually convert to Catholicism until 1922, Chesterton expounded the teachings of the Church, as well as his philosophical leanings, for years prior to his conversion. The unique aspect of the Father Brown stories which separates them from uniform, detective genre tales is the character's reliance on determining the motive for a crime, and thereby that of the perpetrator. The stories involve a delving into the criminal psyche in order to understand why the crime has been committed, and in the process to gain a greater understanding of the human condition itself.
The style of Chesterton's Father Brown stories frustrates some critics, who find them lacking in the informative details which normally provide clues to the reader for solving the crime along with the protagonist. But others perceive Chesterton's tales as artistic renderings of a mystical school within the scope of the detective story. And for some this aspect gives the genre a literary “lift” that it does not commonly enjoy. For his body of work, Chesterton is held to be among the eminent British men of letters of the early twentieth century. Although he did not take his Father Brown stories terribly seriously, they are often seen as innovations in detective fiction. In his other writings, Chesterton is frequently considered eccentric, mixing Christian—especially Catholic—theology with that of detective stories, novels, plays, essays, autobiographies, biographies, satiric fantasy, historical works, epics, poetry, and literary criticism.