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G.K. Chesterton (part 1)

This week, in the first of two episodes about G.K. Chesterton, Brook and Sarah look at his life and find out why he was such a fascinating man and the influence he had on literature and life in the early 20th century.


Orthodoxy (1908) G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s work on Project Gutenberg

Radio adaptations of Father Brown

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. It’s so good to be speaking with you again.
SarahYeah, we took a little break. Which was nice to just catch up on some reading and I managed to go away for ah, for a few days to the UK which was also really nice.
BrookYeah that’s wonderful. And today we’re revisiting one of our favorite types of episodes, which is looking back at one of the influencers on the genre. Today we’re going to talk about G.K. Chesterton, so I’ll start us off. Gilbert Keith (G.K.) Chesterton was born on May 29, 1874 in London to Edward Chesterton and Marie Grosjean Chesterton. His parents baptized him into the Church of England, although his family were irregular attendees of the Unitarian Church. According to his autobiography as a young man he became fascinated with the occult and seances. Along with his brother Cecil, they experimented with Ouija boards. Perhaps this contributed to the paranormal features. He sometimes included in his mystery stories. Chesterton was educated at St Paul’s school. He always had an interest in art and studied both art and literature at separate universities. However, he did not graduate from either program. Chesterton was married Chesterton married Frances Blogg at the age of 27. The couple was unable to have children but shared a long and happy marriage that lasted until his death. It is said that he was a very absent minded fellow and legend has it that he did most of his writing on the train since he usually missed his stops and would have lots of idle time to work.
BrookHis wife is said to have kept his social and work calendars for him to ensure he made his obligations his knowledge of art and literature led him to work in publishing houses and eventually as a freelance art and literature critic. He began work in this capacity for the illustrated London news in 1905 and worked there for the next thirty years. He’s been referred to as the “prince of paradox”. Of his writing style, Time magazine observed “whenever possible Chesterton made his points with popular sayings, proverbs and allegories first carefully turning them inside out”. As an example of this is an ah endearing quote from Chesterton he says “the bible tells us to love our neighbors and also to love our enemies probably because generally they’re the same people.” Chesterton considered himself primarily a journalist. He wrote over 4000 witty and thought-provoking newspaper essays and weekly call and a weekly column for more than a decade and he even edited his own newspaper GK’s Weekly. So this means he wrote. Ah, critical essay every day for 11 years straight very impressive during his lifetime. He was primarily known for his theological and philosophical writings including essays articles and poems as a Christian apologist his essays and speeches defended the Christian faith, influenced social justice and encouraged others to live moral yet thoughtful lives. Chesterton was even nominated for the Nobel prize in literature in 1935. However, Chesterton was also having fun and making money by writing mysteries. He wrote 53 short stories between 1910 and 1936 featuring father brown a priest and amateur detective who solved mysteries and crimes using his astute intuition and uncanny understanding of human nature. It is believed that the character is loosely based on Reverend John O’Connor, who is involved in Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism in 1922.
BrookAs a mystery author, Chesterton was a founding member of the Detection Club and served as the first president. Presiding over this prestigious group of authors from 1930 to 1936. In case you missed our episode in season 1 all about the Detection Club, this was an organization of golden age mystery authors who met for regular dinners helping each other with technical aspects of their individual writings and generally having a great time together. They also wrote collaborative mysteries and agreed to adhere to member Ronald Knox’s fair play commandments.
BrookG.K. Chesterton stood six feet four inches tall, or 1.9 meters, and weighed around one hundred and thirty kilograms, or close to 300 pounds. His large stature didn’t bother him though and true to his witty fun letter and true to his witty fun loving nature. He would often joke about his size. At one time, poking fun at his very thin friend George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton said “to look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England. Shaw replied “to look at you, anyone would think you caused it.”
BrookSome of his other famous friends include C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, H.G. Wells and Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton died of congestive heart failure in 1936 at the age of 62 he was at home with his wife Frances by his side. His requiem mass was held at Westminster Cathedral. Ronald Knox delivered the sermon and noted “all of this generation has grown up under Chesterton’s influence so completely that we do not even know when we are thinking Chesterton. At the time, Chesterton was internationally famous and his unexpected death shocked the world. The short funeral procession had to be lengthened by several miles in order to accommodate all those who came out to pay their respect.
BrookSeveral societies exist today which carry on his theological teachings. The Chesterton Society is seeking to have him canonized. So, Sarah I’m wondering how much you learned about Chesterton in school or as you studied authors of his time such as Lewis or Elliot, George Bernard Shaw. To me he seems to have been lost to us a little bit.
SarahI agree, Brook. I don’t think I knew very much about him at all until we started the podcast and kind of in that first episode in that episode in the first season like you mentioned about the detection club. He obviously came up then. Um, and I knew that he’d written the Father Brown stories but apart from that I knew very little about him. So, thank you for that excellent overview of um of his life. He sounds like he was just an absolutely fascinating individual.
BrookAbsolutely yes. Oh and you’re so welcome. It was so much fun looking into him something that jumped out at me when they talked about him being the prince of paradox and like the way he could turn a phrase and make you look at two sides of a situation. He was a bit of a paradox himself as a man. Even so in that he was apparently they called him a quote unquote “slow learner”. Which I think in our day we probably would have discovered that he had a learning disability. But he didn’t read until he was almost eight years old and he would joke that his um he’s he joked about being um, almost like considered asleep in his ah you know primary school age. Um, but I think that that is so interesting as then someone to go on and be an amazingly prolific writer and profound thinker. So um, lots of paradoxes for this fellow.
SarahYeah, that’s that’s really interesting. Because you know the little bit that I’ve that I’ve read about him in preparing for this episode certainly suggested that he was extraordinarily well read. Um and you know, well versed in ah all you know so many subjects. If you think about all of the different things that he wrote about right? He wrote extensively about um other authors and and literature, philosophy, religion. He developed ah an economic theory, which is you know like yeah, just incredible.
BrookYeah, the subjects that he tackled and um and then as you say like writing about other people’s writing in the very critical um thought provoking way he did is. . . I don’t know I think I feel like it’s sort of unparalleled. Especially at least in the people that I’ve studied.
SarahI would agree and he was obviously very well respected if um, the Detection Club elected him as the first president right? And I think you know he was close friends with a lot of the members of the of the detection club. Um, but then also with other like really high-profile authors and other high-profile individuals so he just he sounds like one of those people that um, you would have him on kind of every guest list for every um. Important event.
BrookI think so yeah and and he seems like he was very humble. You know you hear some of these comments that he and very um, jovial so you you know his interactions with other people. He he was um, such a revered thinker and and writer but he didn’t it seems like it didn’t go to his head. I mean he there’s even a quote of him talking about the you know terrible mysteries that he wrote like he was making fun of his own work in comparison to the work of some of his colleagues that were in the detection club like he just kind of always made his um. Made himself just you know, very relatable and down to earth and I think that his writing felt that way too. Even when he is explaining philosophy or theology. You know that although I didn’t dive in and read a lot of that work of his, the comments are that he was making it accessible to everyday people and that’s why he would use allegory or you know well-known proverbs or something like that so that he could illustrate these points that he wanted to make. So I just I just think that he seems so likable.
SarahAnd no I I would agree with that. Um, and ah yeah I was thinking. Um you know there’s the question of you know if you could have dinner with anybody or you know six six people who would they be, I think I would add him to my list. Like I think he sounds like he just would be a really fascinating person to have a conversation with.
BrookYes, and I think he would be the person at the table that could get everybody involved like I see him as like drawing people out and being able to meet anyone ah where they are and have a ah ah great conversation sort of the MC or moderator of the table. I I would definitely love to have a conversation with him.
BrookAlthough we don’t necessarily have his name on the tip of our tongue, he influenced heavily C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, one of his famous ah pieces of ah philosophical literature that he wrote is called Orthodoxy. And Ryan Reeves ah who’s a Cambridge professor said Orthodoxy is the philosophy behind the fiction of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien so I thought that was so interesting to think about some of his. Um. Work as being kind of the underpinning underpinnings of these fictional worlds that we’re very familiar with with Narnia and with Lord of the Rings and things that um they had read Chesterton in order to create their worlds.
SarahYeah, no, that’s that is very interesting. Um, and you know when I think about kind of what was happening. Um at the time that he was writing what was happening socially and politically um I think there’s some parallels to what is happening now in terms of like massive change happening.
BrookI think that’s a fascinating point because it was such a turning point. The world was changing in such large ways and somebody like him could help people um navigate it and put you know some parameters around it and maybe how do we think about this because our whole world is changing. Um, and yeah, that’s really fascinating and I wonder if there’s going to be someone who does that for us. At this point I can’t think of that person.
SarahI was wondering the same thing um and and trying you know to think “ok well who, who do we turn to for that interpretation of of what’s going on?” And that guidance. I I don’t know if I can identify anybody, which is interesting. Um, but yeah, seemed to. . . I don’t think this is quite the right way to describe it because it’s not that he was um, directly involved in all of these things but he did seem to have his fingers in a lot of pies.
BrookYeah, and it didn’t and it doesn’t necessarily although he was coming from a very religious standpoint. It wouldn’t necessarily be that um it wouldn’t have to be in that category because what ended up happening was that then the fiction took it on. You know like he created this framework and then even Lewis and Eliot and Tolkien were then using that to continue to shape because those stories are allegory right? They are helping people put their minds around societal changes or um or how we treat other people of different cultures and there’s like all sorts of messages interwoven in there. So yeah I love thinking about things like that.
SarahYeah, no, it’s it It I think it’s um I think it’s really interesting and and I think it’s you know I think one of the many hats that he wore was being a crime author. Um, but it’s nice that you know that that is one of the hats that he that he wore and and a lot of the um messages that he was conveying were through his crime writing.
BrookExactly exactly. The same idea the same notion of being able to um, comment on society or issues happened in his Father Brown stories 100 percent. And I think also he shared sentiments of his religious beliefs through those stories as well and not at all in a pushy or preachy way. But you definitely got a sense of um, like who he was spiritually through those stories and um, super interesting.
SarahWell and I think it’s really interesting that he didn’t actually convert to Catholicism until sometime after he’d started writing Father Brown stories. Um, so that’s you know that’s an interesting trajectory that he that he followed. Um, to you know, start writing about a character and then eventually um, sort of join the religion that that character belonged to.
BrookYeah, isn’t that interesting? I thought found that point fascinating as well because um, and here’s to be able to do it convincingly before actually converting to that religion I think says a lot about you know his level of knowledge of all things. But um, yeah, that was that was an interesting point that I didn’t realize either.
SarahI read part of Martin Edwards book about um the golden age of murder and Anthony Berkeley was behind kind of one of the founders of the club right? and so he wrote to Chesterton this is what Martin Edwards says describing plans for the club. “The tone of the letter blended charm dynamism and impatience I do hope you will join a club of the kind I have in mind would be quite incomplete without the creator of Father Brown and one who has evolved such a very original turn to the detective story as you have.”
SarahYeah and so between um, Chesterton and and Berkeley um, and the other members and Knox I guess they came up with ah with the rules for the club and um, yeah, anyway that um, it’s fascinating like it’s just he’s he’s such a fascinating man.
BrookI Love that? yeah. And I think it’s pretty um, cool that we sorry let me start Again. It’s very interesting that really during his lifetime. Yes, father brown is being read. Obviously it was it was popular. But he was mostly famous for his more. You know, serious critical work. Um, and then that these were this was kind of the fun he did on the side and and lucrative right? It was a commercial venture for him to write the father brown mysteries. So that’s always fun to Learn. Um. Like what they were known for in their lifetime because in ah in my mind. The only connection I had had was as the Father Brown um author.
SarahWell and and like you described for his funeral that they had to extend the procession to accommodate the crowds of people who wanted to to watch and you know I think that’s so amazing. For that to have been the reaction when an author died. I don’t know that we would have the same reaction now because there’s so many other different kinds of entertainers that um you know that enamor people I think you know there’s probably some actors or certainly we’ve seen that you know we saw that when um when the queen died right? like that was there was an incredibly long procession for that. Um, but yeah I don’t I don’t know if there are many people today who would command that kind of reaction when they died.
BrookNo, and I really think it goes back to what you said of how important he was to society and to readers in you know navigating the changing of the world and some of the things that they were going through. I mean there was an importance there from Chesterton, far beyond Father Brown even though you know he was beloved for that as well. Yeah, fascinating. And yeah, it said that the churchyard and the cemetery were you know half a mile apart but that the procession went on for miles and miles. They just kept going where if they saw a community of people then they would continue to go. And I I thought the same thing. like Wow this is like a ah a world leader where that’s what happens when a world leader passes Away. You know that was very special.
SarahI think he just yeah he was probably a very wonderful person.
BrookWell thanks Sarah this was been has been really great. And next week we are going to continue our discussion on Chesterton we’ll dive in a little more to his mystery writing and Father Brown specifically.
SarahI’m really looking forward to it, Brook. Thanks.
BrookYes, and thanks everyone for listening to Clued in Mystery today. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.