Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), who was one of the most important literary
figures of the early twentieth century, is now almost forgotten. A recent
suggestion that he should be elevated to sainthood has renewed interest in him
as have accusations of anti-Semitism by critics of the suggestion. From a
modest start with a job in publishing and as a book reviewer, Chesterton went
on to achieve a massive reputation as journalist, novelist, poet and playwright
and much else.
into a comfortable middle class family, Gilbert had a younger brother Cecil and
a sister Beatrice, who died in infancy. Their father Edward, an estate agent,
ensured his sons received a good education at St Paul’s School. Gilbert went on
to the Slade School of Art, to train as an Illustrator. At St Paul’s Gilbert
formed life-long friendships with, among others, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who
achieved fame of a sort with his ‘clerihew’ poetry. Others of Gilbert’s friends
were Lucian Oldershaw, E W Fordham, Digby and Waldo d’Avigdor who bonded further
in the Junior Debating Club and later in the amusingly named IDK club.
universally as G K Chesterton, Gilbert wrote eighty books, hundreds of poems and
essays and several plays. He contributed articles to newspapers and journals on
the important political and social issues of the day and launched his own
G.K.’s Weekly. He was a brilliant orator and undertook speaking tours of North
America and in Europe. He also engaged in friendly debates with George Bernard
Shaw, H G Wells, Bertrand Russell and Hilaire Belloc. In his latter years,
Chesterton became a successful broadcaster on BBC radio.
His marriage to Frances Blogg in 1901 endured for the rest of his life. There were no children but the couple formed lasting friendships with children of other families. Frances was frequently ill and often a burden to Gilbert whose own idiosyncrasies – absent-minded, dishevelled, disorganised – gave cause for Frances and a string of secretaries to indulge him. At his death due to heart disease, he weighed more than 20 stones.
In this excellent biography Denis Conlon portrays Chesterton as the giant that he was, literally and metaphorically. It includes some previously unpublished photographs and illustrations and the diary of their trip to Palestine and the Holy Land reveals his empathy with all peoples of the region. The book is a worthy addition to the genre.
After service in the Royal Air Force Denis Conlon taught in England, Singapore, Newfoundland and Belgium where he is currently Emeritus Professor of English Literature & Culture at the University of Antwerp. He has edited many editions of mediaeval texts, modern Plays and short stories. A long-standing member of the Chesterton Society, he served at its Chairman from 1996 until 2008. Among his many publications are Chesterton, The Critical Judgements (1900 –1937), Chesterton, A Half-Century of Views and Volumes 6 (Novels), 10B and 10C (Poetry), 11 (Plays) and 14 (Stories) of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton. He has also rediscovered and published Chesterton’s lost first novel Basil Howe.