Born in 1874, Gilbert Keith Chesterton is an important figure for those interested in the varied and cosmopolitan literary-cultural life of London at the end of the nineteenth century. At least he should be seen as an important figure. His development as an influential thinker and writer was shaped by engagement with a large number of well-known Victorians: those he knew personally (e.g. Joseph Conrad and Alice Meynell), those he read through their published work and then wrote books about (e.g. Robert Browning and Charles Dickens), those with whom he found considerable agreement (e.g. George MacDonald and Robert Louis Stevenson), and those he provocatively and half-seriously termed ‘heretics’ in a work published in 1905 (e.g. George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells). By focussing his book on Chesterton’s early intellectual and religious development, which culminated in the publication of Orthodoxy (1908), William Oddie situates Chesterton as a public thinker who was right at the centre of many of the period’s most exciting controversies. Despite his comparative neglect today among scholars, Chesterton cast a huge presence (literally and metaphorically) on the literary scene in London at the turn of the century and his eclectic career as a journalist, novelist, theologian, literary critic, biographer and poet, demands attention.
While Oddie’s account of Chesterton’s early life and work takes its place in an increasingly long line of biographies, it deserves to become the seminal work for the foreseeable future. One of the challenges of writing about Chesterton is the fact that he was such a prolific writer. Biographers who want to give a comprehensive and accurate assessment of him must not only come to terms with the events of his life and the multitude of figures with whom he conversed; they must also take account of his many writings, including scores of authored books and countless contributions to other publications. Over the last few years Ignatius Press has led the unenviable job of compiling and publishing Chesterton’s Collected Works. If I note that there are several hefty volumes devoted just to covering Chesterton’s contributions to The Illustrated London News, one can start to appreciate the scale of the editorial task. The quantity of Chesterton’s published work is only part of the challenge, however. There is also his unpublished work, including notebooks, sketches, letters and short musings. Many of these are held in a special collection belonging to the British Library, and the publication of R. A. Christophers’ The British Library Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts: The G. K. Chesterton Papers (2001) has made this material accessible to those who want to use the archive.
Oddie draws extensively on the material in the British Library archive to help him revise the record of Chesterton’s life presented by earlier biographers. Identifying actual events and dates is a process complicated by Chesterton’s own account of himself (in his Autobiography and in other, shorter autobiographical pieces): though these remembrances are not intentionally duplicitous, they frequently employ poetic licence and introduce factual inaccuracies. In addressing these inaccuracies, Oddie’s study gives us, among other things, the clearest picture to date of Chesterton’s education and experience at the Slade School of Art and University College London between 1893 and 1895 (a period that Chesterton and those who knew him best described as extremely formative), as well as highlighting the influence of Professor W. P. Ker on Chesterton’s education. While he was at UCL Chesterton attended many of Ker’s lectures on English Literature and, as Oddie points out, this course of instruction proved to be very influential on Chesterton’s subsequent reading of the literary tradition. Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy also gives us a much sharper understanding of Chesterton’s religious development, with Oddie arguing persuasively that Chesterton’s orthodox faith was evident earlier than many critics have been willing to acknowledge. Although Chesterton did not join the Catholic Church until 1922, his religious position changed little after the publication of Orthodoxy. His beliefs were increasingly evident in work published between 1900 and 1908, and they were even apparent, albeit in a less defined form, in unpublished work written in the 1890s. In addition to shedding new light on Chesterton’s literary and theological ideas, Oddie highlights the importance of Chesterton’s journalism, from his 1903 argument with Robert Blatchford, conducted in the pages of The Clarion, The Commonwealth, and The Daily News, to the importance of the several hundred other contributions that Chesterton made to The Daily News, beginning with his first signed piece in May 1901. Indeed, it is Chesterton’s journalism that sometimes reveals the depth of his developing religious commitment: Oddie makes a convincing case for the way in which ‘The Return of the Angels’, an essay published in The Daily News in March 1903, documents a major landmark in Chesterton’s ‘intellectual and spiritual history’ (p. 240).
This book enriches our understanding of Chesterton and maps out helpfully his contribution to some of the major religious, literary and political debates of the early twentieth century. The careful scholarship that Oddie has undertaken clarifies Chesterton’s career as a writer leading up to his first published book (Greybeards at Play, which appeared in October 1900) and it is this work in the 1890s that is so vital to appreciating Chesterton’s importance for scholarship on the late-nineteenth century. At the same time, I am not convinced that the book is as groundbreaking as Oddie sometimes tells us it is. In the introduction we are told that, with the exception of a small handful of critics, ‘I have not been able to build on any existing scholarly foundation’ (p. 13). This is a staggering claim. In spite of the neglect of Chesterton by much of the scholarly community—a neglect which, incidentally, falls noticeably short of the ‘academic embargo against recognition of Chesterton’s stature’ (p. 13) that Oddie alleges—there is a significant body of scholarship about Chesterton, and for all its faults and gaps, it covers many of the insights and quotations that Oddie includes here. This is not to suggest in any sense that Oddie’s work is derivative or unoriginal; I simply want to note that this sizeable and impressive piece of scholarship is more indebted to the work of others than its sometimes cantankerous author would have us think. Others have managed to say something noteworthy about Chesterton before now because they have had plenty of material to consult, and while I agree wholeheartedly with Oddie’s insistence on the importance of the British Library’s Chesterton archive, I am not convinced that it has ‘established the foundations on which all future Chesterton scholarship will be built’ (p. 12). It is far from clear why we should privilege the largely unpublished work in the archive over the extensive published work that has been available elsewhere for many years.
One of the book’s many strengths is its clarity of thought, but the writing does occasionally lose precision as Oddie slips into polemic. Addressing the persistent though unlikely rumours about problematic sexual relations between Chesterton and his wife Frances, Oddie prefaces his rebuttal with the following, oxymoronic phrase: ‘The fact, almost certainly…’ (p. 218). This is not an isolated expression, and though linguistic slips should be forgiven in a book of this length and scope, the slip that I have noted is indicative of an overly insistent and aggressive style of writing. Elsewhere, Oddie’s writing is marred by an occasional lack of generosity towards those with whom he disagrees. Turning his attention to discussions of Chesterton’s Charles Dickens (1906), for instance, he writes: ‘Whatever we may think of Edmund Wilson’s supposedly seminal essay on Dickens, his loftily dismissive judgement of Chesterton’s Charles Dickens, we may reasonably judge, is worthless’ (p. 321). Other biographers and critics of Chesterton are also attacked throughout the book for getting things wrong. Although correcting mistakes and making one’s case is an integral part of all academic discourse, Oddie has a tendency to be harsher and more zealous in his criticism than he needs to be. The style quickly becomes jarring, essentially because it is at odds with the approach adopted by the subject of the book. Chesterton was very willing to disagree with others. As Oddie observes, Gilbert and his brother Cecil were legendary among their friends for arguing with one another through the night, sometimes over apparently trivial points. But however much Chesterton was willing to stand up for truth and argue his case, and however much this combative style was one of his great contributions to public life at the start of the twentieth century, his engagement with other perspectives was marked by a generosity of spirit, one which was genuinely interested in what others had to say. In the epilogue to his book Oddie turns to Chesterton’s legendary debates with George Bernard Shaw, which probably commenced ‘in late 1907 or early 1908’ (p. 369). He quotes Shaw’s comments after Chesterton’s death: ‘I enjoyed him … and nothing could have been more generous than his treatment of me’ (p. 369). While the first part of this comment can be applied to Oddie’s important new study, it is a shame that the book lacks the generosity towards others that would merit the other part of Shaw’s praise.
Mark Knight is Reader in English Literature at Roehampton University, London, UK. His books include Chesterton and Evil (Fordham UP, 2004), Nineteenth-Century Religion and Literature: An Introduction (with Emma Mason, Oxford UP, 2006) and An Introduction to Religion and Literature (Continuum, 2009). He is currently working on a new project provisionally entitled ‘Good Words: Evangelicalism and the Development of the Nineteenth-Century Novel’.