G. K. Chesterton: the Catholic Apologist

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was born on May 29, 1874, in London, the eldest son of Edward Chesterton and Marie Louise Grosjean. Chesterton had a happy childhood and his parents encouraged his interests in art and literature. Chesterton’s brother Cecil Edward was born in 1879.

As a child Chesterton attended Colet Court, Hammersmith, and St Paul’s School in London. Although he showed academic promise, he often appeared distracted and inattentive to subjects that were not to his liking. At the age of eighteen, Chesterton enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art at University College London. He toyed with the idea of becoming a professional artist, but financial concerns and his great love of literature inspired him to pursue a career as a writer. He continued to draw and illustrated some books.

After leaving college in 1895 Chesterton worked as a publisher’s reader and soon became a reviewer and essayist for both The Speaker and the Daily News. In 1900 he published two collections of poems; one of them included his famous and often anthologized poem “The Donkey.” Later the same year he met Hilaire Belloc, who was to become one of his closest friends and literary allies.

Correspondence from Chesterton to Hilary Belloc

One of the many letters exchanged between Chesterton and Belloc. G. K. Chesterton Collection, MS 2005-02, Box 3, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In the early 1900’s, Chesterton also produced several collections of essays. In 1903 he published a study of Robert Browning; the book received popular praise, but Browning scholars objected to its many biographical inaccuracies. Chesterton’s carelessness with factual details soon became habitual in his writing.

In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Alice Blogg (1869-1938), an acquaintance of a school friend. Also a writer, Blogg was happy to stay in the background and her works have only recently become the subject of serious scholarly study. A devout Anglican, she eventually led Chesterton to that faith on his spiritual journey to Catholicism.

In 1904, Chesterton published The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a fantastical novel dealing with serious themes that attracted much positive critical attention. Chesterton’s next novel, The Man who was Thursday (1908), told the story of a group of supposed anarchists plotting to overthrow established society in London, who are successively revealed to be police detectives. Although The Man who was Thursday went largely unnoticed at the time of its publication, today the novel remains among Chesterton’s most popular works. Subsequently Chesterton wrote several other novels including The Ball and the Cross (1910), Manalive (1912), and The Flying Inn (1914).

Chesterton’s best-known works of fiction, however, are his Father Brown stories. The first of these story collections, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), introduced one of the most famous literary detectives, the humble Catholic priest, Father Brown, a man who possessed incredible skills of observation and whose work as a confessor gave him deep insight into the criminal mind. Chesterton wrote several collections of Father Brown stories, some of which were adapted for film and television; Alec Guinness notably played Father Brown in Robert Hammer’s 1954 film.

The covers and title page illustration from from several of the Fr. Brown stories in our collection.

The covers and title page illustration from several of the Fr. Brown stories in our collection. They span from the 1914 edition of The Wisdom of Father Brown (center), to the 1927 edition of The Secret of Father Brown (left), to a more recent 1982 edition of The Incredulity of Father Brown (right). PR4453.C4 S44 1927b, PR4453 .C4 W45 1914b, PR4453 .C4 I6 1982, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In addition to writing fiction, Chesterton also composed serious philosophical and religious texts. In 1905 Chesterton published Heretics, a study of contemporary writers that focused on his subjects’ belief systems. As a follow-up to Heretics, in 1908, Chesterton composed Orthodoxy, an incredibly personal expression of his own Christian values and attitude toward life.

In 1909 Chesterton moved to Beaconsfield, twenty-five miles west of London, where he continued to write and lecture. From 1913-1914 Chesterton made regular essay contributions to The Daily Herald. Soon after World War I Chesterton became the President of the Distributist League, promoting the idea that land should be divided into the smallest possible holdings and then distributed equally throughout society. During this time Chesterton wrote many essays and journalistic pieces expressing his dislike of government and modern society. In addition to his work with the Distributist League, Chesterton edited the literary publications The New Witness and his own G.K.’s Weekly. He also worked as a radio lecturer, engaging in a series of famous debates with George Bernard Shaw. In 1918, Chesterton suffered a serious emotional shock when his younger brother, Cecil, died while on active military duty.

In 1922 Chesterton converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Shortly after his conversion he wrote several theologically oriented works, including biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1934 he received the honor of Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield.

The Chesterton Collection at the Burns Library comprises of many small collections, most of them obtained by purchase from manuscript dealers. The contents include sketches (by Chesterton and others), sketchbooks, typescripts and manuscripts of essays, poetry, non-fiction, novels, short stories, plays, book reviews and autobiographical works. The collection also has correspondence received and sent by Chesterton, his wife Frances Chesterton and his secretary Dorothy Collins. In addition, the collection contains an autographed photo of Chesterton and various other documents including the minutes of Chesterton’s junior debating team, receipts from Barclay and Company Limited and the Cambridge Daily News, lecture notes and doodles, a dinner program and a clipping of Edmund Bentley’s 1944 newspaper article on Chesterton’s legacy. Ian Ker, in his 2011 biography of Chesterton, mentions “… some hitherto unused, if not unknown, letters from Chesterton to Hilaire Belloc,” that throw new light on Chesterton’s family relationships.

A variety of sketches by G.K. Chesterton and illustrations for articles written by Chesterton.

A variety of sketches by G.K. Chesterton and illustrations for articles written by Chesterton. Going clockwise from the top left: some sketches for the Burnham Breed, a pencil sketch for The Club of Queer TradesMen of the Land of CakesThe Successful ManMarriage and the Modern Mind by Jeffryes, and an untitled sketch in pencil.  G. K. Chesterton Collection; MS 1986-072, Box 1, Folders 29, 30, & 31; MS1986-012, Box 1, Folders 6, 7, 10; John J. Burns Library; Boston College.

One accession includes mainly correspondence, both personal and professional, exchanged between Chesterton and a variety of correspondents, including Hilaire Belloc, Kenelyn Foss, John Lane and Chesterton’s lawyers, publishers and managers. Additionally, the collection contains programs of lectures given by Chesterton, sheet music with words by Chesterton, an exercise book, and a G.K.’s Weekly stock certificate. Of special importance is a manuscript of the nine chapters of Orthodoxy, a book important for showing Chesterton’s religious views and as a survey of religious views of pre-World War I England.

The manuscripts in the Burns Library are supplemented by over 800 books by and about Chesterton.

If you would like to look at the G.K. Chesterton collection in person, visit the Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • David E. Horn, Burns Library, Boston College
  • Edited and revised by Chad M. Landrum, M.A. student in the History Department & Burns Library Reading Room Assistant

Sources:

  • Bergonzi, Bernard.  Chesterton, Gilbert Keith (1874 1936).  Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. 12 July 2016 <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32392>.
  • Ker, Ian, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography (Oxford, 2011).

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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