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Is Another New Biography of Chesterton Really Needed?

Ian Ker, G. K. Chesterton: A Biography, (Oxford University Press 2011), $65, 747 pp., Hardcover.


Reviewed by Nancy Carpentier Brown

Two new biographies of British journalist G.K. Chesterton came out recently. William Oddie, a British journalist himself as well as an avid Chestertonian, wrote Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy: The Making of GKC, 1874-1908, published by Oxford University Press in May 2010. In January 2011, American author Kevin Belmonte wrote Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton, published by Thomas Nelson. Then in May 2011, Oxford University Press published another biography of Chesterton, the book we now consider, simply called G.K. Chesterton: A Biography.


Is another biography of Chesterton really needed? This reviewer, who has read nearly every biography of Chesterton written, must declare: yes. By far, Ian Ker’s book is the most comprehensive and thorough biography of Chesterton to date. I believe this book will be referenced from this point on; much like Maisie Ward’s book was in the past.


Ian Ker, a British Catholic priest, is Senior Research Fellow at St Benet's Hall, Oxford and has taught both English literature and theology at universities in Britain and the United States. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books on John Henry Newman, and is considered Newman’s leading authority. In the past decade, Father Ker devoured Chesterton’s writings, and so with fresh eyes on his subject, he began to compile this scholarly biography. As the back of the book states, “This full-length life of G.K. Chesterton is the first comprehensive biography of both the man and the thinker and the writer.” Ker synthesizes Chesterton’s writings and the events of his life, tracing the path of his developing thinking, his developing faith and his developing relationships.


Reviews of this biography have thus far failed to do it the justice of insisting that of all biographies, it is the most thoroughly researched. Besides being a faithful consultant of Maisie Ward’s traditional texts, often referred to as “the best biography” because Ward knew both GKC and had access to his wife, Frances, and his last secretary and literary executrix, Dorothy Collins—and to works that were later destroyed or are missing—Ker goes well beyond to include unpublished letters or previously partially published documents, where Ker actually corrects the text from his examinations of the originals.  Ker has made more use of Frances and Dorothy’s diaries and travel notes than any previous biographer. These add a rich depth to their travels throughout Europe and America. He has also unearthed contemporaneous reviews of GKC’s works that other biographers haven’t.


Never have so many resources about Chesterton been collected in one volume: besides quoting all the usual biographies, Ker unearthed newspaper and magazine interviews, and consulted numerous other new sources.


Ker considers Charles Dickens, Orthodoxy, The Victorian Age in Literature, St. Frances of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Autobiography Chesterton’s seven great literary works. He focuses on those works, going into more depth on them because of their importance.


Ker has, as he rightly claims, written the first full-length intellectual and literary life of Chesterton. It is quite amazing, when one considers the size of this book, how much Ker packed into it.


So why this book, why now, and why do we need another biography of Chesterton?


As Ker states, even people already familiar with Chesterton don’t generally appreciate what an important writer GKC is. Ker recognized in Chesterton the common thread from Newman—convert, controversialist, apologist for orthodoxy, and writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Chesterton, to Ker, was the “obvious successor to Newman.”


In addition, Ker believes the world has overlooked the amazing talent of Chesterton; his book seeks to rectify that problem. Ker believes Chesterton a talented literary critic, one who deserves another glance.


The most common complaint about Chesterton today is the oft-repeated criticism that he was a blatant anti-Semite. Ker weaves his own argument throughout the biography that Chesterton may have regarded Jews as “foreigners” but that was not the same as anti-Semitism. Ker mentions a few times that Lawrence Solomon, a Jew who was an original member of Chesterton’s high school group, the Junior Debate Club, moved to Beaconsfield with his family to be close to Chesterton because they were such good friends. While visiting Poland, Gilbert and Frances visited a Synagogue. Chesterton appears more of a pro-Semite: he defended the Jewish boys at his school from bullying and teasing, and condemned pogroms in Russia and Poland as an adult.


By blending GKC’s personal story with his contemporaneous literary output, Ker puts Chesterton’s life and writings and faith development into perspective better than any other biographer has thus far. One also gets a real sense of Chesterton’s engagement with the culture. We may suspect, for example, that everyone in the early twentieth century was discussing faith and reason, but the fact is: religion was as politically an incorrect topic to discuss then as it is now. Chesterton’s lack of fear in engaging his readers in real debate, real thinking, and real arguments is a testament to his incredible genius. His newspaper editors asked him not to discuss religion or politics, but Chesterton found this advice impossible to follow, as every subject, to him, was religious or political. Chesterton found ways to discuss things logically and rationally, always starting with common ground, or what he called, “common sense.” We could all use those skills, especially today.


Chesterton’s wife Frances appears more in this book than in any previous GKC biography. Frances is usually only mentioned briefly as the person Chesterton married. Ker weaves her life together with Gilbert’s nicely. I’m currently researching a book on Frances, so this was of particular interest to me. Indeed, Ker has unearthed more information on Frances’s family than seen in print before; in particular, Ker discovered Frances’s brother Knollys’s death certificate and the inquest following his suicide. In addition, Ker has used travel diaries that Frances kept, information previously for the most past unpublished.


Ker also does a brilliant job of putting Ada “Keith” Jones Chesterton’s life into perspective. The wife of Gilbert’s younger brother Cecil, Keith’s spiteful personality did not mix well with most people; she was quick to pounce on any weakness she thought she saw in Frances, whom she obviously did not like.


Ker lays to rest the rumor “Keith” started that Frances held the purse strings and wouldn’t allow poor Gilbert any money of his own. Ker found that Gilbert was sole signatory on his bank account. Obviously, “Keith” didn’t know that. Although she married Cecil, they were only together a short time before Cecil shipped out to war. Their entire marriage lasted one and one half years, the war keeping them separated for the majority of that time, with Cecil dying in France shortly after the Armistice. However, she took great advantage of the Chesterton name.


There were some surprises in the book. For example, the Chestertons met Helen Keller while they were visiting America in 1921. Chesterton also met Ernest Shakleton, the famed Antarctic Explorer, and watched a slide presentation he gave.


I cannot leave out a few criticisms. Ker takes great care to correct previous biographers mistakes, including Bentley, Oddie, Pearce, and even Ward, by repeatedly checking the British Library’s manuscripts for accuracy (i.e., a footnote will read “Barker, 155, with text corrected from BL…etc.), but then makes the colossal mistake of repeatedly calling Chesterton’s work Alarms and Discursions —Alarms and Discussions. The occasional comment is made without reference and there are a few missing footnotes. In the discussion of Chesterton’s epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, the location of the battle, Ethandune, is rendered in the book as “Ethandane”.


Another criticism is that there are two missing sources from the book. The first is living sources. Judith Lea is mentioned in the book, she being the long-time housemate of Dorothy Collins. Judith Lea is still alive. In addition, there was a family of young girls the Chesterton’s became quite close to while living in Beaconsfield: the Nicholl Family; one of the Nicholl girls is still alive. Both were interviewed in Gilbert Magazine. The second missing resource is the Internet. When Ker mentions Chesterton’s visit to Holy Cross College in Worcester, he tells us that the visit was filmed, but not that a portion of the film is available for viewing on Youtube.


My last criticism is that Ker occasionally reiterates “facts” stated by previous biographers that are questionable at best. I refer to first, the oft-repeated “fact” that Gertrude was Frances’s favorite sister, when the facts point much more favorably to Ethel being the favorite. And second, the oft-repeated “fact” that Dorothy Collins, the Chesterton’s last secretary, became like a daughter to Gilbert and Frances, when Dorothy was clearly an employee who became at best a close friend of the family. Dorothy had the fortunate luck of being the last secretary of Gilbert’s, but there were many other secretaries, others equal if not more affectionately connected with the Chestertons. Although Frances came to rely heavily on Dorothy as an organizer, and both Gilbert and Frances were grateful to her for her help, Dorothy remained a woman on her own terms. While travelling in America, for example, when the Chestertons went up to Canada to visit with Gilbert’s relations there, Dorothy stayed behind and did sight seeing on her own. This kind of anecdote suggests to me that the relationship remained more friendly and business-like than family-like.


I am quite grateful to author Ian Ker for the enormous time, the generous research effort, the tremendous synthesis, and the stupendous weaving he did to create this most valuable resource for all Chestertonians. I highly recommend this biography.CW

Nancy Carpentier Brown is the author of A Study Guide for G. K. Chesterton's St. Francis of Assisi.

This review was published in the January 2012 issue of Culture Wars.

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Speed Bump, an e-book by James G. Bruen, Jr. Five flash fiction stories, published originally in the American Chesterton Society's Gilbert Magazine. Each stands alone; together they also constitute a single narrative. Speed Bump is a story of neighborhood, solidarity, and struggle against oppressive government; inspired by G. K. Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill and his The Man Who Knew Too Much. $2.99. Read More/Buy


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