G.K. (Gilbert Keith) Chesterton was born in 1874 and died in 1936, just two weeks into his 63rd year. During his lifetime, he was one of England’s most notable writers. His output was truly prodigious, including novels, poems, short stories, newspaper columns and such.
Today, it’s probably fair to say that he’s best remembered for one literary creation – Father Brown.
Father Brown is a fictional Catholic priest who solves crimes on the side. He made his printed debut in 1910 and appears in more than 50 of Chesterton’s short stories.
And Father Brown has long been featured in various entertainment media – films, television and radio. Dating from 2013, the current BBC television series has garnered an international audience. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the sleuthing cleric is certainly a durable character.
My first encounter with Father Brown came in 1956, courtesy of an aunt in Ireland’s northwest. One evening, she took me to the small local cinema to see the 1954 film starring Alec Guinness. I remember it as amusing. She liked it a lot.
My aunt had read some of the short stories and enjoyed them. It also probably helped that Chesterton was a Catholic, having converted from High Anglicanism in 1922. Mid-20th-century Ireland enjoyed such things. A win for our side.
Chesterton was a significant public figure in his day. By 21st-century terms, you might call him a celebrity. He was, without doubt, a man with a high public profile.
His appearance added to the impact.
Tall and super-sized – six-foot-four and not much shy of 300 pounds – he dressed flamboyantly. With his cape, hat, swordstick cane and cigar, he wasn’t the sort of fellow who’d fade into the woodwork.
And there was the touch of eccentricity that often goes down well in England.
Chesterton had a tendency to be forgetful about mundane things, such as where he was supposed to be at a particular point in time. His wife would reputedly receive telegrams from him, announcing where he was and inquiring as to where he was supposed to be.
Chesterton was also disputatious. His opinions on the issues of the day were rarely kept to himself.
So there were debates – usually friendly – with contemporaries like George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells. To quote just one of Chesterton’s many aphorisms: “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
Socio-economically, Chesterton was an advocate of distributism, an awkward term not to be confused with socialism.
Distributism can be thought of as a middle way between big business and big government. Its intellectual antecedents can be linked to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical.
Rejecting both laissez-faire capitalism and socialism, distributism affirms the right to private property. But it wants property widely distributed and governance exercised locally.
Businesses should be small rather than large, producer co-operatives should be encouraged and political power should be decentralized. Small communities should be enabled to control their lives with minimal external interference.
The most significant criticism of Chesterton today pertains to what’s been described as his anti-Semitism. And there’s no question but that his perspective and language wouldn’t pass 21st-century muster.
Like many of his contemporaries, Chesterton believed there was a “Jewish problem.” Jews were actually different and didn’t quite fit into European societies. And this non-fit was problematic for both sides.
The answer was Zionism. Jews should have a homeland just like everyone else. To his critics, this forms part of the indictment. Rather than an expression of tolerance, it was a device to encourage Jews to move elsewhere.
Defenders cut Chesterton substantial slack.
He was, they point out, an early and vocal critic of Nazism. He was also an unapologetic opponent of eugenics and derisive towards the concept of racial purity.
Responding to a 2008 attack on Chesterton, Ross Douthat – now a New York Times columnist – found him “an odd target … to single out for particular opprobrium.” It would be akin to focusing on Abraham Lincoln as a racist. Although Lincoln abolished U.S. slavery, he did, after all, hold views on race that would be anathema today.
As for Father Brown, fans of Mark Williams’ BBC characterization have more to look forward to. There’ll be a ninth season in 2021.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.