G. K. Chesterton came to Beaconsfield in 1909, and he lived here until his death on June 14 1936.
The then Parish Priest, Monsignor Smith, gave him the last Sacraments and as he lay dying in Top Meadow, Grove Road. Fr Vincent McNabb, O.P., kissed the pen with which he had written so many noble words and sang the Salve Regina, as is the custom in the Dominican Order. Fourteen years before, he had been received into the Catholic Church in a hall with corrugated iron roof and wooden walls, a part of the Railway Hotel, later known as the Earl of Beaconsfield, for there was no Catholic Church in Beaconsfield in those days. Fr O’Connor, the inspiration of the Father Brown stories, was there and Father Ignatius Rice O.S.B.
The year was 1922.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born on 29 May 1874, in Campden Hill, London. Five years later his brother Cecil was born. “Now I shall have an audience,” was his welcoming remark – a prophecy singularly false, for they never ceased to argue all their lives. He was educated at St Paul’s School, London, which has sent forth so many famous men. It is worthy of record that some of his schoolfellows said of him afterwards, “We matched our talk. We felt that he was looking for God.” He had already begun the quest of his life.
He did not go to Oxford, where so many of his friends went, but to Art Schools, principally the Slade School of Art. He writes of this period of his life in his Autobiography, entitled it, “How to be a Lunatic.” Idling at his work, he fell in with other idlers. He dabbled in spiritualism. “I hung on to religion by one thin road of thanks.” This road of thanks to a Person for the gifts of life sent revulsion in him from the atmosphere of evil. He loved humanity and he loved things. He loathed pessimism. He had something of St Francis of Assisi about him and he would speak of Sister Rain. He wrote:
If the arms of a man could be a fiery circle
Embracing the whole world
I think I should be that man.
In this spirit, he gave up his studies at the Art School. In 1899, he launched himself into journalism with a loud bang. His success, he would tell you, was all luck.
It was not difficult to picture him in Fleet Street, using his walking stick like a sword, a cloak around him, a large hat – popular with all, writing an article leaning against a street lamp-post, or in the famous inn in Fleet Street, the Cheshire Cheese. There on its hard seats and in it’s Dickens atmosphere, we may see him with his fellow-journalists, no lovers of water, but lovers of life. “I would thank God for my creation, even if I knew I was a lost soul.” A saint once said something similar.
In Fleet Street and from Beaconsfield he poured out his invective against vast volumes of materialism, scepticism, crabbed, barren, servile and without any light of liberty or hope. Meanwhile he was seeing a vision of negation and groping and curiosity. He was groping towards the Catholic Church. “I saw Israel scattered on the hills as sheep that have not a shepherd; and I saw a large number of the sheep bleating in whatever neighbourhood it was supposed a shepherd might be found.” He began to see the “only one religion that dared to go down to the depths of myself.” His Christian outlook was revealed from the very beginning of his writings, in his attacks on rationalism and defence of Christian tradition and above all Christian liberty.
Liberty is the keynote to the understanding ofThe Napoleon of Notting Hill where boroughs fight one another in the gorgeous apparel of the past for the liberty of the past. In 1908 he wroteOrthodoxy, the story of how one man discovered orthodoxy as the only answer to the riddle of the Universe and in 1911, The Innocence of Fr Brown, later very happily filmed, and also an appreciation of Charles Dickens. Solid arguments and wit were used against divorce, and birth prevention, and control of population. He would cry for better distribution of property and the goods of this world as the answer to over-population, and a better one than simply to prevent the population. “If there are ten people all wanting hats and there are only eight hats, it is better to try and find two more hats, rather than to accept the simple solution of beheading two of the gentlemen.” He wrote much in defence of the 1914-1918 War which he believed was a holy cause. The loss of his brother, on active service, was a grief he never quite got over.
His conversion, therefore, in 1922 made little difference to his writings, for the Catholic trend had never been soft-pedalled. Three superlative works appeared after his conversion – a life of St Francis of Assisi (1923),The Everlasting Man (1925), and a life of St Thomas Aquinas (1933). This latter work showed his marvellous intuition into philosophy. One of St Thomas’s greatest commentators, Etienne Gilson, said “I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement.”
Chesterton had come to Beaconsfield in 1909. Some of his best-know books, therefore, were written from there. His coming to the town had been the result of chance. He took a ticket at Paddington Station for the next train that would be leaving. It went to Slough, a strange place even for a train to go to, he remarked. From there, accompanied by his wife, he walked to Beaconsfield. They both decided that that was the place where they would like to live.
He had married Frances in 1901. She must have saved his life by her efforts to prevent him being overworked. Indeed, it was impossible altogether to prevent this, as invitations poured in continuously asking him to lecture and he was loath to disappoint. He was ever in the public eye. A pro-Boer in the South African war, he later became known in every English home with the paper,The Eye Witness, edited by Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton, which later became the New Witnesswhich G.K.C. edited after his brother joined the Army in 1916, and then G.K.’sWeekly, and finally after his death theWeekly Review.
Before the first World War, he had become involved in exposing a government scandal, known as the Marconi Case. It seemed as if the brothers Isaac’s and others in the Government had made great profits in the buying and selling of stocks. His brother Cecil was sued for libel and Gilbert suffered much. At the end of the trial, Cecil was fined £100, really a moral victory for the paper. He was accused of being anti-Semitic, but this was quite untrue. He stood for small property ownership, and for cleanness in politics.
It was probably in 1900 that Chesterton first met Hilaire Belloc, a man four years older, with Oxford and an early marriage and above all a French and European outlook. They became close friends and they united together with Cecil Chesterton to fight increasing enslavement and to combat corruption in public life. It is not surprising that Bernard Shaw soon coined the phrase “The Chesterbelloc”. Chesterton dedicated his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, published in 1904, to Hilaire Belloc. Their friendship never flagged and was cemented and made deeper if possible when Chesterton entered the Catholic Church.
Twice he visited America, where he was received on both occasions with tumultuous enthusiasm. He liked them and they liked him. He visited Ireland and he never concealed his views. “Telling the truth about Ireland is not very pleasant to a patriotic Englishman, but it is very patriotic.” He believed in Home Rule, though he thought Ireland should support England, because of Prussia.
People sometimes criticise Chesterton for too great a use of the paradox.
O Gilbert, I know there are many who like
Your talks on the darkness of light,
The shortness of length
And the weakness of strength
And the one on the lowness of height.
was written by Edward Anthony in America. Chesterton’s paradoxes, however, are to be studied and a wealth of meaning will be discovered. His humour is not always paradoxical. “The Ballad of the White Horse”, published in 1911, is something that all should read. During the War, the poem was acted in dramatic fashion in the beautiful gardens of Hedsor by children of the Holy Child Convent. In the darkest hours of the Second World War, The Timesnewspaper based its leading article on the words:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher … “
Many months later,The Timesagain quoted the Ballad:
The high ride, King Alfred cried,
The high tide and the turn.
Chesterton led in truth a rich and full human existence and he looked back upon it as “indefensibly happy”. Yet his end was clouded with the shadow of the Spanish War and haunted by the thought of the war to come. He died as Pope St Pius X died, in the dread of war to come, heartbroken by public events. Yet “it was his lifelong beatitude to observe and ponder and conclude.” Walter de la Mare wrote of him:
Knight of the Holy Ghost, he goes his way,
Wisdom his motley, Truth his loving jest;
The mills of Satan keep his lance in play,
Pity and innocence his heart at rest.
G .K. Chesterton was buried in the cemetery in Shepherd’s Lane, Beaconsfield; the Crucifix over his grave is the work of Eric Gill. Frances, his wife, died two years after her husband and is buried with him. There is a memorial window to them both in the church which is of St Francis of Assisi.
His house, Top Meadow, Grove Road, is now privately owned. His secretary, Dorothy Collins, lived close by until her death in 1988. In many ways she was the child they never had. She is buried with them. Because the gravestone was crumbling it was removed and is set in the outside wall of St. Teresa’s Church, a new stone based on a similar design is now at the cemetery.