E-text prepared by David McClamrock
This electronic edition is intended to contain the complete, unaltered text of the first published edition of Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), with the following exceptions:
The index, and a few other references to page numbers that do not exist in this edition, have been omitted.
Italics are represented by underscores at the beginning and end, like this.
Footnotes* have been placed directly below the paragraph referring to them and enclosed in brackets.
[* Like this.]
Any other deviations from the text of the first edition may be regarded as defects and attributed to the transcriber.
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
Introduction: Chiefly Concerning Sources
I Background for Gilbert Keith Chesterton II Childhood III School Days IV Art Schools and University College V The Notebook VI Towards a Career VII Incipit Vita Nova VIII To Frances IX A Long Engagement X Who is G.K.C.? XI Married Life in London XII Clearing the Ground for Orthodoxy XIII Orthodoxy XIV Bernard Shaw XV From Battersea to Beaconsfield XVI A Circle of Friends XVII The Disillusioned Liberal XVIII The Eye Witness XIX Marconi XX The Eve of the War (1911-1915) XXI The War Years XXII After the Armistice XXIII Rome via Jerusalem XXIV Completion XXV The Reluctant Editor (1925-1930) XXVI The Distributist League and Distributism XXVII Silver Wedding XXVIII Columbus XXIX The Soft Answer XXX Our Lady's Tumbler XXXI The Living Voice XXXII Last Days
Appendix A—An Earlier Chesterton Appendix B—Prize Poem Written at St. Paul's Appendix C—The Chestertons
Chiefly Concerning Sources
THE MATERIAL FOR this book falls roughly into two parts: spoken and written. Gilbert Chesterton was not an old man when he died and many of his friends and contemporaries have told me incidents and recalled sayings right back to his early boyhood. This part of the material has been unusually rich and copious so that I could get a clearer picture of the boy and the young man than is usually granted to the biographer.
The book has been in the making for six years and in three countries. Several times I hid it aside for some months so as to be able to get a fresh view of it. I talked to all sorts of people, heard all sorts of ideas, saw my subject from every side; I went to Paris to see one old friend, to Indiana to see others, met for the first time in lengthy talk Maurice Baring, H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw; went to Kingsland to see Mr. Belloc; gathered Gilbert's boyhood friends of the Junior Debating Club in London and visited "Father Brown" among his Yorkshire moors.
Armed with a notebook, I tried to miss none who had known Gilbert well, especially in his youth: E. C. Bentley, Lucian Oldershaw, Lawrence Solomon, Edward Fordham. I had ten long letters from Annie Firmin, my most valuable witness as to Gilbert's childhood. For information on the next period of his life, I talked to Monsignor O'Connor, to Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring, Charles Somers Cocks, F. Y. Eccles and others, besides being now able to draw on my own memories. Frances I had talked with on and off about their early married years ever since I had first known them, but she was, alas, too ill and consequently too emotionally unstrung during the last months for me to ask her all the questions springing in my mind. "Tell Maisie," she said to Dorothy Collins, "not to talk to me about Gilbert. It makes me cry."
For the time at Beaconsfield, out of a host of friends the most valuable were Dr. Pocock and Dr. Bakewell. Among priests, Monsignors O'Connor and Ronald Knox, Fathers Vincent McNabb, O.P. and Ignatius Rice, O.S.B. were especially intimate.
Dorothy Collins's evidence covers a period of ten years. That of H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw is reinforced by most valuable letters which they have kindly allowed me to publish.
Then too Gilbert was so much of a public character and so popular with his fellow journalists that stories of all kinds abound: concerning him there is a kind of evidence, and very valuable it is, that may be called a Boswell Collective. It is fitting that it should be so. We cannot picture G.K. like the great lexicographer accompanied constantly by one ardent and observant witness, pencil in hand, ready to take notes over the teacups. (And by the way, in spite of an acquaintance who regretted in this connection that G.K. was not latterly more often seen in taverns, it was over the teacups, even more than over the wine glasses, that Boswell made his notes. I have seen Boswell's signature after wine—on the minutes of a meeting of The Club—and he was in no condition then for the taking of notes. Even the signature is almost illegible.) But it is fitting that Gilbert, who loved all sorts of men so much, should be kept alive for the future by all sorts of men. From the focussing of many views from many angles this picture has been composed, but they are all views of one man, and the picture will show, I think, a singular unity. When Whistler, as Gilbert himself once said, painted a portrait he made and destroyed many sketches—how many it did not matter, for all, even of his failures, were fruitful—but it would have mattered frightfully if each time he looked up he found a new subject sitting placidly for his portrait. Gilbert was fond of asking in the New Witness of people who expressed admiration for Lloyd George: "Which George do you mean?" for, chameleon-like, the politician has worn many colours and the portrait painted in 1906 would have had to be torn up in 1916. But gather the Chesterton portraits: read the files when he first grew into fame: talk to Mr. Titterton who worked with him on the Daily News in 1906 and on G.K.'s Weekly in 1936, collect witnesses from his boyhood to his old age, from Dublin to Vancouver: individuals who knew him, groups who are endeavoring to work out his ideas: all will agree on the ideas and on the man as making one pattern throughout, one developing but integrated mind and personality.
Gathering the material for a biography bears some resemblance to interrogating witnesses in a Court of Law. There are good witnesses and bad: reliable and unreliable memories. I remember an old lady, a friend of my mother's, who remarked with candour after my mother had confided to her something of importance: "My dear, I must go and write that down immediately before my imagination gets mixed with my memory." One witness must be checked against another: there will be discrepancies in detail but the main facts will in the end emerge.
Just now and again, however, a biographer, like a judge, meets a totally unreliable witness.
One event in this biography has caused me more trouble than anything else: the Marconi scandal and the trial of Cecil Chesterton for criminal libel which grew out of it. As luck would have it, it was on this that I had to interrogate my most unreliable witness. I had seen no clear and unbiased account so I had to read the many pages of Blue Book and Law Reports besides contemporary comment in various papers. I have no legal training, but one point stuck out like a spike. Cecil Chesterton had brought accusations against Godfrey Isaacs not only concerning his own past career as a company promoter, but also concerning his dealings with the government over the Marconi contract, in connection with which he had also fiercely attacked Rufus Isaacs, Herbert Samuel and other ministers of the Crown. But in the witness box he accepted the word of the very ministers he had been attacking, and declared that he no longer accused them of corruption: which seemed to me a complete abandonment of his main position.
Having drafted my chapter on Marconi, I asked Mrs. Cecil Chesterton to read it, but more particularly to explain this point. She gave me a long and detailed account of how Cecil had been intensely reluctant to take this course, but violent pressure had been exerted on him by his father and by Gilbert who were both in a state of panic over the trial. Unlikely as this seemed, especially in Gilbert's case, the account was so circumstantial, and from so near a connection, that I felt almost obliged to accept it. What was my amazement a few months later at receiving a letter in which she stated that after "a great deal of close research work, re-reading of papers, etc." (in connection with her own book The Chestertons) and after a talk with Cecil's solicitors, she had become convinced that Cecil had acted as he had because "the closest sleuthing had been unable to discover any trace" of investments by Rufus Isaacs in English Marconis. "For this reason Cecil took the course he did—not through family pressure. That pressure, I still feel,* was exerted, though possibly not until the trial was over."
[* Italics mine.]
It was, then, the lady's feelings and not facts that had been offered to me as evidence, and it was the merest luck that my book had not appeared before Cecil's solicitors had spoken.
The account given in Lord Birkenhead's Famous Trials is the Speech for the Prosecution. Mrs. Cecil Chesterton's chapter is an impressionist sketch of the court scene by a friend of the defendant. What was wanted was an impartial account, but I tried in vain to write it. The chronology of events, the connection between the Government Commission and the Libel Case, the connection between the English and American Marconi companies—it was all too complex for the lay mind, so I turned the chapter over to my husband who has had a legal training and asked him to write it for me.
The Chestertons is concerned with Gilbert and Frances as well as with Cecil; and the confusion between memory and imagination—to say nothing of reliance on feelings unsupported by facts—pervades the book. It can only be called a Legend, so long growing in Mrs. Cecil's mind that I am convinced that when she came to write her book she firmly believed in it herself. The starting-point was so ardent a dislike for Frances that every incident poured fuel on the flame and was seen only by its light. When I saw her, the Legend was beginning to shape. She told me various stories showing her dislike: facts offered by me were either denied or twisted to fit into the pattern. I do not propose to discuss here the details of a thoroughly unreliable book. Most of them I think answer themselves in the course of this biography. With one or two points I deal in Appendix C. But I will set down here one further incident that serves to show just how little help this particular witness could ever be.
For, like Cecil's solicitors, I spoilt one telling detail for her. She told me with great enthusiasm that Cecil had said that Gilbert was really in love not with Frances but with her sister Gertrude, and that Gertrude's red hair accounted for the number of red-headed heroines in his stories. I told her, however, on the word of their brother-in-law, that Gertrude's hair was not red. Mr. Oldershaw in fact seemed a good deal amused: he said that Gilbert never looked at either of the other sisters, who were "not his sort," and had eyes only for Frances. Mrs. Cecil however would not relinquish this dream of red hair and another love. In her book she wishes "red-gold" hair on to Annie Firmin, because in the Autobiography Gilbert had described her golden plaits. But unluckily for this new theory Annie's hair was yellow,* which is quite a different colour. And Annie, who is still alive, is also amused at the idea that Gilbert had any thought of romance in her connection.
[* See G.K.'s letter to her daughter, p. 633 [Chapter XXXI].]
When Frances Chesterton gave me the letters and other documents, she said: "I don't want the book to appear in a hurry: not for at least five years. There will be lots of little books written about Gilbert; let them all come out first. I want your book to be the final and definitive Biography."
The first part of this injunction I have certainly obeyed, for it will be just seven years after his death that this book appears. For the second half, I can say only that I have done the best that in me lies to obey it also. And I am very grateful to those who have preceded me with books depicting one aspect or another of my subject. I have tried to make use of them all as part of my material, and some are "little" merely in the number of their pages. I am especially grateful to Hilaire Belloc, Emile Cammaerts, Cyril Clemens and "Father Brown" (who have allowed me to quote with great freedom). I want to thank Mr. Seward Collins, Mr. Cyril Clemens and the University of Notre Dame for the loan of books; Mrs. Bambridge for the use of a letter from Kipling and a poem from The Years Between.
Even greater has been the kindness of those friends of my own and of Gilbert Chesterton's who have read this book in manuscript and made very valuable criticisms and suggestions: May Chesterton, Dorothy Collins, Edward Connor, Ross Hoffman, Mrs. Robert Kidd, Arnold Lunn, Mgr. Knox, Father Murtagh, Father Vincent McNabb, Lucian Oldershaw, Beatrice Warde, Douglas Woodruff, Monsignor O'Connor.
Most of the criticisms were visibly right, while even those with which I could not concur showed me the weak spot in my work that had occasioned them. They have helped me to improve the book—I think I may say enormously.
One suggestion I have not followed—that one name should be used throughout: either Chesterton or Gilbert or G.K., but not all three. I had begun with the idea of using "Chesterton" when speaking of him as a public character and also when speaking of the days before I did in fact call him "Gilbert." But this often left him and Cecil mixed up: then too, though I seldom used "G.K." myself, other friends writing to me of him often used it. I began to go through the manuscript unifying—and then I noticed that in a single paragraph of his Bernard Shaw Gilbert uses "GBS," "Shaw," "Bernard Shaw," and "Mr. Shaw." Here was a precedent indeed, and it seemed to me that it was really the natural thing to do. After all we do talk of people now by one name, now by another: it is a matter of slight importance if of any, and I decided to let it go.
As to size, I am afraid the present book is a large one—although not as large as Boswell's Johnson or Gone with the Wind. But in this matter I am unrepentant, for I have faith in Chesterton's own public. The book is large because there is no other way of getting Chesterton on to the canvas. It is a joke he would himself have enjoyed, but it is also a serious statement. For a complete portrait of Chesterton, even the most rigorous selection of material cannot be compressed into a smaller space. I have first written at length and then cut and cut.
At first I had intended to omit all matter already given in the Autobiography. Then I realised that would never do. For some things which are vital to a complete Biography of Chesterton are not only told in the Autobiography better than I could tell them, but are recorded there and nowhere else. And this book is not merely a supplement to the Autobiography. It is the Life of Chesterton.
The same problem arises with regard to the published books and I have tried to solve it on the same line. There has rung in my mind Mr. Belloc's saying: "A man is his mind." To tell the story of a man of letters while avoiding quotation from or reference to his published works is simply not to tell it. At Christopher Dawson's suggestion I have re-read all the books in the order in which they were written, thus trying to get the development of Gilbert's mind perfectly clear to myself and to trace the influences that affected him at various dates. For this reason I have analysed certain of the books and not others—those which showed this mental development most clearly at various stages, or those (too many alas) which are out of print and hard to obtain. But whenever possible in illustrating his mental history I have used unpublished material, so that even the most ardent Chestertonian will find much that is new to him.
For the period of Gilbert's youth there are many exercise books, mostly only half filled, containing sketches and caricatures, lists of titles for short stories and chapters, unfinished short stories. Several completed fairy stories and some of the best drawings were published in The Coloured Lands. Others are hints later used in his own novels: there is a fragment of The Ball and the Cross, a first suggestion for The Man Who Was Thursday, a rather more developed adumbration of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. This I think is later than most of the notebooks; but, after the change in handwriting, apparently deliberately and carefully made by Gilbert around the date at which he left St. Paul's for the Slade School, it is almost impossible to establish a date at all exactly for any one of these notebooks. Notes made later when he had formed the habit of dictation became difficult to read, not through bad handwriting, but because words are abbreviated and letters omitted.
Some of the exercise books appear to have been begun, thrown aside and used again later. There is among them one only of real biographical importance, a book deliberately used for the development of a philosophy of life, dated in two places, to which I devote a chapter and which I refer to as the Notebook. This book is as important in studying Chesterton as the Pensees would be for a student of Pascal. He is here already a master of phrase in a sense which makes a comparison with Pascal especially apt. For he often packs so much meaning into a brilliant sentence or two that I have felt it worth while, in dealing especially with some of the less remembered books, to pull out a few of these sentences for quotation apart from their context.
Other important material was to be found in G.K.'s Weekly, in articles in other periodicals, and in unpublished letters. With some of the correspondences I have made considerable use of both sides, and if anyone pedantically objects that that is unusual in a biography I will adapt a phrase of Bernard Shaw's which you will find in this book, and say, "Hang it all, be reasonable! If you had the choice between reading me and reading Wells and Shaw, wouldn't you choose Wells and Shaw."
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
Background for Gilbert Keith Chesterton
IT IS USUAL to open a biography with some account of the subject's ancestry. Chesterton, in his Browning, after some excellent foolery about pedigree-hunting, makes the suggestion that middle-class ancestry is far more varied and interesting than the ancestry of the aristocrat:
The truth is that aristocrats exhibit less of the romance of pedigree than any other people in the world. For since it is their principle to marry only within their own class and mode of life, there is no opportunity in their case for any of the more interesting studies in heredity; they exhibit almost the unbroken uniformity of the lower animals. It is in the middle classes that we find the poetry of genealogy; it is the suburban grocer standing at his shop door whom some wild dash of Eastern or Celtic blood may drive suddenly to a whole holiday or a crime.
This may provide fun for a guessing game but is not very useful to a biographer. The Chesterton family, like many another, had had the ups and downs in social position that accompany the ups and downs of fortune. Upon all this Edward Chesterton, Gilbert's father, as head of the family possessed many interesting documents. After his death, Gilbert's mother left his papers undisturbed. But when she died Gilbert threw away, without examination, most of the contents of his father's study, including all family records. Thus I cannot offer any sort of family tree. But it is possible to show the kind of family and the social atmosphere into which Gilbert Chesterton was born.
Some of the relatives say that the family hailed from the village of Chesterton—now merged into Cambridge, of which they were Lords of the Manor, but Gilbert refused to take this seriously. In an introduction to a book called Life in Old Cambridge, he wrote:
I have never been to Cambridge except as an admiring visitor; I have never been to Chesterton at all, either from a sense of unworthiness or from a faint superstitious feeling that I might be fulfilling a prophecy in the countryside. Anyone with a sense of the savour of the old English country rhymes and tales will share my vague alarm that the steeple might crack or the market cross fall down, for a smaller thing than the coincidence of a man named Chesterton going to Chesterton.
At the time of the Regency, the head of the family was a friend of the Prince's and (perhaps as a result of such company) dissipated his fortunes in riotous living and incurred various terms of imprisonment for debt. From his debtors' prisons he wrote letters, and sixty years later Mr. Edward Chesterton used to read them to his family: as also those of another interesting relative, Captain George Laval Chesterton, prison reformer and friend of Mrs. Fry and of Charles Dickens. A relative recalls the sentence: "I cried, Dickens cried, we all cried," which makes one rather long for the rest of the letter.
George Laval Chesterton left two books, one a kind of autobiography, the other a work on prison reform. It was a moment of enthusiasm for reform, of optimism and of energy. Dickens was stirring the minds of Englishmen to discover the evils in their land and rush to their overthrow. Darwin was writing his Origin of Species, which in some curious way increased the hopeful energy of his countrymen: they seemed to feel it much more satisfying to have been once animal and have become human than to be fallen gods who could again be made divine. Anyhow, there were giants in those days and it was hope that made them so.
When by an odd confusion the Tribune described G. K. Chesterton as having been born about the date that Captain Chesterton published his books, he replied in a ballade which at once saluted and attacked:
I am not fond of anthropoids as such, I never went to Mr. Darwin's school, Old Tyndall's ether, that he liked so much Leaves me, I fear, comparatively cool. I cannot say my heart with hope is full Because a donkey, by continual kicks, Turns slowly into something like a mule— I was not born in 1856.
Age of my fathers: truer at the touch Than mine: Great age of Dickens, youth and yule: Had your strong virtues stood without a crutch, I might have deemed man had no need of rule, But I was born when petty poets pule, When madmen used your liberty to mix Lucre and lust, bestial and beautiful, I was not born in 1856.*
[* Quoted in G. K. Chesterton: A criticism. Aliston Rivers (1908) pp. 243-244.]
Both Autobiography and Prison Life are worth reading.* They breathe the "Great Gusto" seen by Gilbert in that era. He does not quote them in his Autobiography, but, just mentioning Captain Chesterton, dwells chiefly on his grandfather, who, while George Laval Chesterton was fighting battles and reforming prisons, had succeeded to the headship of a house agents' business in Kensington. (For, the family fortunes having been dissipated, Gilbert's great-grandfather had become first a coal merchant and then a house agent.) A few of the letters between this ancestor and his son remain and they are interesting, confirming Gilbert's description in the Autobiography of his grandfather's feeling that he himself was something of a landmark in Kensington and that the family business was honourable and important.
[* See Appendix A.]
The Chestertons, whatever the ups and downs of their past history, were by now established in that English middle-class respectability in which their son was to discover—or into which he was to bring—a glow and thrill of adventurous romance. Edward Chesterton, Gilbert's father, belonged to a serious family and a serious generation, which took its work as a duty and its profession as a vocation. I wonder what young house-agent today, just entering the family business, would receive a letter from his father adjuring him to "become an active steady and honourable man of business," speaking of "abilities which only want to be judiciously brought out, of course assisted with your earnest co-operation."
Gilbert's mother was Marie Grosjean, one of a family of twenty-three children. The family had long been English, but came originally from French Switzerland. Marie's mother was from an Aberdeen family of Keiths, which gave Gilbert his second name and a dash of Scottish blood which "appealed strongly to my affections and made a sort of Scottish romance in my childhood." Marie's father, whom Gilbert never saw, had been "one of the old Wesleyan lay-preachers and was thus involved in public controversy, a characteristic which has descended to his grandchild. He was also one of the leaders of the early Teetotal movement, a characteristic which has not."*
[* Autobiography, pp. 11-12.]
When Edward became engaged to Marie Grosjean he complained that his "dearest girl" would not believe that he had any work to do, but he was in fact much occupied and increasingly responsible for the family business.
There is a flavour of a world very remote from ours in the packet of letters between the two and from their various parents, aunts and sisters to one another during their engagement. Edward illuminates poems "for a certaln dear good little child," sketches the "look out from home" for her mother, hopes they did not appear uncivil in wandering into the garden together at an aunt's house and leaving the rest of the company for too long. He praises a friend of hers as "intellectual and unaffected, two excellent things in woman," describes a clerk sent to France with business papers who "lost them all, the careless dog, except the Illustrated London News."
A letter to Marie from her sister Harriette is amusing. She describes her efforts at entertaining in the absence of her mother. The company were "great swells" so that her brother "took all the covers of the chairs himself and had the wine iced and we dined in full dress—it was very awful—considering myself as hostess." Poor girl, it was a series of misfortunes. "The dinner was three-quarters of an hour late, the fish done to rags." She had hired three dozen wine-glasses to be sure of enough, but they were "brought in in twos and threes at a time and then a hiatus as if they were being washed which they were not."
In the letters from parents and older relatives religious observances are taken for granted and there is an obvious sincerity in the many allusions to God's will and God's guidance of human life. No one reading them could doubt that the description of a dying relative as "ready for the summons" and to "going home" is a sincere one. Other letters, notably Harriette's, do not lack a spice of malice in speaking of those whose religion was unreal and affected—a phenomenon that only appears in an age when real religion abounds.
Doubtless her generation was beginning to see Christianity with less than the simplicity of their parents. They were hearing of Darwin and Spencer, and the optimism which accompanied the idea of evolution was turning religion into a vague glow which would, they felt, survive the somewhat childish dogmas in which our rude ancestors had tried to formulate it. But with an increased vagueness went also, with the more liberal—and the Chestertons were essentially liberal both politically and theologically—an increased tolerance. In several of his letters, Edward Chesterton mentions the Catholic Church, and certainly with no dislike. He went on one occasion to hear Manning preach and much admired the sermon, although he notes too that he found in it "no distinctively Roman Catholic doctrine." He belonged, however, to an age that on the whole found the rest of life more exciting and interesting than religion, an age that had kept the Christian virtues and still believed that these virtues could stand alone, without the support of the Christian creed.
The temptation to describe dresses has always to be sternly resisted when dealing with any part of the Victorian era, so merely pausing to note that it seems to have been a triumph on the part of Mrs. Grosjean to have cut a short skirt out of 81/2 yards of material, I reluctantly lay aside the letters at the time when Edward Chesterton and Marie were married and had set about living happily ever after.
These two had no fear of life: they belonged to a generation which cheerfully created a home and brought fresh life into being. In doing it, they did a thousand other things, so that the home they made was full of vital energies for the children who were to grow up in it. Gilbert recollects his father as a man of a dozen hobbies, his study as a place where these hobbies formed strata of exciting products, awakening youthful covetousness in the matter of a new paint-box, satisfying youthful imagination by the production of a toy-theatre. His character, serene and humorous as his son describes him, is reflected in his letters. Edward Chesterton did not use up his mental powers in the family business. Taught by his father to be a good man of business, he was in his private life a man of a thousand other energies and ideas. "On the whole," says his son, "I am glad he was never an artist. It might have stood in his way in becoming an amateur. It might have spoilt his career; his private career. He could never have made a vulgar success of all the thousand things be did so successfully."
Here, Gilbert sees a marked distinction between that generation of business men and the present in the use of leisure; he sees hobbies as superior to sport. "The old-fashioned Englishman, like my father, sold houses for his living but filled his own house with his life. A hobby is not merely a holiday. . . . It is not merely exercising the body instead of the mind, an excellent but now largely a recognised thing. It is exercising the rest of the mind; now an almost neglected thing." Edward Chesterton practised "water-colour painting and modelling and photography and stained glass and fretwork and magic lanterns and mediaeval illumination." And, moreover, "knew all his English literature backwards."
It has become of late the fashion for any one who writes of his own life to see himself against a dark background, to see his development frustrated by some shadow of heredity or some horror of environment. But Gilbert saw his life rather as the ancients saw it when pietas was a duty because we had received so much from those who brought us into being. This Englishman was grateful to his country, to his parents, to his home for all that they had given him.
I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament. I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am. I am not clear about what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault. And I am compelled to confess that I look back to that landscape of my first days with a pleasure that should doubtless be reserved for the Utopias of the Futurist.*
[* G. K. Chesterton. Autobiography, pp. 22-3.]
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON was born on May 29, 1874 at a house in Sheffield Terrace, Campden Hill, just below the great tower of the Waterworks which so much impressed his childish imagination. Lower down the hill was the Anglican Church of St. George, and here he was baptised. When he was about five, the family moved to Warwick Gardens. As old-fashioned London houses go, 11 Warwick Gardens is small. On the ground floor, a back and front room were for the Chestertons drawing-room and dining-room with a folding door between, the only other sitting-room being a small study built out over the garden. A long, narrow, green strip, which must have been a good deal longer before a row of garages was built at the back, was Gilbert's playground. His bedroom was a long room at the top of a not very high house. For what is in most London houses the drawing-room floor is in this house filled by two bedrooms and there is only one floor above it.
Cecil was five years younger than Gilbert, who welcomed his birth with the remark, "Now I shall always have an audience," a prophecy remembered by all parties because it proved so singularly false. As soon as Cecil could speak, he began to argue and the brothers' intercourse thenceforward consisted of unending discussion. They always argued, they never quarrelled.
There was also a little sister Beatrice who died when Gilbert was very young, so young that he remembered a fall she had from a rocking-horse more clearly than he remembered her death, and in his memory linked with the fall the sense of loss and sorrow that came with the death.
It would be impossible to tell the story of his childhood one half so well as he has told it himself. It is the best part of his Autobiography. Indeed, it is one of the best childhoods in literature. For Gilbert Chesterton most perfectly remembered the exact truth, not only about what happened to a child, but about how a child thought and felt. What is more, he sees childhood not as an isolated fragment or an excursion into fairyland, but as his "real life; the real beginnings of what should have been a more real life; a lost experience in the land of the living."
I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud.*
[* Autobiography, p. 49.]
Here are the beginnings of the man's philosophy in the life and experience of the child. He was living in a world of reality, and that reality was beautiful, in the clear light of "an eternal morning," which "had a sort of wonder in it, as if the world were as new as myself." A child in this world, like God in the moment of creation, looks upon it and sees that it is very good. It was not that he was never unhappy as a child, and he had his share of bodily pain. "I had a fair amount of toothache and especially earache." But the child has his own philosophy and makes his own proportion, and unhappiness and pain "are of a different texture or held on a different tenure."
What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. What gives me this shock is almost anything I really recall; not the things I should think most worth recalling. This is where it differs from the other great thrill of the past, all that is connected with first love and the romantic passion; for that, though equally poignant, comes always to a point; and is narrow like a rapier piercing the heart, whereas the other was more like a hundred windows opened on all sides of the head.*
[* Autobiography, pp. 31-32.]
These windows opening on all sides so much more swiftly for the genius than for the rest of us, led to a result often to be noted in the childhood of exceptional men: a combination of backwardness and precocity. Gilbert Chesterton was in some ways a very backward child. He did not talk much before three. He learnt to read only at eight.
He loved fairy tales; as a child he read them or had them read aloud to him: as a big boy he wrote and illustrated a good many, some of which are printed in The Coloured Lands. I have found several fragments in praise of Hans Andersen written apparently in his schooldays. In the chapter of Orthodoxy called "The Ethics of Elfland" he shows how the truth about goodness and happiness came to him out of the old fairy tales and made the first basis for his philosophy. And George Macdonald's story The Princess and the Goblin made, he says, "a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start." It is the story of a house where goblins were in the cellar and a kind of fairy godmother in a hidden room upstairs. This story had made "all the ordinary staircases and doors and windows into magical things." It was the awakening of the sense of wonder and joy in the ordinary things always to be his. Still more important was the realization represented by the goblins below stairs, that "When the evil things besieging us do appear, they do not appear outside but inside." In life as in this story there is
. . . a house that is our home, that is rightly loved as our home, but of which we hardly know the best or the worst, and must always wait for the one and watch against the other. . . . Since I first read that story some five alternative philosophies of the universe have come to our colleges out of Germany, blowing through the world like the east wind. But for me that castle is still standing in the mountains, its light is not put out.*
[* Introduction to George Macdonald and His Wife.]
All this to Gilbert made the story the "most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life" of any story he ever read—then or later! Another recurrent image in books by the same author is that of a great white horse. And Gilbert says, "To this day I can never see a big white horse in the street without a sudden sense of indescribable things."*
Of his playmates, "one of my first memories," he writes in the Autobiography, "is playing in the garden under the care of a girl with ropes of golden hair; to whom my mother afterwards called out from the house, 'You are an angel'; which I was disposed to accept without metaphor. She is now living in Vancouver as Mrs. Robert Kidd."
Mrs. Kidd, then Annie Firmin, was the daughter of a girlhood friend of Mrs. Chesterton's. She called her "Aunt Marie." She and her sister, Gilbert says in the Autobiography, "had more to do with enlivening my early years than most." She has a vivid memory of Sheffield Terrace where all three Chesterton children were born and where the little sister, Beatrice, whom they called Birdie, died. Gilbert, in those days, was called Diddie, his father then and later was "Mr. Ed" to the family and intimate friends. Soon after Birdie's death they moved to Warwick Gardens. Mrs. Kidd writes:
. . . the little boys were never allowed to see a funeral. If one passed down Warwick Gardens, they were hustled from the nursery window at once. Possibly this was because Gilbert had such a fear of sickness or accident. If Cecil gave the slightest sign of choking at dinner, Gilbert would throw down his spoon or fork and rush from the room. I have seen him do it so many times. Cecil was fond of animals. Gilbert wasn't. Cecil had a cat that he named Faustine, because he wanted her to be abandoned and wicked—but Faustine turned out to be a gentleman!
Gilbert's story-telling and verse-making began very early, but not, I think, in great abundance; his drawing even earlier, and of this there is a great deal. There is nothing very striking in the written fragments that remain, but his drawings even at the age of five are full of vigour. The faces and figures are always rudimentary human beings, sometimes a good deal more, and they are taken through lengthy adventures drawn on the backs of bits of wall paper, of insurance forms, in little books sewn together, or sometimes on long strips glued end to end by his father. These drawings can often be dated exactly, for Edward Chesterton, who later kept collections of press-cuttings and photographs of his son, had already begun to collect his drawings, writing the date on the back of each. With the earlier ones he may, one sometimes suspects, have helped a little, but it soon becomes easy to distinguish between the two styles.
Edward Chesterton was the most perfect father that could have been imagined to help in the opening of windows on every side. "My father might have reminded people of Mr. Pickwick, except that he was always bearded and never bald; he wore spectacles and had all the Pickwickian evenness of temper and pleasure in the humours of travel." He had, as his son further notes in the Autobiography, a power of invention which "created for children the permanent anticipation of what is profoundly called a 'surprise.'" The child of today chooses his Christmas present in advance and decides between Peter Pan and the Pantomime (when he does not get both). The Chesterton children saw their first glimpses of fantasy through the framework of a toy-theatre of which their father was carpenter, scene-painter and scene-shifter, author and creator of actors and actresses a few inches high. Gilbert's earliest recollection is of one of these figures in a golden crown carrying a golden key, and his father was all through his childhood a man with a golden key who admitted him into a world of wonders.
I think Gilbert's father meant more to him than his mother, fond as he was of her. Most of their friends seem to feel that Cecil was her favorite son. "Neither was ever demonstrative," Annie Firmin says, "I never saw either of them kiss his mother." But in some ways the mother spoilt both boys. They had not the training that a strict mother or an efficient nurse usually accomplishes with the most refractory. Gilbert was never refractory, merely absent-minded; but it is doubtful whether he was sent upstairs to wash his hands or brush his hair, except in preparation for a visit or ceremonial occasion ("not even then!" interpolates Annie). And it is perfectly certain that he ought to have been so sent several times a day. No one minded if he was late for meals; his father, too, was frequently late and Frances during her engagement often saw his mother put the dishes down in the fireplace to keep hot, and wait patiently—in spite of Gilbert's description of her as "more swift, relentless and generally radical in her instincts" than his father. Annie Firmin's earlier memories fit this description better. Much as she loved her "aunt," she writes:
Aunt Marie was a bit of a tyrant in her own family! I have been many times at dinner, when there might be a joint, say, and a chicken—and she would say positively to Mr. Ed, "Which will you have, Edward?" Edward: "I think I'd like a bit of chicken!" Aunt M. fiercely: "No, you won't, you'll have mutton!" That happened so often. Sometimes Alice Grosjean, the youngest of Aunt M.'s family, familiarly known as "Sloper," was there. When asked her preference she would say, diffidently, "I think I'll take a little mutton!" "Don't be a fool, Alice, you know you like chicken,"—and chicken she got.
Visitors to the house in later years dwell on Mrs. Chesterton's immense spirit of hospitality, the gargantuan meals, the eager desire that guests should eat enormously, and the wittiness of her conversation. Schoolboy contemporaries of Gilbert say that although immensely kind, she alarmed them by a rather forbidding appearance—"her clothes thrown on anyhow, and blackened and protruding teeth which gave her a witchlike appearance. . . . The house too was dusty and untidy." She called them always by their surnames, both when they were little boys and after they grew up, "Oldershaw, Bentley, Solomon."
"Not only," says Miss May Chesterton, "did Aunt Marie address Gilbert's friends by their surnames, but frequently added darling to them. I have heard her address Bentley when a young man thus; 'Bentley darling, come and sit over here,' to which invitation he turned a completely deaf ear as he was perfectly content to remain where he was!"
"Indiscriminately, she also addressed her maids waiting at table with the same endearment."
A letter written when Gilbert was only six would seem to show that Mrs. Chesterton had not yet become so reckless about her appearance, and was still open to the appeal of millinery. ("She always was," says Annie.) The letter is from John Barker of High Street, Kensington, and is headed in handwriting, "Drapery and Millinery Establishment, Kensington High Street, September 21, 1880."
We are in receipt of instructions from Mr. Edward Chesterton to wait upon you for the purpose of offering for your selection a Bonnet of the latest Parisian taste, of which we have a large assortment ready for your choice; or can, if preferred, make you one to order.
Our assistant will wait upon you at any time you may appoint, unless you would prefer to pay a visit to our Millinery department yourself.
Mr. Chesterton informs us that as soon as you have made your selection he will hand us a cheque for the amount.
We are given to understand that Mr. Chesterton proposes this transaction as a remembrance of the anniversary of what, he instructs us to say, he regards as a happy and auspicious event. We have accordingly entered it in our books in that aspect.
In conveying, as we are desired to do, Mr. Chesterton's best wishes for your health and happiness for many future anniversaries, may we very respectfully join to them our own, and add that during many years to come we trust to be permitted to supply you with goods of the best description for cash, on the principle of the lowest prices consistent with excellence of quality and workmanship.
We have the honour to be Madam Your most obedient Servants
JOHN BARKER & Co.
The order entered in their books "under that aspect," the readiness to provide millinery "for cash," convinces you (as G.K. himself says of another story) that Dick Swiveller really did say, "When he who adores thee has left but the name—in case of letters and parcels." Dickens must have dictated the letter to John Barker. After all, he was only dead ten years.
"Aunt Marie used to say," adds Annie Firmin, "that Mr. Ed married her for her beautiful hair, it was auburn, and very long and wavy. He used to sit behind her in Church. She liked pretty clothes, but lacked the vanity to buy them for herself. I have a little blue hanging watch that he bought her one day—she always appreciated little attentions."
The playmates of Gilbert's childhood are not described in the Autobiography except for Annie's "long ropes of golden hair." But in one of the innumerable fragments written in his early twenties, he describes a family of girls who had played with him when they were very young together. It is headed, "Chapter I. A Contrast and a Climax," and several other odd bits of verse and narrative introduce the Vivian family as early and constant playmates.
One of the best ways of feeling a genuine friendly enthusiasm for persons of the other sex, without gliding into anything with a shorter name, is to know a whole family of them. The most intellectual idolatry at one shrine is apt to lose its purely intellectual character, but a genial polytheism is always bracing and platonic. Besides, the Vivians lived in the same street or rather "gardens" as ourselves, and were amusing as bringing one within sight of what an old friend of mine, named Bentley, called with more than his usual gloom and severity of expression, "the remote outpost of Kensington Society."
For these reasons, and a great many much better ones, I was very much elated to have the family, or at least the three eldest girls who represent it to the neighbourhood, standing once more on the well-rubbed lawn of our old garden, where some of my earliest recollections were of subjecting them to treatment such as I considered appropriate to my own well-established character of robber, tying them to trees to the prejudice of their white frocks, and otherwise misbehaving myself in the funny old days, before I went to school and became a son of gentlemen only. I have never been able, in fact I have never tried, to tell which of the three I really liked best. And if the severer usefulness and domesticity of the eldest girl, with her quiet art-colours, and broad, brave forehead as pale as the white roses that clouded the garden, if these maturer qualities in Nina demanded my respect more than the levity of the others, I fear they did not prevent me feeling an almost equal tide of affection towards the sleepy acumen and ingrained sense of humour of Ida, the second girl and book-reader for the family: or Violet, a veritably delightful child, with a temper as formless and erratic as her tempest of red hair.
"What old memories this garden calls up," said Nina, who like many essentially simple and direct people, had a strong dash of sentiment and a strong penchant for being her own emotional pint-stoup on the traditional subjects and occasions. "I remember so well coming here in a new pink frock when I was a little girl. It wasn't so new when I went away."
"I certainly must have been a brute," I replied. "But I have endeavoured to make a lifetime atone for my early conduct." And I fell to thinking how even Nina, miracle of diligence and self-effacement, remembered a new pink frock across the abyss of the years. . . . Walking with my old friends round the garden, I found in every earth-plot and tree-root the arenas of an active and adventurous life in early boyhood. . . .*
[* Unpublished fragment.]
Edward Chesterton was a Liberal politically and what has been called a Liberal Christian religiously. When the family went to church—which happened very seldom—it was to listen to the sermons of Stopford Brooke. Some twenty years later, Cecil was to remark with amusement that he had as a small boy heard every part of the teaching now (1908) being set out by R. J. Campbell under the title, "The New Religion." The Chesterton Liberalism entered into the view of history given to their children, and it produced from Gilbert the only poem of his childhood worth quoting. I cannot date it, but the very immature handwriting and curious spelling mark it as early.
Probably most children have read, or at any rate up to my own generation, had read, Aytoun's Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, and played at being Cavaliers as a result. But Gilbert could not play at being a Cavalier. He had learned from his father to be a Roundhead, as had every good Liberal of that day. What was to be done about it? He took the Lays and rewrote them in an excellent imitation of Aytoun, but on the opposite side. In view of his own later developments such a line as "Drive the trembling Papists backwards" has an ironic humour. But one wonders what Aytoun himself would have made of a small boy who took his rhythm and sometimes his very words, turned his hero into a traitor ("false Montrose") and his traitor Argyll into a hero! I have left the spelling untouched.
Sing of the Great Lord Archibald Sing of his glorious name Sing of his covenenting faith And his evelasting fame.
One day he summoned all his men To meet on Cruerchin's brow Three thousand covenenting chiefs Who no master would allow
Three thousand Knights With clamores drawn And targets tough and strong Knights who for the right Would ever fight And never bear the wrong.
And he creid (his hand uplifted) "Soldiers of Scotland hear my vow Ere the morning shall have risen I will lay the trators low Or as ye march from the battle Marching back in battle file Ye shall there among the corpses Find the body of Argyll.
Soldiers Soldiers onward onward Onward soldiers follow me Come, remember ye the crimes Of the fiend of fell Dundee Onward let us draw our clamores Let us draw them on our foes Now then I am threatened with The fate of false Montrose.
Drive the trembling Papists backwards Drive away the Tory's hord Let them tell thier hous of villians They have felt the Campbell's sword."
And the next morn he arose And he girded on his sword They asked him many questions But he answered not a word. And he summoned all his men And he led them to the field And We creid unto our master That we'd die and never yield. That same morn we drove right backwards All the servants of the Pope And Our Lord Archibald we saved From a halter and a rope Far and fast fled all the trators Far and fast fled all the Graemes Fled that cursed tribe who lately Stained there honour and thier names.
CURIOUSLY ENOUGH Gilbert does not in the Autobiography speak of any school except St. Paul's. He went however first to Colet Court, usually called at that time Bewsher's, from the name of the Headmaster. Though it is not technically the preparatory school for St. Paul's, large numbers of Paulines do pass through it. It stands opposite St. Paul's in the Hammersmith Road and must have been felt by Gilbert as one thing with his main school experience, for he nowhere differentiates between the two.
St. Paul's School is an old city foundation which has had among its scholars Milton and Marlborough, Pepys and Sir Philip Francis and a host of other distinguished men. The editor of a correspondence column wrote a good many years later in answer to an enquirer: "Yes, Milton and G. K. Chesterton were both educated at St. Paul's school. We fancy however that Milton had left before Chesterton entered the school." In an early life of Sir Thomas More we learn of the keen rivalry existing in his day between his own school of St. Anthony and St. Paul's, of scholastic "disputations" between the two, put an end to by Dean Colet because they led to brawling among the boys, when the Paulines would call those of St. Anthony "pigs" and the pigs would call the Paulines "pigeons"—from the pigeons of St. Paul's Cathedral. Now, however, St. Anthony's is no more, and St. Paul's School has long moved to the suburbs and lies about seven minutes' walk along the Hammersmith Road from Warwick Gardens. Gilbert Chesterton was twelve when he entered St. Paul's (in January 1887) and he was placed in the second Form.
His early days at school were very solitary, his chief occupation being to draw all over his books. He drew caricatures of his masters, he drew scenes from Shakespeare, he drew prominent politicians. He did not at first make many friends. In the Autobiography he makes a sharp distinction between being a child and being a boy, but it is a distinction that could only be drawn by a man. And most men, I fancy, would find it a little difficult to say at what moment the transformation occurred. G.K. seems to put it at the beginning of school life, but the fact that St. Paul's was a day-school meant that the transition from home to school, usual in English public-school education,* was never in his case completely made. No doubt he is right in speaking in the Autobiography of "the sort of prickly protection like hair" that "grows over what was once the child," of the fact that schoolboys in his time "could be blasted with the horrible revelation of having a sister, or even a Christian name." Nevertheless, he went home every evening to a father and mother and small brother; he went to his friends' houses and knew their sisters; school and home life met Daily instead of being sharply divided into terms and holidays.
[* The terminology for English schools came into being largely before the State concerned itself with education. A Private School is one run by an individual or a group for private profit. A Public School is not run for private profit; any profits there may be are put back into the school. Mostly they are run by a Board of Governors and very many of them hold the succession to the old monastic schools of England (e.g., Charterhouse, Westminster, St. Paul's). They are usually, though not necessarily, boarding schools, and the fees are usually high. Elementary schools called Board Schools were paid for out of local rates and run by elected School Boards. They were later replaced by schools run by the County Councils.]
This fact was of immense significance in Gilbert's development. Years later he noted as the chief defect of Oxford that it consisted almost entirely of people educated at boarding-schools. For good, for evil, or for both, a boy at a day-school is educated chiefly at home.
In the atmosphere of St. Paul's is found little echo of the dogma of the Head Master of Christ's Hospital. "Boy! The school is your father! Boy! The school is your mother." Nor, as far as we know has any Pauline been known to desire the substitution of the august abstraction for the guardianship of his own people. Friendships formed in this school have a continual reference to home life, nor can a boy possibly have a friend long without making the acquaintance and feeling the influence of his parents and his surroundings. . . . The boys' own amusements and institutions, the school sports, the school clubs, the school magazine, are patronised by the masters, but they are originated and managed by the boys. The play-hours of the boys are left to their several pleasures, whether physical or intellectual, nor have any foolish observations about the battle of Waterloo being won on the cricket-field, or such rather unmeaning oracles, yet succeeded in converting the boys' amusements into a compulsory gymnastic lesson. The boys are, within reasonable limits, free.*
[* MS. History of J.D.C. written about 1894.]
Gilbert calls the chapter on his school days, "How to be a Dunce," and although in mature life he was "on the side of his masters" and grateful to them "that my persistent efforts not to learn Latin were frustrated; and that I was not entirely successful even in escaping the contamination of the language of Aristotle and Demosthenes," he still contrasts childhood as a time when one "wants to know nearly everything" with "the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know about something I did not want to know."
The boy who sat next to him in class, Lawrence Solomon (later Senior Tutor of University College, London), remembered him as sleepy and indifferent in manner but able to master anything when he cared to take the trouble—as he very seldom did. He was in a class with boys almost all his juniors. Lucian Oldershaw, who later became his brother-in-law, says of Gilbert's own description of his school life that it was as near a pose as Gilbert ever managed to get. He wanted desperately to be the ordinary schoolboy, but he never managed to fulfil this ambition. Tall, untidy, incredibly clumsy and absent-minded, he was marked out from his fellows both physically and intellectually. When in the later part of his school life some sort of physical exercises were made compulsory, the boys used to form parties to watch his strange efforts on the trapeze or parallel bars. In these early days, he was (he says of himself) "somewhat solitary," but not unhappy, and perfectly good-humoured about the tricks which were inevitably played on a boy who always appeared to be half asleep.
"He sat at the back of the room," says Mr. Fordham, "and never distinguished himself. We thought him the most curious thing that ever was." His schoolfellows noted how he would stride along, "apparently muttering poetry, breaking into inane laughter." The kind of thing he was muttering we learn from a sentence in the Autobiography: "I was one day wandering about the streets in that part of North Kensington, telling myself stories of feudal sallies and sieges, in the manner of Walter Scott, and vaguely trying to apply them to the wilderness of bricks and mortar around me."
"I can see him now," wrote Mr. Fordham, "very tall and lanky, striding untidily along Kensington High Street, smiling and sometimes scowling as he talked to himself, apparently oblivious of everything he passed; but in reality a far closer observer than most, and one who not only observed but remembered what he had seen." It was only of himself that he was really oblivious.
Mr. Oldershaw remembers that on one occasion on a very cold day they filled his pockets with snow in the playground. When class reassembled, the snow began to melt and pools to appear on the floor. A small boy raised his hand: "Please Sir, I think the laboratory sink must be leaking again. The water is coming through and falling all over Chesterton."
The laboratory sink was an old offender and the master must have been short-sighted. "Chesterton," he said, "go up to Mr. —— and ask him with my compliments to see that the trouble with the sink is put right immediately." Gilbert, with water still streaming from both pockets, obediently went upstairs, gave the message and returned without discovering what had happened.
The boys who played these jokes on him had at the same time an extraordinary respect, both for his intellectual acquirements and for his moral character. One boy, who rather prided himself in private life on being a man about town, stopped him one day in the passage and said solemnly, "Chesterton, I am an abandoned profligate." G.K. replied, "I'm sorry to hear it." "We watched our talk," one of them said to me, "when he was with us." His home and upbringing were felt by some of his schoolfellows to have definitely a Puritan tinge about them, although on the other hand the more Conservative elements regarded them as politically dangerous. Mr. Oldershaw relates that his own father, who was a Conservative in politics and had also joined the Catholic Church, seriously warned him against the Agnosticism and Republicanism of the Chesterton household. But even at this age his schoolfellows recognised that he had begun the great quest of his life. "We felt," said Oldershaw, "that he was looking for God."
I suppose it was in part the keenness of the inner vision that produced the effect of external sleepiness and made it possible to pack Gilbert's pockets with snow; but it was also the fact that he was observing very keenly the kind of thing that other people do not bother to observe. I remember my mother telling me, when I first came out, that she had almost ceased trying to draw people's characters and imaginatively construct their home lives, because for the first time in her life she was trying to notice how they were dressed. She was not noticeably successful. Gilbert Chesterton never even tried to see what everyone else saw. All the time he was seeing qualities in his friends, ideas in literature and possibilities in life. And all this world of imagination had, on his own theory, to be carefully concealed from his masters. In the Autobiography he describes himself walking to school fervently reciting verses which he afterwards repeated in class with a determined lack of expression and woodenness of voice; but when he assumes that this is how all boys behave, he surely attributes his own literary enthusiasms far too widely. One would rather gather that he supposed the whole of St. Paul's School to be in the conspiracy to conceal their love of literature from their masters! Such of his own schoolboy papers as can be found show an imagination rare enough at any age, and an enthusiasm not commonly to be found among schoolboys. A very early one, to judge by the handwriting, is on the advantages for an historical character of having long hair, illustrated by the history of Mary Queen of Scots and Charles the First. In the contrast he draws between Mary and Elizabeth, appear qualities of historical imagination that might well belong to a mature and experienced writer.
. . . As in the cause of the fleeting heartless Helen, the Trojan War is stirred up, and great Ajax perishes, and the gentle Patroclus is slain, and mighty Hector falls, and godlike Achilles is laid low, and the dun plains of Hades are thickened with the shades of Kings, so round this lovely giddy French princess, fall one by one the haughty Dauphin, the princely Darnley, the accomplished Rizzio, the terrible Bothwell, and when she dies, she dies as a martyr before the weeping eyes of thousands, and is given a popular pity and regret denied to her rival, with all her faults of violence and vanity, a greater and a purer woman.
It must indeed have been a terrible scene, the execution of that unhappy Queen, and it is a scene that has been described by too many and too able writers for me to venture on a picture of it. But the continually lamented death of Mary of Scotland seems to me happy compared with the end of her greater and sterner rival. As I think on the two, the vision of the black scaffold, the grim headsman, the serene captive, and the weeping populace fades from me and is replaced by a sadder vision: the vision of the dimly-lighted state-bedroom of Whitehall. Elizabeth, haggard and wild-eyed has flung herself prone upon the floor and refuses to take meat or drink, but lies there, surrounded by ceremonious courtiers, but seeing with that terrible insight that was her curse, that she was alone, that their homage was a mockery, that they were waiting eagerly for her death to crown their intrigues with her successor, that there was not in the whole world a single being who cared for her: seeing all this, and bearing it with the iron fortitude of her race, but underneath that invincible silence the deep woman's nature crying out with a bitter cry that she is loved no longer: thus gnawed by the fangs of a dead vanity, haunted by the pale ghost of Essex, and helpless and bitter of heart, the greatest of Englishwomen passed silently away. Of a truth, there are prisons more gloomy than Fotheringay and deaths more cruel than the axe. Is there no pity due to those who undergo these?
It is surprising to read the series of form reports written on a boy who at fifteen or sixteen could do work of this quality. Here are the half-yearly reports made by his Form Masters from his first year in the school at the age of thirteen to the time he left at the age of eighteen.
December 1887. Too much for me: means well by me, I believe, but has an inconceivable knack of forgetting at the shortest notice, is consequently always in trouble, though some of his work is well done, when he does remember to do it. He ought to be in a studio not at school. Never troublesome, but for his lack of memory and absence of mind.
July 1888. Wildly inaccurate about everything; never thinks for two consecutive moments to judge by his work: plenty of ability, perhaps in other directions than classics.
December 1888. Fair. Improving in neatness. Has a very fair stock of general knowledge.
July 1889. A great blunderer with much intelligence.
December 1889. Means well. Would do better to give his time to "Modern" subjects.
July 1890. Can get up any work, but originates nothing.
December 1890. Takes an interest in his English work, but otherwise has not done well.
July 1891. He has a decided literary aptitude, but does not trouble himself enough about school work.
December 1891. Report missing.
July 1892. Not on the same plane with the rest: composition quite futile, but will translate well and appreciate what he reads. Not a quick brain, but possessed by a slowly moving tortuous imagination. Conduct always admirable.
What is much clearer from the mass of notebooks and odd sheets of paper belonging to these years than from the Autobiography is the degree to which the two processes of resisting and absorbing knowledge were going on simultaneously. At school he was, he says, asleep but dreaming in his sleep; at home he was still learning literature from his father, going to museums and picture galleries for enjoyment, listening to political talk and engaging in arguments, writing historical plays and acting them, and above all drawing.
To most of his early writing it is nearly impossible to affix a date—with the exception of a "dramatic journal," kept by fits and starts during the Christmas holidays when he was sixteen. G.K. solemnly tells the reader of this diary to take warning by it, to beware of prolixity, and it does in fact contain many more words to many fewer ideas than any of his later writings. But it is useful in giving the atmosphere of those years. Great part is in dialogue, the author appearing throughout as Your Humble Servant, his young brother Cecil as the Innocent Child.
The first scene is the rehearsal of a dramatic version of Scott's Woodstock. This has been written by Your Humble Servant who is at the same time engaged on a historic romance. At intervals in the languid rehearsing, endless discussions take place: between Oldershaw and G.K. on Thackeray, between Oldershaw, his father and G.K. on Royal Supremacy in the Church of England. The boys, walking between their two houses, "discuss Roman Catholicism, Supremacy, Papal v. Protestant Persecutions. Your Humble Servant arrives at 11 Warwick Gardens to meet Mr. Mawer Cowtan, Master Sidney Wells and Master William Wells. Conversation about Frederick the Great, Voltaire and Macaulay. Cheerful and enlivening discourse on Germs, Dr. Koch, Consumption and Tuberculosis."
"Conservative" Oldershaw regards his friend as a "red hot raging Republican" and it is interesting to note already faint foreshadowings of Gilbert's future political views. His parents had made him a Liberal but it seemed to him later, as he notes in the Autobiography, that their generation was insufficiently alive to the condition and sufferings of the poor. Open-eyed in so many matters, they were not looking in that particular direction. And so it was only very gradually that he himself began to look.
Your Humble Servant read Oldershaw Elizabeth Browning's "Cry of the Children," which the former could scarcely trust himself to read, but which the latter candidly avowed that he did not like. Part and parcel of Oldershaw's optimism is a desire not to believe in pictures of real misery, and a desire to find out compensating pleasures. I think there was a good deal in what he said, but at the same time I think that there is real misery, physical and mental, in the low and criminal classes, and I don't believe in crying peace where there is no peace.
Of his brother, Gilbert notes, "Innocent Child's fault is not a servile reverence for his elder brother, whom he regards, I believe, as a mild lunatic." And Oldershaw recalls his own detestation of Cecil, who would insist on monopolising the conversation when Gilbert's friends wanted to talk to him. "An ugly little boy creeping about," Mr. Fordham calls him. "Cecil had no vanity," writes Mrs. Kidd, "and thoroughly appreciated the fact that he was not beautiful; when he was about 14 he said at dinner one day: 'I think I shall marry X (a very plain cousin); between us we might produce the missing link.' Aunt Marie was shocked!"
Many of the games arise from the skill in drawing of both Gilbert and his father. A long history of two of the Masters drawn by Gilbert shows them in the Salvation Army, as Christy Minstrels, as editors of a new revolutionary paper, "La Guillotine," as besieged in their office by a mob headed by Lord Salisbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Conservative leaders. Getting tired at last of the adventures of these two mild scholars, Gilbert starts a series of Shakespeare plays drawn in modern dress.
Shylock as an aged Hebrew vendor of dilapidated vesture, with a tiara of hats, Antonio as an opulent and respectable city-merchant, Bassanio as a fashionable swell and Gratiano as his loud and disreputable "pal" with large checks and a billy-cock hat. Portia was attired as a barrister in wig and gown and Nerissa as a clerk with a green bag and a pen behind his ear. This being much appreciated, Your Humble Servant questions what portion of the Bard of Avon he shall next burlesque.
The little group seems certainly at this date to be living in a land in which 'tis always afternoon. In one house or another tea-time goes on until signs of dinner make their appearance. The boys only move from one hospitable dining-room to another, or adjourn to their own bedrooms where Gilbert piles book on book and reduces even neat shelves to the same chaos that reigns in his own room.
The Christmas holidays to which the "dramatic journal" belongs came a few months after the founding of the Junior Debating Club, which became so central in Gilbert's life and which he treated with a gravity, solemnity even, such as he never showed later for any cause, a gravity untouched by humour. It was a group of about a dozen boys, started with the idea that it should be a Shakespeare Club, but immediately changed into a general discussion club. They met every week at the home of one or other and after a hearty tea some member read a paper which was then debated.
At the age of twenty, when he had left school two years, G.K. wrote a solemn history of this institution in which the question of whether it was right or wrong to insist on penny fines for rowdy behaviour is canvassed with passionate feeling! One boy who was expelled asked to be readmitted, saying, "I feel so lonely without it." Gilbert's enthusiasm over this incident could be no greater had he been a bishop welcoming the return of an apostate to the Christian fold. I suppose it was partly because of his early solitary life at school, partly because of the general trend of his thought, partly that at this later date he was under the influence of Walt Whitman and cast back upon his earlier years a sort of glow or haze of Whitman idealism. Anyhow, the Junior Debating Club became to him a symbol of the ideal friendship. They were Knights of the Round Table. They were Jongleurs de Dieu. They were the Human Club through whom and in whom he had made the grand discovery of Man. They were his youth personified. The note is still struck in the letters of his engagement period, and it was only forty years later, writing his Autobiography, that he was able to picture with a certain humorous detachment this group of boys who met to eat buns and criticise the universe.
A year after their first meeting, the energy of Lucian Oldershaw produced a magazine called The Debater. At first it was turned out at home on a duplicator—the efficiency of the production being such that the author of any given paper was able occasionally to recognise a few words of his own contribution. Later it was printed and gives a good record of the meetings and discussions. It shows the energy and ardour of the debaters and also their serious view of themselves and their efforts. At first they are described as Mr. C, Mr. F, etc. Later the full name is given. Besides the weekly debates, they started a Library, a Chess Club, a Naturalists' Society and a Sketching Club, regular meetings of which are chronicled.
"The Chairman [G.K.C.] said a few words," runs a record, after some months of existence, "stating his pride at the success of the Club, and his belief in the good effect such a literary institution might have as a protest against the lower and unworthy phases of school life. His view having been vehemently corroborated, the meeting broke up."
In one fairly typical month papers were read on "Three Comedies of Shakespeare," "Pope," and "Herodotus," and when no paper was produced there was a discussion on Capital Punishment. In another, the subjects were "The Brontes," "Macaulay as an Essayist," "Frank Buckland" (the naturalist) and "Tennyson." A pretty wide range of reading was called for from schoolboys in addition to their ordinary work, even though on one occasion the Secretary sternly notes that the reading of the paper occupied only three and one-half minutes. But they were not daunted by difficulties or afraid of bold attempts.
Mr. Digby d'Avigdor on one occasion "delivered a paper entitled 'The Nineteenth Century: A Retrospect.' He gave a slight resume of the principal events, with appropriate tribute to the deceased great of this century."
Mr. Bertram, reading a paper on Milton, "dealt critically with his various poems, noting the effective style of 'L'Allegro,' giving the story of the writing of 'Comus' and cursorily analysing 'Paradise Lost,' and 'Paradise Regained.'"
"After discussing the adaptability of Hamlet to the stage, Mr. Maurice Solomon"—who may have been quite fifteen—"passed on to review the chief points in the character of the Prince of Denmark, concluding with a slight review of the other characters which he did not think Shakespeare had given much attention to."
In a discussion on the new humorists, we find the Secretary "taking grievous umbrage at certain unwarrantable attacks which he considered Mr. Andrew Lang had lately made on these choice spirits." This discussion arose from a paper by the Chairman on the new school of poetry "in which, in spite of its good points, he condemned the absence of the sentiment of the moral, which he held to be the really stirring and popular element in literature."
Evidently some of his friends tended towards a youthful cynicism for in a paper on Barrie's Window in Thrums Gilbert apologises to "such of you as are much bitten with the George Moore state of mind."
The book which describes the rusty emotions and toilsome lives of the Thrums weavers will always remain a book that has given me something, and the fact that mine is merely the popular view and that what I feel in it can be equally felt by the majority of fellow-creatures, this fact, such is my hardened and abandoned state, only makes me like the book more. I have long found myself in that hopeless minority that is engaged in protecting the majority of mankind from the attacks of all men. . . .
In this sentiment we recognise the G.K. that is to be, but not when we find him seconding Mr. Bentley in the motion that "a scientific education is much more useful than a classic."
"Mr. M," reading a paper on Herodotus, "gave a minute account of the life of the historian, dwelling much upon the doubt and controversy surrounding his birth and several incidents of his history"; while "Mr. F. read a paper on Newspapers, tracing their growth from the Acta Diurna of the later Roman Empire to the hordes of papers of the present day."
Perhaps best of all these efforts was that of Mr. L.D., who "after describing the governments of England, France, Russia, Germany and the United States, proceeded to give his opinion on their various merits, first saying that he personally was a republican."
Of the boys that appear in The Debater, Robert Vernede was killed in the Great War; Laurence Solomon at his death in 1940 was Senior Tutor of University College, London; his brother Maurice who became one of the Directors of the General Electric Company is now an invalid. I read a year or so ago an interesting Times obituary of Mr. Bertram, who was Director of Civil Aviation in the Air Ministry; Mr. Salter became a Principal in the Treasury, having practised as a solicitor up to the War; Mr. Fordham, a barrister, was one of the Legal Advisers to the Ministry of Labour and has now retired.
The two outstanding "debaters" in G.K.'s life were Lucian Oldershaw who became his brother-in-law and will often reappear in these pages, and Edmund Clerihew Bentley, his friend of friends. Closely united as was the whole group, Lucian Oldershaw once told me that they were frantically jealous of one another: "We would have done anything to get the first place with Gilbert."
"But you know," I said "who had it."
"Yes," he replied, "our jealousy of Bentley was overwhelming."
Mr. Bentley became a journalist and was for long on the editorial staff of the Daily Telegraph, but he is best known for his detective stories—especially Trent's Last Case—and as the inventor of a special form of rhyme, known from his second name as the Clerihew. He wrote the first of these while still at school, and the best were later published in a volume called Biography for Beginners, which G.K. illustrated. Everyone has his favourite. My own is:
Sir Christopher Wren Said "I am going to dine with some men, If anybody calls Say I'm designing St. Paul's."
The people of Spain think Cervantes Equal to half-a-dozen Dantes, An opinion resented most bitterly By the people of Italy.
Bentley was essentially a holiday as well as term-time companion and when they were not together a large correspondence between the two boys gives some idea of how and where Gilbert spent his summer holidays. They are very much schoolboy letters and not worth quoting at full length, but it is interesting to compare both style and content with the later letters. All the letters begin "Dear Bentley." The first use of his Christian name only occurs after both had left school.
Austria House Pier Street Ventnor, Isle of Wight (undated, probably 1890)
Although you dropt some hints about Paris when you were last in our humble abode, I presume that this letter, if addressed to your usual habitation, will reach you at some period. Ventnor, where, as you will perceive we are, is, I will not say built upon hills, but emptied into the cracks and clefts of rocks so that the geography of the town is curious and involved. . . .
My brother is intent upon "The Three Midshipmen" or "The Three Admirals" or the three coal-scuttles or some other distinguished trio by that interminable ass Kingston. I looked at it today and wondered how I ever could have enjoyed his eternal slave schooners and African stations. I would not give a page of "Mansfield Park" or a verse of "In Memoriam" for all the endless fighting of blacks and boarding of pirates through which the three hypocritical vagabonds ever went. I am getting old. How old it will shortly be necessary for me to state precisely, for, as you doubtless know there is going to be a Census. . . .
I have been trying to knock into shape a story, such as we spoke about the other day, about the first introduction of Tea, and I should be glad of your assistance and suggestions. I think I shall lay the scene in Holland where the merits of tea were first largely agitated, and fill the scene with the traditional Dutch figures such as I sketch. I find in Disraeli's "Curiosities of Literature" which I consulted before coming away that a French writer wrote an elaborate treatise to prove that tea merchants were always immoral members of society. It would be rather curious to apply the theory to the present day. . . .
11, Warwick Gardens, Kensington. (undated.)
I direct this letter to your ancient patrimonial estate unknowing whether it will reach you or where it will reach you if it does; whether you are shooting polar bears on the ice-fields of Spitzbergen or cooking missionaries among the cannibals of the South Pacific. But wherever you are I find some considerable relief in turning from the lofty correspondence of the secretary (with no disparagement of my much-esteemed friend, Oldershaw) to another friend (ifelow-mecallimso as Mr. Verdant Greene said) who can discourse on some other subjects besides the Society, and who will not devote the whole of his correspondence to the questions of that excellent and valuable body. The Society is a very good thing in its way (being the President I naturally think so) but like other good things, you may have too much of it, and I have had. . . .
As I said before, I don't know where you are disporting yourself, beyond some hurried remark about Paris which you dropped in our hurried interview in one of the "brilliant flashes of silence" between those imbecile screams and yells and stamping, which even the natural enthusiasm at the prospect of being "broken up" cannot excuse.
6, The Quadrant, North Berwick, Haddington, Scotland. (? 1891.)
You will probably guess that as far as personal taste and instincts are concerned, I share all your antipathy to the noisy Plebian excursionist. A visit to Ramsgate during the season and the vision of the crowded, howling sands has left in me feelings which all my Radicalism cannot allay. At the same time I think that the lower orders are seen unfavorably when enjoying themselves. In labour and trouble they are more dignified and less noisy. Your suggestion as to a series of soliloquies is very flattering and has taken hold of me to the extent of writing a similar ballad on Simon de Montfort. The order in which they come is rather incongruous, particularly if I include the list I have in mind for the future thus—Danton, William III, Simon de Montfort, Rousseau, David and Russell. . . . I rejoice to say that this is a sequestered spot into which Hi tiddly hi ti, etc. and all the ills in its train have not penetrated.
In these last two letters there are sentences of a kind not to be found anywhere else in Chesterton. The disparagement of Lucian Oldershaw's excessive enthusiasm for the Junior Debating Club, the solemn reprobation of the "imbecile screams and yells and stamping" of the last day at school before the summer holidays, the antipathy expressed for the rowdy enjoyments of the lower orders—these things are not in the least like either the Chesterton that was to be or the Chesterton that then was. But they are very much like Bentley. He was two years younger than Chesterton, but far older than his years and seemed indeed to the other boys (and perhaps to himself) like an elderly gentleman smiling a remote amused smile at the enthusiasms of the young. I get the strongest feeling that at this stage Chesterton not only admired him—as he was to do all his life—but wanted to be like him, to say the kind of thing he thought Bentley would say. This phase did not last, as we shall see; it had gone by the time Chesterton was at the Slade School.
6, The Quadrant, North Berwick Haddington, Scotland. (undated, probably 1891.)
We have been here three days and my brother loudly murmurs that we have not yet seen any of "the sights." For my part I abominate sights, and all people who want to look at them. A great deal more instruction, to say nothing of pleasure is to be got out of the nearest haystack or hedgerow taken quietly, than in trotting over two or three counties to see "the view" or "the site" or the extraordinary cliff or the unusual tower or the unreasonable hill or any other monstrosity deforming the face of Nature. Anybody can make sights but nobody has yet succeeded in making scenery. (Excuse the unaccountable pencil drawing in the middle which was drawn unconsciously on the back of the unfinished letter.) . . .
9, South Terrace, Littlehampton, Sussex. (undated.)
. . . I agree with you in your admiration for Paradise Lost, but consider it on the whole too light and childish a book for persons of our age. It is all very well, as small children to read pretty stories about Satan and Belial, when we have only just mastered our "Oedipus" and our Herbert Spencer, but when we grow older we get to like Captain Marryat and Mr. Kingston and when we are men we know that Cinderella is much better than any of those babyish books. As regards one question which you asked, I may remark that the children of Israel [presumably the Solomons] have not gone unto Horeb, neither unto Sittim, but unto the land that is called Shropshire they went, and abode therein. And they came unto a city, even unto the city that is called Shrewsbury, and there they builded themselves an home, where they might abide. And their home was in the land that was called Castle Street and their home was the 25th tabernacle in that land. And they abode with certain of their own kin until their season be over and gone. And lo! they spake unto me by letter, saying, "Heard ye aught of him that is called Bentley? Is he in the house of his fathers or has he come unto a strange land?" Here endeth the 2nd Lesson.
Hotel de Lille & d'Albion, 223, Rue St. Honore, Paris. (undated, probably 1892.)
. . . They showed us over the treasures of the Cathedral, among which, as was explained by the guide, who spoke a little English, was a cross given by Louis XIV to "Meess" Lavalliere. I thought that concession to the British system of titles was indeed touching. I also thought, when reflecting what the present was, and where it was and then to whom it was given, that this showed pretty well what the religion of the Bourbon regime was and why it has become impossible since the Revolution.
Grand Hotel du Chemin de Fer, Arromanches (Calvados) (undated)
. . . Art is universal. This remark is not so irrelevant and Horace Greeley-like as it may appear. I have just had a demonstration of its truth on the coach coming down here. Two very nice little French boys of cropped hair and restless movements were just in front of us and my pater having discovered that the book they had with them was a prize at a Paris school, some slight conversation arose. Not thinking my French altogether equal to a prolonged interview, I took out a scrap of paper and began, with a fine carelessness to draw a picture of Napoleon I, hat, chin, attitude, all complete. This, of course, was gazed at rapturously by these two young inheritors of France's glory and it ended in my drawing them unlimited goblins to keep for the remainder of the interview.
In May 1891, the Chairman of the J.D.C. attained the maturity of seventeen.
The Secretary then rose and in a speech in which he extolled the merits of the Chairman as a chairman, and mentioned the benefit which the Junior Debating Club received on the day of which this was the anniversary, viz., the natal day of Mr. Chesterton, proposed that a vote wishing him many happy returns of the day and a long continuance in the Chair of the Club should be passed. This was carried with acclamations. The Chairman replied after restoring Order. . . .
Naturally this question of order among a crowd of boys loomed large. At the beginning a number of rules were passed giving great powers to the Chairman, "which that gentleman," he says of himself, "lenient by temperament and republican by principles, certainly would never have put in force. . . . It was seldom enough," he continues:
that a boy of fifteen* found himself in the position of the Chairman, an attitude of command and responsibility over a body of his friends and equals, and it was not to be expected that they would easily take to the state of things. Nor was the Chairman himself, like the Secretary, protected and armed by any personal aptitude for practical proceedings. But solely by the certain degree of respect entertained for his character and acquirements. This respect, sincere and even excessive as it frequently was, contrasted somewhat humorously with the common inattention to questions of order, nor could anything be more noisy than the loyalty of Fordham and Langdon Davies, with the exception of their interruptions. It may then fairly be said that the troubles and discussions of the first months of the Club's existence centred practically round the question of order, the first of the great difficulties of this most difficult enterprise. How boys who could scarcely be got to behave quietly under the strictest schoolmasters could ever be brought to obey the rebuke of their equal and schoolfellow: how a heterogeneous pack of average schoolboys could organise themselves into a self-governing republic, these were problems of real and stupendous difficulty. The fines of a penny and of twopence, which were instituted at the first meeting, were found hopelessly incompetent to cope with the bursts of oblivious hilarity. Fordham in particular, whose constant breaches of order threatened to exhaust even the extensive treasury of that spoilt and opulent young gentleman, soon left calculation far behind, nor can the story be better or more brightly told than by himself. "Mr. F.," he wrote, "at one time, after considerable calculation found that he was in debt to the extent of some 10 or 11 shillings; but as he felt that by refusing to pay the sum he would be striking a blow for the liberty of the subject, he manfully held out against what he considered an unjust punishment for such diminutive frivolities as he had indulged in." . . . At times incidents of a disturbing and playful nature have roused the wrath of the Chairman and Secretary to a pitch awful to behold. At one time Mr. H. (a member who soon resigned) spent a considerable part of a meeting under the table, till he found himself used as a public footstool and a doormat combined. At another as Mr. Bentley was departing from the scene of chaos a penny bun of the sticky order caressingly stung his honoured cheek, sped upon its errand of mercy by the unerring aim of Mr. F.**
[* He was, in fact, sixteen when the J.D.C. began.]
[** MS. History of the J.D.C.]
Mr. Fordham well remembers how G.K. one day took him aside at the Oldershaws' house and told him that he really must be less exuberant. This historic occasion was always alluded to later as "the day on which the Chairman spoke seriously to Mr. F."
After various resignations order was restored, and a little later two of the chief recalcitrants asked to be received back into the Club. "I feel so lonely without it," one of them had remarked; and G.K. comments, "This has always appeared to the present writer one of the most important speeches in the history of the Club. . . . The Junior Debating Club had come through its moments of difficulty and was a fact and an establishment."
Nor was the circulation of The Debater long confined to members of the Club and their own circle of friends and relatives. Some of the boys had no doubt a regular allowance, but probably a small one. Gilbert himself says in his diary that he had no income "except errant sixpences." And printers' bills had to be paid. Moreover in the first number the editor Lucian Oldershaw confessed frankly that one reason for the paper's existence was "that the Society may not degenerate into the position of a mutual admiration Society by totally lacking the admiration of outsiders." The staff were able immediately to note, "Any apprehensions we may have felt on the morning of the publication of The Debater were speedily dispelled, when by nightfall we had disposed of all our copies." Of a later issue the energetic editor sold sixty-five copies in the course of the summer holidays. Masters, too, began to read it and at last a copy was hid on the table of the High Master, Mr. Walker. Cecil Chesterton describes the High Master as a gigantic man with a booming voice. Some Paulines believed he had given Gilbert the first inspiration for the personality of "Sunday" in The Man Who Was Thursday. Another contemporary says that he was reputed to take no interest in anything except examination successes, and that the boys were amazed at the effect on him of reading The Debater. Reading in the light of his future, one sees qualities in Gilbert's work not to be found in that of the other contributors, but it is worth noting that the J.D.C. members were in fact a quite unusually able group. Almost every one of them took brilliant scholarships to Oxford or Cambridge; the High Master had never boasted of so many scholarships from one set of boys. And in reading The Debater (an enjoyment I wish others could share) one has to bear in mind the relative ages of the contributors. It is, I think, striking that all these boys should have recognised Gilbert's quality and accepted his leadership, for they were all a year or so younger than he was and yet were in the same form. They knew that this was only because G.K. would not bother to do his school work; still, I think that at that age they showed insight by knowing it.
Gilbert's work is to be found in every number of The Debater—usually verse as well as prose. Both Fordham and Oldershaw remember most vividly the effect of reading a fanciful essay on Dragons in the first number. "The Dragon," it began, "is the most cosmopolitan of impossibilities." And the boys, rolling the words on their tongues, murmured to one another, "This is literature."
Except for a very occasional flash the one element not yet visible in these Debater essays is humour. This is curious, because some of his most brilliant fooling belongs to the same period. In a collection made after his death, The Coloured Lands is an illustrated jeu d'esprit of 1891, Half Hours in Hades: "an elementary handbook of demonology" which is as amusing a thing as he ever wrote. The drawings he made for it show specimens of the evolution of various types of devil into various types of humans: the devils themselves are carefully classified—the common or garden serpent (Tentator Hortensis), the red devil (Diabolus Mephistopheles) the blue devil (Caeruleus Lugubrius) etc. Mr. J. Milton's "specimen" is discussed and various methods of pursuing observations in supernatural history which "possesses an interest which will remain after health, youth and even life have departed."