GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
By the Same Author
ODDMENTS SUGGESTIVE FRAGMENTS
GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
With an Introduction by Arthur F. Thorn
London, MCMXXII The Chelsea Publishing Company 16 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea
Printed at The Curwen Press Plaistow, E. 13
It is certain that up to a point in the evolution of Self most people find life quite exciting and thrilling. But when middle age arrives, often prematurely, they forget the thrill and excitements; they become obsessed by certain other lesser things that are deficient in any kind of Cosmic Vitality. The thrill goes out of life: a light dies down and flickers fitfully; existence goes on at a low ebb—something has been lost. From this numbed condition is born much of the blind anguish of life.
It is one of the tragedies of human existence that the divine sense of wonder is eventually destroyed by inexcusable routine and more or less mechanical living. Mental abandon, the exercise of fancy and imagination, the function of creative thought—all these things are squeezed out of the consciousness of man until his primitive enjoyment of the mystical part of life is affected in a very serious way.
Nothing could be more useful, therefore, than to write a book about a man who has done more than any other living writer to stimulate and preserve the primitive sense of wonder and joy in human life. Gilbert Keith Chesterton has never lost mental contact with the cosmic simplicity of human existence. He knows, as well as anybody has ever known, that the life of man goes wrong simply because we are too lazy to be pleased with simple, fundamental things.
We grow up in our feverish, artificial civilization, believing that the real, satisfying things are complex and difficult to obtain. Our lives become unnaturally stressed and tormented by the pitiless and incessant struggle for social conditions which are, at best, second-rate and ultimately disappointing.
G. K. Chesterton would restore the primitive joys of wonder and childlike delight in simple things. His ideal is the real, not the merely impossible. Unlike most would-be saviours of the race, he seeks not to merge a new humanity into a brand new glittering civilization. He would have us awaken once more to the ancient mysteries and eternal truths. He would have us turn back in order to progress.
Science makes us proud, but it does not make us happy. Efficiency makes us slaves—we have forgotten the truth about freedom. Success is our narcotic deity, and weans more men into despair than failure; for, as G.K.C. has said, 'Nothing fails like Success.' We have yet to rediscover the spiritual health that comes with a clear recognition of the part that life cannot be great until it is lived madly and wildly. We have to learn all over again that grass really is green, and the sky, at times, very blue indeed.
ARTHUR F. THORN
(Author of 'Richard Jefferies'), Assistant-Director of Studies, London School of Journalism.
This book is the outcome of many and repeated requests to the author to write it. While realizing the difficulties involved, he feels that the opportunities he has enjoyed give him at least some qualifications for the task, for not only is he a kinsman of Mr. Chesterton, but also has spent much time in his company.
The book aims to be a popular study of the Writer and the Man. It is dedicated to lovers of the works of G.K.C. and to the wider public who wish to know about one of the most brilliant minds of the day.
46 Russell Square, W.C. 1 1922.
I THE ESSAYIST 1
II DICKENS 15
III THACKERAY 29
IV BROWNING 42
V CHESTERTON AS HISTORIAN 57
VI THE POET 67
VII THE PLAYWRIGHT 76
VIII THE NOVELIST 79
IX CHESTERTON ON DIVORCE 90
X 'THE NEW JERUSALEM' 96
XI MR. CHESTERTON AT HOME 99
XII HIS PLACE IN LITERATURE 105
XIII G.K.C. AND G.B.S. 113
XIV CONCLUSION 119
It is extremely difficult in the somewhat limited space of a chapter to give the full attention that should be given to such a brilliant and original essayist (which is not always an ipso facto of brilliant essayists) as Chesterton. Essayists are of all men extremely elastic. Occasionally they are dull and prosy, very often they are obscure, quite often they are wearisome. The only criticism which applies adversely to Chesterton as an essayist is that he is very often—and I rather fear he likes being so—obscure. He is brilliant in an original manner, he is original in a brilliant way; scarcely any thought of his is not expressed in paradox. What is orthodox to him is heresy to other people; what is heresy to him is orthodox to other people; and the surprising fact is that he is usually right when he is orthodox, and equally right when he is heretical. An essayist naturally has points of view which he expresses in a different way to a novelist. A novelist, if he adheres to what a novel should be—that is, I think, a simple tale—does not necessarily have a particular point of view when he starts his book. An essayist, on the other hand, starts with an idea and clothes it. Of course, Chesterton is not an essayist in the really accepted manner of an essayist. He is really more a brilliant exponent of an original point of view. In other words, he essays to knock down opinions held by other essayists, whether writers or politicians. It would be manifestly absurd to praise Chesterton as being equal to Hazlitt, or condemn him as being inferior to J.S. Mill. Comparisons are usually odious, which is precisely the reason so much use is made of them. In this case any comparison is not only odious; it is worse, it is merely futile, for the very simple fact that there has been no essayist ever quite like Chesterton, which is a compliment to him, because it proves what every one who knows is assured, that he is unique.
There are, of course, as is to be expected, people who do not like his essays. The reason is not far to seek, as in everything else people set up for themselves standards which they do not like to see set aside. Consequently people who had read Lamb, Hazlitt, Hume, and E.V. Lucas astutely thought that no essayist could be such who did not adhere to the style of one of these four. Therefore they were a little alarmed and upset when there descended upon them a strange genius who not only upset all the rules of essay writing, but was at the same time acclaimed by all sections of the Press as one of the finest essayists of the day.
With the advent of Chesterton the essay received a shock. It had to realize that it was a larger and wider thing than it had been before. As it had been almost insular, so it became international; as it had been almost theological in its orthodoxy, so it became in its catholicity well-nigh heretical. Which is the best possible definition of a heresy? It is the expanding of orthodoxy or the lessening of it. Thus Chesterton was a pioneer. He gave to the essay a new impetus—almost, we might say, a 'sketch' form; it dealt with subjects not so much in a dissertation as in a dissection. Having dissected one way so that we are quite sure no other method would do, he calmly dissects again in the opposite manner, leaving us gasping, and finding that there really are two ways of looking at every question—a thing we never realize till we think about it. I have in this chapter taken five of Chesterton's most characteristic books of essays, displaying the enormous depth of his intellect, the vast range of subject, the unique use of paradox. Of these five books I have again taken rather necessarily at random subjects depicting the above Chestertonian attributes, with an attempt to give some idea of what it really means when we say that he is an essayist.
That Chesterton's book of essays, entitled 'Heretics,' should have an introductory and a concluding chapter on the importance of orthodoxy is exactly what we should expect to find. There is a great deal of what is undeniably true in this book; there is also, I venture to think, a good deal that is undeniably untrue. I do not think it is unfair to say that in some respects Chesterton allows his cleverness to lead him to certain errors of judgment, and a certain levity in dealing with matters that are to a number of people so sacred that to reinterpret them is almost to blaspheme.
I am thinking of the chapter in this book that is a reply to Mr. McCabe, an ex-Roman Catholic, who, being a keen logician, is now a rationalist. He accuses Chesterton of joking with the things de profundis.
Certain clergymen have also taken exception to Chesterton's writings on the ground of this supposed levity. It is merely that he sees that the Bible has humour, because it has said that 'God laughed and winked.' I do not think he intends to offend, but for many people any idea of humour in the Bible is repugnant, and this view is not confined to clergymen.
In an absolutely charming chapter Chesterton writes of the literature of the servant girl, which is really the literature of Park Lane. It is the literature of Park Lane, for the very obvious reason that it is probably never read there; but the literature is about Park Lane, and is read by those who may live as near it as Balham or Surbiton. What he contends, and rightly, is that the general reader likes to hear about an environment outside his own. It is inherent in us that we always really want to be somewhere else; which is fortunate, as it makes it certain that the world will never come to an end through a universal contentment. It has been said that contentment is the essence of perfection. It is equally true that the essence of perfection is discontent, a striving for something else. This, I think, Chesterton feels when he says of the penny novelette that it is the literature to 'teach a man to govern empires or look over the map of mankind.'
Rudyard Kipling finds a warm spot in Chesterton's heart, but he is a little too militaristic, which is exactly what he is not. Kipling loves soldiers, which is no real reason why he should be disliked as a militarist. Many a servant girl loves a score of soldiers, she may even write odes to her pet sergeant, but she is not necessarily a militarist. Rudyard Kipling likes soldiers and writes of them. He does not, as Chesterton lays to his charge, 'worship militarism.' He accuses Kipling of a want of patriotism, which is about as absurd as accusing Chesterton of a love of politics. But when he says that Kipling only knows England as a place, he is on safe ground, because England is something that is not bound by the confines of space.
Not being exactly a champion of Kipling, Chesterton turns to a different kind of man, George Moore, and has nothing to say for him beyond that he writes endless personal confessions, which most people do if there are those who will read them. But not only this, poor George Moore 'doesn't understand the Roman Catholic Church, he doesn't understand Thackeray, he misunderstands Stevenson, he has no understanding of Christianity.' It is, in fact, a hopeless case, but it is also possible that Chesterton has not troubled to understand George Moore.
Mr. Bernard Shaw is, so Chesterton contends, a really horrible eugenist, because he wants to get a super-man who, having more than two legs, will be a vastly superior person to a man. Chesterton loves men. He tells us why St. Peter was used to found the Church upon. It was because he 'was a shuffler, a coward, and a snob—in a word, a man.' Even the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Councils of Trent have failed to find a better reason for the founding of the Church. It is a defence of the fallibility of the Church, the practical nature of that Body, an organization founded by a Man who had Divine powers in a unique way and was God.
Presumably, then, the mistake of Shaw is that instead of trying to improve man he wishes to invent a kind of demi-god.
Chesterton has a great deal to say for Christmas; in fact, he has no sympathy for those superior beings who find Christmas out of date. Even Swinburne and Shelley have attacked Christianity in the grounds of its melancholy, showing a lamentable forgetfulness that this religion was born at a time that had always been a season of joy. Chesterton is annoyed with them, and is sure that Swinburne did not hang up his socks on Christmas Eve, nor did Shelley. I wonder whether Chesterton hangs up his socks on the eve of Christmas?
'Heretics' is a book that deals with a great number of subjects universal in their scope. The writing is at times too paradoxical, leading to obscurity of thought. There are splendid passages in this book, which is, when all is said, brilliantly original, even if at times a little puzzling.
* * * * *
'Orthodoxy' is, I think, one of the most important of Chesterton's books. The lasting importance of a book depends not so much on its literary qualities or on its popularity, but rather on the theme handled.
There are really two central themes handled in this book. One is of Fairyland, the other is of the defence of Christianity; not that it is either true or false, but that it is rational, or the most shuffle-headed nonsense ever set to delude the human race. The method of apology that Chesterton takes is one that would cause the average theological student to turn white with fear.
The theological colleges, excellent as they are in endeavouring to train efficient laymen into equally efficient priests, usually assume that the best way to know about Christianity is to study Christian books. It is the worst way, because these books are naturally biased in favour of it. It is better to study any religion by seeing what the attackers have to say against it. Then a personal judgment can be formed.
This is, I feel, the method that Chesterton adopts in his deep and original treatise, 'Orthodoxy,' which is more than an essay and less than a theological work.
The Chestertonian contention is that philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche have embarked on the suicide of thought, and that a later disciple to this self-destruction is Bernard Shaw.
In the same way these pseudo philosophers have attacked the Christian religion, 'tearing the soul of Christ into silly strips labelled altruism and egoism. They are alike puzzled by His insane magnificance and His insane meekness.'
As I have said, the method to realize the worth of Christianity is to read all the attacks on it. This is what Chesterton does. In doing so he discovers that these attacks are the one thing that demonstrate the strength of Christianity. Because the attackers reject it upon reasons that are contradictory to each other. Thus some complain that it is a gloomy religion; others go to the opposite extreme and accuse it of pointing to a state of perpetual chocolate cream; yet again it is attacked on grounds of effeminancy, it is upbraided as being fond of a sickly sentimentalism.
Thus it is attacked on opposite grounds at once. It is condemned for being pessimistic, it is blamed for being optimistic. From this position Chesterton deduces that it is the only rational religion, because it steers between the Scylla of pessimism and avoids the Charybdis of a facile optimism. Regarding presumably the early Church she has also kept from extremes. She has ignored the easy path of heresy, she has adhered to the adventurous road of orthodoxy. She has avoided the Arian materialism by dropping a Greek Iota; she has not succumbed to Eastern influences, which would have made her forget she was the Church on earth as well as in heaven. With tremendous commonsense she has remained rational and chosen the middle course, which was one of the cardinal virtues of the ancient Greek philosophers.
The Christian religion is, then, rational because attacked along irrational grounds; the Church is also reasonable because she has not been swayed by the attraction of heresy nor listened to the glib fallacies of those who always want to make her something more or something less.
* * * * *
The other and lesser contention of the book is the wisdom of the land of the Fairies. This is, Chesterton feels, the land where is found the philosophy of the nursery that is expressed in fairy tales—tales that every grown-up should read at Christmas.
Fairyland is for Chesterton the sunny land of commonsense. It is more, it is a place that has a very definite religion; it is, in fact, really the child's land of Christ. Take the lesson of Cinderella, says Chesterton; it is really the teaching of the Prayer Book that the humble shall be exalted, because humility is worthy of exaltation.
Or the Sleeping Beauty. Is it not the significance of how love can bridge time? The prince would have been there to wake the princess had she slept a thousand instead of a hundred years.
Yet again the land of the Fairies is the abode of reason. If Jack is the son of a miller, then a miller is the father of Jack. It is no good in Fairyland trying to prove that two and two do not make four, but it is quite possible to imagine that the witch really did turn the unlucky prince into a pig. After all, such a procedure is not a monopoly of the fairies. Lesser persons than princes have been turned into pigs, not by the wand of a witch, but by the wand of good or bad fortune.
* * * * *
'Orthodoxy' is probably the sanest book that Chesterton has ever written. It is, I venture to think, the work that will gain for him immortality. It is a book on the greatest of themes, the reasonableness of the Christian religion. There have been many books written to attack the Christian religion, equally many to defend it, but Chesterton has made his apology for the religion on original grounds—the contradictories of the detractors of it. 'Orthodoxy' goes alone with Christ into the mountain, and the eager multitudes receive the real philosophy of Chesterton.
* * * * *
The child who has eaten too much jam and feels that too much of a good thing is a truism is rather like the philosopher who, having studied everything, comes to the sad conviction that there is something wrong with the world. The child finds that large quantities of jam are a delusion; the philosopher discovers that the world is even more wrong than he thought it was.
Sitting in his study, Chesterton, looking out on the garden which is the world, discovers that there is something wrong with it, and it is caused by the machinations of the 1,500 odd millions of people who, like ants, crawl about its surface. 'What's wrong with the World?' is the result, and a very entertaining book it is. Like many other sociological treatises it leaves us still convinced that the world is wrong, because we don't know what we really want.
The pessimist is convinced that the world is a bad place, the optimist is sure that it can be good. That is the point of the book. Chesterton has his own ideas of what is wrong, and he says so with astonishing paradox.
When this book was written, Feminism was demanding votes, and, not getting them at once, became naughty, and tied itself to the House of Commons or pushed policemen over. Chesterton devotes a large section of this book to demanding what is the mistake of Feminism.
'The Feminists probably agree that womanhood is under shameful tyranny in the shops and mills. I want to destroy this tyranny. They (the Feminists) want to destroy womanhood.' They do this by attempting to drive women into the world and turn them away from the home. This is what is wrong with the woman's world: they have it that the home is narrow, that the world is wide. The converse is the truth: woman is the star of the home. It is a pity if she has to make chains—significant word—at Cradley Heath.
Education is not for Chesterton an unqualified success; there is a mistake about it somewhere. In fact, there is 'no such thing as education.' Education is not an object, it is a 'transmission' or an 'inheritance.' It means that a certain standard of conduct is passed on from generation to generation. The keynote of education for Chesterton is undoubtedly dogma, and dogma is certainly the result of a narrowing tendency.
At this present time there is a controversy about the use of our public schools. Whenever a harassed editor in Fleet Street cannot think what to put in those two spare columns, he works up a 'stunt' on the use or otherwise of the public schools. This is always exciting, as the public schools hardly ever see the controversy, being blissfully immersed in the military strategy of Hannibal or the political intrigues of the Caesars. Thus the controversy is conducted by those who generally think that commerce is superior to Greek, money-grubbing to good manners.
Even Chesterton must say something about these schools that are the backbone of England. Unfortunately he thinks that they are weakening the country, that the headmasters 'are teaching only the narrowest of manners.' But the public schools 'manufacture gentlemen; they are factories for the making of aristocrats.' If he is right, the more of these schools there are the better it is for the country.
It is well that he is not averse to Greek. In these days the classics are looked upon as waste of time. Political economy and profiteering are more useful. As he says, a man of the type of Carnegie would die in a Greek city. I am not sure whether this is not unfair. The real use of Greek is that it teaches culture. There is use in Plato's philosophy; it is quite as useful as the knowledge acquired that results in peers made, not born. I don't think Chesterton understands the public schools at all well; they are both bad and good, but at least they are very English.
He hasn't a great deal to say for Imperialism. Imperialism is a very difficult ethic; it is not easy to say whether it is a selfish or an unselfish policy.
Thus we may quite conceivably pat ourselves on the back and say that, as English rule is good for natives, it is only right that we should keep India; but we might find that an equally good and more popular reason for doing so would be to prevent any one else having her. Thus our Imperial policy is a little selfish and a little unselfish.
For Chesterton, Imperialism is something that is both weak and perilous. It is really, he contends, a false idealism which tends to try and make people locally discontented, contented with pseudo visions of distant realms where the cities are of gold, where blue skies are never hidden by yellow fog. But is it a false idealism? If it is, it is that conception which has made men leave their homes in England to build up the Imperial Empire which is the daughter of the Great Imperial Island. The vision may not be always useful, but Imperialism has done much to make England and Empire synonymous.
Business is, according to Chesterton, a nasty thing that will not wait. It hates leisure, it has no use for brotherhood, it is one of the things that is wrong in the world—not, of course, that business is wrong in itself, but the method. Thus he disagrees that if a soap factory cannot be run on brotherhood lines the brotherhood must be scrapped. He would have the converse to be better.
He contends that it is better to be without soap than without society. As a matter of fact, society without soap would be an abomination. Society without any brotherhood would soon cease to be a society at all. Utopia is a little soap, a little society, with a flavouring of brotherhood in each.
Another and obviously good reason that the world is wrong is that it is only half finished. This is a matter for extreme optimism; it is the one great thing that makes it certain that the world will be found all right if it comes to an end. That is, if it delays long enough for the Irish question to be settled.
This is what Chesterton contends in this fine book, that reforms are not reforms at all, rather the same things dressed up in other clothes. Values are set up on false standards. Women in trying to become emancipated are likely to become slaves; the fear of the past is given over to a too delicate introspection of the probable vices and virtues of generations not yet born.
Imperialism is liable to a false idealism, drawing men from Seven Dials to find Utopia in Brixton. The public schools are weakening the country in some respects. Education is not education at all; in fact, we really must start the wrong world over again. I don't quite see where Chesterton proposes we are to start, or exactly how, whether backwards or forwards. Perhaps, as in 'Orthodoxy,' the middle course is the happy and safe one.
* * * * *
'Tremendous Trifles' is a Chestertonian philosophy of the importance and interest of small things. It is a remarkable thing that we never see the things that we daily gaze upon. Chesterton finds scope for all kinds of subjects in this book, from a 'Piece of Chalk' to 'A Dragon's Grandmother.' Provided we believe in dragons, there is good reason to suppose that they have grandmothers. It is not so easy to write a good essay on the subject. Chesterton does so with great skill, and it makes it quite certain to be so intellectual as to hate fairies is a piteous condition.
What he brings out in this particular essay is that what modern intellectualism has done is to make 'the hero extraordinary, the tale ordinary,' whereas the fairy tale makes 'the hero ordinary, the tale extraordinary.'
In this book of short essays it is only possible to take a few, but care has been taken to attempt to show the enormous versatility of Chesterton's mind. It has been said quite wrongly that Chesterton cannot describe pathos. This is certainly untrue. He can so admirably describe humour that he cannot help knowing the pathetic, which is often so akin to humour. I am not sure that this ability to describe the melancholy is not to be seen in one of these essays that narrates how he travelled in a train in which there was a dead man whose end he never knew.
Perhaps there is nothing more interesting than turning out one's pockets—all sorts of long forgotten mementoes cause a lump in the throat or a gleam in the eye; but it is very annoying, on arriving at a station where tickets are collected, to find everything that relates to your past twenty years of life and be unable to find the ticket that makes you a legitimate rider on the iron way. This is what Chesterton describes in a delightful essay.
One day, so Chesterton tells us in the 'Riddle of the Ivy,' he happened to be leaving Battersea, and being asked where he was going, calmly replied to 'Battersea.' Which is really to say that we find our way to Brixton more eagerly by way of Singapore than by way of Kennington. In a few words, it is what we mean when we say, as every traveller says at times, 'Home, sweet home.' I fancy this is what Mr. Chesterton means. It is a beautiful thought—a fine love of the home, a strange understanding of the wish of the traveller who once more wishes to see the old cottage before he journeys 'across the Bar.'
The sight of chained convicts being taken to a prison causes Chesterton to essay on the 'filthy torture' of our prisons, the whole system of which is a 'relic of sin.' Perhaps he is right! But is it that the prisons are wrong, or is it that society makes criminals? After all, convicts are chained that they shall not endure a worse penalty for attempted escape. At present prisons are as necessary to the State as milk is to a baby; the thing against them is that they turn criminal men into criminal devils.
At his home in Beaconsfield, Chesterton has a wonderful toy theatre. He writes in this book a sketch about it. This toy theatre has a certain philosophy. 'It can produce large events in a small space; it could represent the earthquake in Jamaica or the Day of Judgment.' We must take Chesterton's word for it. I am not convinced that the toy theatre of Chesterton has added to philosophy; I don't think it has made any remarkable contribution to thought, nor is it, as he claims, more interesting and better than a West-end theatre; but I do believe that in having amused a few hundred children it has a place in the Book of Life—perhaps near the name of Santa Claus.
While it is true that 'Tremendous Trifles' is not nearly as important as some of the Chesterton books, it is true to say that it is a remarkably pleasant book about small things that are really tremendous when we come to study them.
* * * * *
'The Defendant' is, as the title suggests, a defence of all kinds of things that are usually attacked by other people.
It takes a brave man to defend 'penny dreadfuls.' Chesterton assumes this role. He defends them on their remarkable powers of imagination. One has only to study Sexton Blake to discover the intricate psychology of that wondrous personality who can solve the foulest murder or unravel stories that the divorce courts would quail before.
There is something to be said for the skeleton so long as he doesn't come out of his cupboard. Chesterton defends skeletons. 'The truth is that man's horror of the skeleton is not horror of death at all; it is that the skeleton reminds him that his appearance is shamelessly grotesque.' But he sees no objection to this at all. After all, he says, the frog and the hippopotamus are happy. Why, then, should man dislike it that his anatomy without flesh is inelegant?
It is to be expected that Chesterton would write a defence of baby worship, because they are so 'very serious and in consequence very happy.' 'The humorous look of children is perhaps the most endearing of all the bonds that hold the Cosmos together.' Probably we are all agreed that the defence of baby worship is a desirable thing; possibly it is the only point upon which there is universal agreement with Chesterton.
'The Defendant' is a series of papers that are light, but conceal a depth of thought behind them. They demonstrate that there is something to be said for everything which may be a slight solution of the eternal problem that theological professors are paid to try and discover, the problem of evil. It may be that there is really no such thing, but it would be disastrous to these professors to discover this, so the dear old problem goes on from year to year.
As an essayist, Chesterton is never dull: the philosophy contained in his essays is not prosy. The only fault is that he is at times so clever that it is a little difficult to know what he means. But this really does not matter, as a shrewd critic of one of his books made it public through the Press that Chesterton did not know himself what he meant. But I wonder if he did really know?
If there is fault to be found in Chesterton's masterly study of Charles Dickens it lies in the fact that in parts of the book the meaning is not always clear, or, rather, it is not always so at a first reading. Whether this may be justly termed a fault depends largely upon what the reader of a critical study demands.
If he desires that he shall read Chesterton superficially and yet understand, he will be doomed to disappointment. Perhaps of all writers Chesterton must be read with the head between the hands, with a fierce determination that the meaning veiled in brilliant paradox shall be sought out.
He is not only a keen critic, he is also a deliberate commentator. The difference is fundamental. The commentator builds upon the foundation the critic has erected; he does not merely state what he thinks about a book or character, rather he explains the criticism already made.
This is the method adopted with regard to Dickens. Chesterton has written a commentary on the soul of Dickens, he has not in any strict sense written a biography; this was not necessary; the difficulty of Dickens lies in the interpretation of his work; his life, though having a great influence on his writings, has been written so often that Chesterton has refrained from building on 'another's foundation.' In a word, it is an intensely original work, far more than our critic's companion book on Browning.
As was Browning born to a world in the throes of the aftermath of the French Revolution, so was Dickens. Chesterton lays great stress on the youth of Dickens; it is only right that he should do this; the early life of Dickens was probably responsible for the wonderful genius of his art. The blacking factory that nearly killed the physical Dickens gave birth to the literary Dickens. Dickens was, in fact, born at the psychological moment, which is not to say that we are born at the unpsychological moment, but that Dickens was born at a time that allowed his natural powers to be used to the best advantage.
Chesterton feels this strongly. 'The background of the Dickens era was just that background that was eminently suitable to him'; it was a background that needed a Dickens as much as the pagan world, with all its Greek philosophies, had needed a Christ.
He begins his study of Dickens with a keen survey of the Dickens period. 'It was,' he says, 'a world that encouraged anybody to anything. And in England and literature its living expression was Dickens. It is useless for us to attempt to imagine Dickens and his life unless we are able to imagine his confidence in common men.'
It is this supreme confidence in common men that was the keynote to the wonderful power of Dickens in making characters from those who were in a world sense undistinguished. On this position Chesterton lays great stress. It was this, he thinks, that made him an optimist. It was the same position that made Browning an optimist. It is the disbelief in the Divine image in Man that makes the cynic and the pessimist.
Swift hated men because they were capable of better things but would not realize it. Dickens knew men were kings, though ordinary men; the result was that he loved humanity. It is a queer point of psychology that with the same wish two such minds as Swift and Dickens came to the extremes of the emotions of love and hate.
In some ways Dickens was more than a maker of books, he was a maker of worlds; he tried to make 'not only a book but a cosmos.' This may be a curious and obscure kind of clericalism that popularly expresses itself as an effort to run with the hare and follow with the hounds, but is really an heroic attempt to see both sides of the question, and is not a cheap pandering after popularity.
Many critics have disliked Dickens because of this tendency of universalism, a tendency liable to intrude on minds of a giant intellect and a ready sympathy. Chesterton does not think that Dickens was right in this attitude of universalism, and says so with, I think, a certain amount of cheap disdain. 'He was inclined to be a literary Whiteley, a universal provider.' Really Dickens wanted to have a say about everything, in which he is strangely like Chesterton.
The result of this was a result that meant the greatest value: it meant and was 'David Copperfield.' The book was for Chesterton a classic, and it was so because it was an autobiography. It is in this work that Dickens makes his defence of the rather exaggerated situations in some of his books, for in this book Dickens proves that his greatest romance is based on the experiences of his own life. 'David Copperfield is the great answer of a romancer to the realists. David says in effect, "What! you say that the Dickens tales are too purple really to have happened. Why, this is what happened to me, and it seemed the most purple of all. You say that the Dickens heroes are too handsome and triumphant! Why, no prince or paladin in Ariosto was ever so handsome and triumphant as the head boy seemed to me walking before me in the sun. You say the Dickens villains are too black. Why, there was no ink in the Devil's inkstand black enough for my own stepfather when I had to live in the same house with him."'
This is the point that Chesterton brings out so well. The Dickens characters are not overdrawn because, though they move between book covers, their originals have moved on the face of the earth; they have moved with Dickens and he has made them his own. His brilliant apology for this alleged 'overdrawing' is one of the most effective replies ever penned to superior Dickens detractors. It is effective because it is true; it is true because it is obvious that Dickens created that which lay hidden in his own mind, the misery of his factory days.
It is, I think, with this view in mind that Chesterton pays so much attention to that period of Dickens' life which he spent in the blacking factory, with its crude noise, its blatant vulgarity, its vile language that left the small boy Dickens' sick, but with a sickness that discovered his literary genius. The factory was the germ that made the great writer. Chesterton is a true critic of Dickens because he has this somewhat singular insight of seeing the importance of the early miseries of Dickens' life with regard to their influence on his literary output and his queerly favoured delineation of common folks, the sort of people we always meet but hardly ever talk about because we are foolish enough to think them ordinary.
* * * * *
It is from the account of the early life of Dickens that Chesterton gently leads us to the birth of the immortal Mr. Pickwick, that supreme Englishman who is a byword amongst even those who scarcely know Dickens. The birth pangs of the advent of Pickwick was a sharp quarrel 'that did no good to Dickens, and was one of those which occurred far too frequently in his life.'
Without any hesitation for Chesterton, 'Pickwick Papers' is Dickens' finest achievement, which is a pleasant enough problem if we happen to remember that he also wrote 'David Copperfield.' Possibly it is really unfair to compare them. 'Pickwick Papers' is not in the strict sense a novel; 'David Copperfield' is a novel even if it is an autobiography. At any rate Pickwick was a fairy, and as fairies are pretty elastic he probably was in that category of beings, but he was even more a royal fairy, none other than the 'fairy prince.'
In Pickwick, Dickens made a great discovery, which was that he could write ordinary stuff like the 'Sketches by Boz,' and also could produce Mr. Pickwick and write 'David Copperfield,' which was to say that Dickens discovered he had a good chance of being the Shakespeare of literature.
'It is in "Pickwick Papers" that Dickens became a mythologist rather than a novelist; he dealt with men who were gods.' That is, no doubt, that they became household gods; in other words, as familiar as the characters of Shakespeare.
There is one tremendous outstanding characteristic of Dickens which Chesterton brings out with considerable force. It is that above all things Dickens created characters. It is almost as if the setting of his books were on a stage where the environment changes but the essentials of the characters remain unchanged.
The story is almost subordinated to the drawing of the principal character; it is almost a modern idea of the psychoanalytical kind of novel that our young novelists love to draw. But still there is the great difference that the characters of Dickens pursue there own way regardless of the trend of events round them.
Naturally the modern novel is inferior to some of Dickens' works, but they do not deserve the hard things Chesterton says about them. Thus he remarks in passing that the modern novel is 'devoted to the bewilderment of a weak young clerk who cannot decide which woman he wants to marry or which new religion he believes in; we still give this knock-kneed cad the name of hero.'
This is, I think, unfair. The modern novel is very often still a good healthy love tale; the hero is more often than not a gentleman who has not the brains to be a cad; his trouble about marriage is that he wants to marry the right woman to their mutual well being; he is neither a cad nor a hero, but an ordinary Englishman whom we need not walk half a mile to see; he usually marries a girl who can be seen in any suburb or at any church bazaar. I have dwelt on this at some length, as Chesterton has a tendency to despise modern novelists while being one himself.
At this period, when 'Pickwick' had once and for all brought fame to Dickens, it will be interesting to see why Dickens attained the enormous popularity he did. He was, our critic thinks, a 'great event not only in literature but also in history.'
He considers that Dickens was popular in a sense that we of the twentieth century cannot understand. In fact, he goes so far as to say that there are no really popular authors to-day.
This is probably not entirely true. When we say an author is popular we do not mean that necessarily, as Chesterton seems to suggest, he is a 'best seller'; rather we call him popular in the sense that a large number of people find pleasure in reading him, even if the subject is not a pleasant one. Dickens was popular in a different way: he was read by a public who wished his story might never end. They not only loved his books, they loved his characters even more. No matter that there might be five sub-stories running alongside of the main one, the central character retained the public affection. His characters were known outside their particular stories, and not only that, this was by no means confined to the principal ones.
They were known, as Chesterton points out, as Sherlock Holmes is known to-day. But even so there is again a difference. People do not speak of the minor characters of Conan Doyle's tales as they do, for instance, of Smike.
* * * * *
It is now convenient to turn to the Christmas literature of Dickens. I am convinced that Chesterton has very badly misconstrued the character of Scrooge, that delightful person whose one virtue was consistency.
Above everything, Scrooge was consistent; he hated Christmas as we hate anything that does not agree with our temperament. Merry Christmas was nonsense to him because he did not know how to be merry. He was a cold, cynical bachelor, and at that, so far, was perfectly within the law, moral and legal.
But Chesterton, by rather an unfortunate attempt to be too original, has turned him into a filthy hypocrite who needed no appearances of spirits whatever; for he says of Scrooge, 'He is only a crusty old bachelor, and had, I strongly suspect, given away turkeys secretly all his life.'
When Chesterton says that Scrooge gave away turkeys secretly all his life it is merely saying that the whole attitude of Scrooge to life was a silly and unmeaning pose, which makes him ridiculous, and robs the 'Christmas Carol' of all its real worth, that of the miraculous conversion of Scrooge.
But, then, the actual story does not mean much for Chesterton: 'the repentance of Scrooge is highly improbable.' If it is true that Scrooge really did give away turkeys secretly, then it is quite obvious that Scrooge never did repent; he was past it. But I fancy that Chesterton has erred badly here; he has attempted without success to put a secret meaning into a simple and beautiful story.
'Chimes' is, for Chesterton, an attack on cant. It was a story written by Dickens to protest against all he hated in the nature of oppression. Dickens hated the vulgar cant that only helps to bring self-advertisement: the ethic that the poor must listen to the rich, not because the rich are the best law-givers, but because society is at present so constituted that no other method can be adopted.
Dickens loved the attitude the poor always take to Christmas; it is that attitude which is the proof that at its bedrock humanity is extremely lovable. Chesterton is entirely in agreement with Dickens on this matter. 'There is nothing,' he says, 'upon which the poor are more criticized than on the point of spending large sums on small feasts; there is nothing in which they are more right.'
Dickens did not in any way forget that the real spirit of Christmas is to be found in the cheery group round the blazing fire. 'The Cricket on the Hearth' is a pleasant tale about all that we associate with Christmas, that very thing that has made Hearth and Christmas synonymous; yet Chesterton considers this one of the weakest of the Dickens' stories, which is a surprising criticism for a writer who really loves Christmas as he does.
* * * * *
In a later period of Dickens, Chesterton informs us of his brief entry into the complex and exciting world that has its headquarters in Fleet Street. For a short period Dickens occupied the editorship of the Daily News, but the environment was not a very congenial one. Dickens was unsettled with that strange restlessness that seizes all literary men at some time or other. This was the time that saw the publication of 'Dombey and Son.' Chesterton thinks that the essential genius found its most perfect expression in this work though the treatment is grotesque. This book is almost, so our critic thinks, 'a theological one: it attempts to distinguish between the rough pagan devotion of the father and the gentler Christian affection of the mother.'
The grotesque manner of treatment of this work was as natural as the employment of the grotesque by Browning. Dickens must work in his own way, in the manner that suited his inmost soul; he could not be made to write to order. In a brilliant paradox Chesterton says of 'Dombey and Son': the 'story of Florence Dombey is incredible, although it is true,' which is what many people feel about Christianity. 'Dombey and Son' was the outlet for that curious psychology of Dickens which could get the best out of a pathetic incident by approaching it from a grotesque angle. It came, as Chesterton points out in his own inimitable way, 'into the inner chamber by coming down the chimney.' Which demonstrates the ever nearness of pathos to humour, of the absurd to the pathetic.
It will not be out of place to refer at this time to some of the defects with which people have charged Dickens. Chesterton does not agree with the critics on these points, but admits that these charges have been levelled against Dickens. It will be advisable to take one or two examples of these alleged flaws.
There is that most popular thing of which Dickens is accused, that of exaggeration. Many people are quite incredulous that there could ever have existed such a character as Little Nell. Chesterton, however, thinks that Dickens did know a girl of this nature, and that Little Nell was based on her. Little Nell is not really more improbable than 'Eric,' the famous hero of Dean Farrar, and he was certainly based on a living boy.
People who live in these enlightened days are piously shocked at the amount of drinking described by Dickens. Well-bred and garrulous ladies have shuddered at the scenes described, and have declared that Dickens was at least fond of the Bacchanalian element. So he was, but the reason was not that he loved hard drinking, but that, as our critic brings out, drinking was the symbol of hospitality as roast beef is the symbol of a Sunday in a thousand English rectories. As Dickens described the social life of England he could not leave out its most characteristic feature and shudder in pious horror that the red wine dyed old England a merry crimson.
* * * * *
It would be no doubt an exaggeration to call Dickens a socialist. What he saw was that there was a mass of beings that was called humanity, that the two ends of the political pole were indifferent to this mass. The party to which a man gave his allegiance did not matter as long as that party worked for man's ultimate good. Chesterton is quite sure that Dickens was not a socialist; he was not the kind that ranted at street corners and dined in secret at the Ritz, nor was he of the kind who said all men are equal but I am a little better. He was a socialist in the sense that he hated oppression of any kind.
'Hard Times' strikes a note that is a little short of being harsh. The reason that Dickens may have exaggerated Bounderby is that he really disliked him. The Dickensian characters undoubtedly suffered from their delineator's likes and dislikes.
About this time Dickens wrote a book that was unique for him; it was a book that dealt with the French Revolution, and was called 'The Tale of Two Cities.' Chesterton does not think that Dickens really understood this gigantic upheaval; in fact, he says his attitude to it was quite a mistaken one. Even, thinks our critic, Carlyle didn't know what it meant. Both see it as a bloody riot, both are mistaken. The reason that Carlyle and Dickens didn't know all about it was that they had the good fortune to be Englishmen; a very good supposition that Chesterton has still something to learn of that Revolution.
After all, the main point of 'The Tale of Two Cities' is the exquisite pathos of it. Whether its attitude to the French Revolution is absolutely accurate does not matter very much for the reader who is not a keen historical student.
With 'Hard Times' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' Dickens has struck a graver note. This is peculiarly emphasized in 'Great Expectations.' This story is 'characterized by a consistency and quietude of individuality which is rare in Dickens.' It is really a book with a moral—that life in the limelight is not always synonymous with getting the best out of it. Really, the hero behaves in a sneakish manner. Probably Dickens doesn't like him, and the writer is still on the stern side.
In 1864, so Chesterton tells us, Dickens was in a merrier mood, and published 'Our Mutual Friend,' a book that has, as our critic says, 'a thoroughly human hero and a thoroughly human villain.' This work is 'a satire dealing with the whims and pleasures of the leisured class.' But this is by no means a monopoly of the so-called idle rich: the hardworking middle and poorer classes have whims and pleasures in a like manner, but have not so much opportunity in indulging in them.
As I have indicated, the story is not the principal part of the Dickens' literature; it is the drawing of characters to which he pays so much attention. It will not be out of place at this time to see what our critic has to say with regard to this tendency of Dickens. It is an essential of Dickens, and is therefore of vast import to any critique on him.
The essence of Dickens, for Chesterton, is that he makes kings out of common men: those folks who are the ordinary people of this strange, fascinating world, those who have no special claim to a place in the stars, those who, when they die, do not have two lines in any but a local paper, those who are common but are never commonplace.
There is a vast difference between the common and the commonplace, as Chesterton points out. Death is common to all, yet it is never commonplace; it is in its very essence a grand and noble thing, because it is a proof of our common humanity; it gives the lie that the Pope is of more importance than the dustman; it makes the busy editor equal to the newsboy shouting the papers under his office windows.
The common man is he who does not receive any special distinction: universities do not compete to do him honour, his name is but mentioned in a small circle. These are those of whom Dickens wrote. 'It is,' says Chesterton, 'in private life that we find the great characters. They are too great to get into the public world.' They are people who are natural—natural in a sense that the holders of high office never can be. Dickens could only write of natural people, so he wrote of common men: 'You will find him adrift as an impecunious commercial traveller like Micawber; you will find him but one of a batch of silly clerks like Swiveller; you will find him as an unsuccessful actor like Crumples; you will find him as an unsuccessful doctor like Sawyer; you will always find the rich and reeking personality where Dickens found it among the poor.'
Not only were the characters Dickens chose common men, they were also 'great fools,' because Chesterton will have us believe that a man can be entirely great while he is entirely foolish. It is no doubt in the spiritual sense so admirably expressed in the Pauline Epistles, where 'foolish in the eyes of the world but wise before God' is a condition that is of merit.
'Mr. Toots is great because he is foolish.' He is great because he has a soul that glorifies his weak and foolish body, not that he is great because, ipso facto, he is foolish.
There is a great and permanent value in the writings of Dickens. I cannot do better than quote our critic: 'If we are to look for lessons, here at least are the last and deepest lessons of Dickens. It is in our own daily life that we are to look for the portents and the prodigies. This is the truth, not merely of the fixed figures of our life, the wife, the husband, the fool that fills the day. Every day we neglect Tootses and Swivellers, Guppys and Joblings, Simmerys and Flashers. This is the real gospel of Dickens, the inexhaustible opportunities offered by the liberty and variety of man. It is when we pass our own private gate and open our own secret door that we step into the land of the giants.'
* * * * *
It will now be convenient to consider the question of the attitude of our critic to the 'Mystery of Edwin Drood,' that tale that has produced one of those literary mysteries that are so dear to a number of folks of the kind who would be disappointed were the problem to be finally solved. 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' was cut short by the sudden death that fell upon Dickens on a warm June night some half century ago.
For Chesterton the book 'might have proved to be the most ambitious that Dickens ever planned.' It is non-Dickensian in the sense that its value depends entirely on a story. The workmanship is very fine. The book was purely and simply a detective story. 'Bleak House' was the nearest approach to its style, but the mystery there was easy to unravel. It was as though Dickens wished in 'Edwin Drood' to make one last 'splendid and staggering' appearance before the curtain rang down, not to be rung up again until the last Easter morning.
'Yes,' says Chesterton, 'there were many other Dickenses, 'an industrious Dickens, a public spirited Dickens, but the last one (that is Edwin Drood) was the great one. The wild epitaph of Mrs. Sapsea, "Canst thou do likewise?" should be the serious epitaph of Dickens.'
* * * * *
It is more than fifty years since Dickens died. What is the future of Dickens likely to be? At least, Chesterton has no doubt of the permanent influence of Dickens; he is as sure of immortality as is Shakespeare. The kings of the earth die, yet their works remain; the princes pass on but are not entirely forgotten; writers write and in their turn sleep; but there is that to which in every age we inscribe the word Immortal. It is enough to say that Dickens is immortal because he is Dickens. There is a further reason, that he proved what all the world had been saying, that common humanity is a holy thing. To quote Chesterton: 'He did for the world what the world could not do for itself.' Dickens' creation was poetry—it dealt with the elementals; it is therefore permanent.
In final words he says, 'We shall not be further troubled with the little artists who found Dickens too sane for their sorrows and too clear for their delights. But we have a long way to travel before we get back to what Dickens meant; and the passage is a long, rambling English road, a twisting road such as Mr. Pickwick travelled.'
'But the road leads to eternity, because the inn is at the end of the road, and at that inn is a goodly company of common men who are immortal because Dickens made them. Here we shall meet Dickens and all his characters, and when we shall drink again it shall be from great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.'
* * * * *
What, then, is the essential part of Chesterton's study of Charles Dickens? It is certainly not a biography; it is for all practical purposes a keen study of what Dickens was, what he wrote, why he wrote as he did, why he has a place in literature no one else has.
There are faults in the book—it would be a poor book if it had none. At times I think Chesterton allows his genius to overcome his critical judgment. Particularly is this so in his strange misconstruction of the character of Scrooge. But this merely demonstrates yet once more that Dickens, like Christ, is unique, because no one has ever completely understood him.
The book is a tribute by a great writer to a greater writer, by a great man to a great man, by a complex personality to a complex personality; above all it is a tribute by a lover of the things of the 'doorstep' to a writer who has made the doorstep and the street the road to heaven, because the beings who pass along have been made immortal.
When the critics of Dickens meet at the inn there will be none more worthy of a place close to the Master Writer than Chesterton.
There are no doubt thousands of people who would be annoyed to be thought the reverse of well read who nevertheless know Thackeray only as a name. They know that he was a really great English novelist—they may even know that he lived as a contemporary of Dickens—but they do not know a line of any of his works.
In lesser manner Dickens is unknown to very many people of the present day who could tell you intelligently of every modern book that is produced. The reason is, I think, one that is not so generally thought of as might be expected.
It is often said that Thackeray and Dickens are out of date, that they have had their day, that this era of tube trains and other abominations cannot fall into the background of lumbering stage coaches.
This is, I think, a profound and grave error. It is an error because it presupposes that human interest changes with the advent of different means of transport: that Squeers is no longer of interest because he would now travel to Yorkshire by the Great Northern Railway and would have lunch in a luncheon car instead of inside a four-horse stage coach.
The fundamental reason that modern people do not read these great authors is that they are not encouraged to do so. The very best way to instil a love of Thackeray into the modern world is to make the modern world read just so much of him that its voracious appetite is sharpened to wish for more.
In an altogether admirable series of the masters of literature Thackeray finds a place, and treatment of him is left to Chesterton, who writes a fine introductory 'Biography' and then takes picked passages from his writings. This is, I think, the most useful means possible of popularizing an author. It requires a good deal of pluck in these days to sit down and steadily pursue a way through a long book of Thackeray unless it has been proved, by the perusal of a selected passage, that riches in the book warrant the act of courage in beginning the work.
In this chapter it will be convenient to pay special attention to the introduction that is so ably contributed by Chesterton. It will only be possible to refer to the passages he has selected from Thackeray, and the reader must judge of the merit of the choosing. It is one of the hardest things possible to choose representative passages from a great writer. Shall he choose those that display the literary qualities of the writer, shall he choose those which depict his powers of drama, shall he select those which bring out the humour of the writer, shall he pick at random and let the passage stand or fall on its own merits? These are questions that must be faced in a work of the nature of Chesterton's Thackeray. What the method has been will, I hope, be clear at the end of this chapter.
It was Thackeray's expressed wish that there should be no biography written of him, a position that might indicate extreme modesty, colossal conceit, or distinct cowardice. Whatever the reason, it has not been entirely obeyed, and rightly. A man of the power of Thackeray cannot live without the world being in some way better; it is only good that those who never knew him in the flesh should at least know him in a book. It is not enough that, as Chesterton points out, he 'was of all novelists the most autobiographical,' which is not to say that he wrote unending personal confessions with a very large I, but rather that his books were drawn from the experiences of his life, a field that is productive of the richest literary worth.
Thackeray was born, we are told, in the year 1811, so that he was a year old when the world received two babies who were like ten thousand other babies, except that they happened to be Browning and Dickens. It was the time when the world trembled, because that mighty soldier Napoleon stood with arms folded, waiting to strike, it knew not where. It was the time when military genius reached its height, a height that could be only brought low by one thing, and that was an English General with a long nose and a cocked hat.
Although Thackeray was born in Calcutta, he was as English as he could possibly be. But he did not forget his Eastern beginning. 'A certain vague cosmological quality was always mixed with his experience, and it was his favourite boast that he had seen men and cities like Ulysses.' Which is to say that he had not only seen the world, he had felt it; if he had not seen a one-eyed giant, he had at least seen a two-eyed Hindu.
His early life followed the ordinary life of a thousand other boys born of Anglo-Indian parents; that was, he went to school, where 'a girl broke his heart and a boy broke his nose,' and he discovered that the nose took longer to mend.
At Cambridge, Chesterton tells us, Thackeray found that it was a quite easy thing to sit down and play cards and lose L1,500 in an evening, a fact that very probably was more useful to him than twenty degrees. Trinity College was the Thackeray College: it has had no more famous son. It was said that Thackeray could order a dinner in every language in Europe, which is to say he could have dined in comfort in any restaurant in Soho.
From Cambridge, we learn, he made his way to the Bar, and at the same time wrote articles in the hope that some editor might keep them from the waste-paper basket. Chesterton tells us an interesting legend that about this time Thackeray offered to illustrate the books of Dickens. The offer was declined, which he thinks was 'a good thing for Dickens' books and a good thing for Thackeray's.' Whether Thackeray ever really did meet Dickens does not matter much; it is at least picturesque; 'it affects the imagination as much as the meeting with Napoleon.'
There has always been what is for Chesterton a silly discussion—a controversy as to whether Thackeray was a cynic. This was because he happened to write first about villains, then about heroes; villains are always more interesting than heroes, and not infrequently are much better mannered. A cynic is a person who doesn't take the trouble to find the motives for things, or he takes it for granted that the motives are never disinterested ones. To say that Thackeray was a cynic because he drew a large number of villains is as untrue as to say Swift was a cynic because he wrote satire. Thackeray wrote about villains because he wished to also write about heroes; Swift was satirical because he had the intelligence to see that his contemporaries were fools when they might have been wise. The cynics are the people of to-day who write books which attribute low motives to every one, which turn love into lust, which care not what is written so long as it can be made certain that there is nothing in the world which has not a hidden meaning.
The first appearance of Thackeray in literature was in 'Fraser's Magazine,' under the pseudo name of Michael Angelo Titmarsh. It is on these unimportant papers that Chesterton thinks was based the attack on Thackeray for being a cynic.
In passing, it is not necessary to say more than that Thackeray's marriage ended in a horrible manner: Mrs. Thackeray was sent to an asylum. 'I would do it over again,' said Thackeray; which was a 'fine thing to say.' It was really carrying out 'for better or worse,' which often enough really means for better only.
* * * * *
It will now be well at once to plunge into the very heart of Thackeray, that heart which beat beneath the huge, gaunt frame. The two books which have made his name famous, and what Chesterton thinks of them, must be now gone into.
'The Book of Snobs' was one of those literary rarities that has genius in its very name. No one probably really thinks himself a snob; every one likes to read of one. Thackeray brought snobbishness to a classic. There had been books of scoundrels, there had been books of heroes, there had been books of nincompoops, now there was a book of those people who abound in every community, and who are snobs.
'This work was much needed and very admirably done. The solemn philosophic framework, the idea of treating snobbishness as a science, was original and sound; for snobbishness is indeed a disease in our Society.'
Unfortunately Chesterton is not nearly hard enough on snobbishness. Were it a disease, it might be excusable as being at times unavoidable; it is nothing of the sort, it is a deliberate thing that undermines society more than anything; it is entirely spontaneous, and flourishes in every community, from the Church to the Jockey Club.
'Aristocracy does not have snobs any more than democracy'; but this 'Thackeray was too restrained and early Victorian to see.' There are at the present day a great number of people who will not see that Bolshevism is as snobbish as Suburbia, that the poor man in the Park Lodge is as much a snob as his master, who only knows the county folks. Snobbery is not the monopoly of any one set; even also is it, as Thackeray says,'a mean admiration' that thinks it is better to be a 'made' peer than an honest gardener.
'The true source of snobs in England was the refusal to take one side or the other in the crisis of the French Revolution.'
The title of 'Vanity Fair' was an inspiration. It gives the ideas of the disharmonies that can be found in any market place in any English market town on any English market day. It brings out 'the irrelevancy of Thackeray.' A good motto for the book is, for Chesterton, that attributed to Cardinal Newman: 'Evil always fails by overleaping its aim and good by falling short of it.' Our critic feels that the critics have been unfair to Thackeray with respect to their denouncement of the character of Amelia Sedley as being much too soft, whereas Chesterton thinks she was really a fool, which is the logical outcome of being the reverse of hard.
But Amelia was soft in a very delightful way. She was 'open to all emotions as they came'—in fact, she was a fool who was wise because she has retained her power of happiness, while the hard Rebecca has arrived at hell, 'the hell of having all outward forces open, but all receptive organs closed.'
It is necessary again to refer to the charge of cynicism that is levelled against Thackeray. The mistake is, as our critic points out, 'taking a vague word and applying it precisely.' It all depends upon what cynicism really means. 'If it means a war on comfort, then Thackeray was, to his eternal credit, a cynic'; 'if it means a war on virtue, then Thackeray, to his eternal honour, was the reverse of a cynic.' His object is to show that silly goodness is better than clever vice. As I have indicated, the long and the short of the matter is that Thackeray created a lot of villains, and has therefore been called a cynic by those who don't even know what the word means, or that there is a literary blessedness in the making of villains to bring out the more excellent virtues of the heroes.
* * * * *
From these two monumental works that were original in every way and might almost be called propaganda, Thackeray passed on to a novel which bore the name of 'Pendennis.' It was 'a novel with nothing else but a hero, only that the hero is not very heroic,' which makes him all the more interesting, for it makes him all the more human.
But Pendennis is more than a man—he is a type or symbol. He is 'the old mystical tragedian of the Middle Ages, Everyman.' It is an epic, because it celebrates the universal man with all his glorious failings and glorious virtues. The love of Pendennis for Miss Fotheringay is a different thing to the ordinary love of man for woman; it is rather the love that is in every man for every woman. This is what I think Chesterton means when he says 'it is the veritable Divine disease, which seems a part of the very health of youth.'
The Everyman of the Middle Ages was a symbol of what man really was. Chesterton feels that every outside force that came to Everyman had to be abnormal—for instance, 'Death had to be bony'—so he contends in 'Pendennis' that the shapes that intrude on the life of Arthur Pendennis have aggressive and allegorical influences.
'Pendennis' is an epic because it celebrates not the strength of man but his weakness. In the character of Major Pendennis, Chesterton feels that Thackeray did a great work, because he showed that the life of the so-called man of the world is not the gay and careless one that fiction depicts. It is the religious people who can afford to be careless. 'If you want carelessness you must go to the martyrs.' The reason is fairly obvious. The worldling has to be careful, as he wants to remain in the world; the religious man, of whom the martyr was the true prototype, can afford to be careless; he is not necessarily careless of life, but he can put things at their proper value. The martyr facing the lions in the Roman arena knew what life really was; the worldly woman spending her life trying to be in the company of titled people has no real idea of the value of it. It is the religious people who know the world; it is the worldly people who know nothing of it.
With the publication of 'Pendennis' the reputation of Thackeray reached that position which is sought by all authors, that of being able to write a book that should not, on publication, be put to the indignity of being asked who the writer was. Thackeray was now in the delightful position of being well established, a position that very often results in careless and poor work. It has been said with some truth that once a writer is established he can write anything he likes. This is to an extent true, and such work may even be published and fairly popular, but he will find sooner or later that his influence is on the wane.
In the 'Newcomes' Thackeray drew a character in Colonel Newcome, to whom was given the highest of literary honours, that of being spoken of apart from the book—I mean in the way that people speak of Micawber or Scrooge, almost unconsciously, without really having the actual work in which the character appears in mind. Of this book Chesterton says 'the public has largely forgotten all the Newcomes except one, the Colonel who has taken his place with Don Quixote, Sir Roger de Coverley, Uncle Toby, and Mr. Pickwick.'
Chesterton feels that Thackeray at times falls into the trick common to many writers, that of repeating himself, a trick that is natural, as it does seem in some ways that the human mind, like history, is apt to move in circles. The reason was that in some way Thackeray became tired of Barnes Newcome; the result was that from being a convincing villain he develops into a stereotyped one, the type who fires pistols into the air and is the squire's runaway son, so often found at the Lyceum.
If Thackeray 'sprawled' in the Newcomes he atones for this in 'Esmond,' if any atonement is needed for sprawling, which is probably only that Thackeray felt that there is nothing so elastic and sprawling as a human person, whether he be a villain or the reverse.
For Chesterton, 'Esmond' is in the modern sense a work of art, which is to say that it was a book that could be read anywhere. 'It had no word that might not have been used at the court of Queen Anne.' It is a highly romantic tale, but it is a sad story. It is a great Queen Anne romance; but, 'there broods a peculiar conviction that Queen Anne is dead.' The whole tale moves round a complicated situation in which a young man loves a mother and her daughter, and finally marries the mother. This work is, for Chesterton, Thackeray's 'most difficult task.' It is difficult for the reason that the situation of the tale is placed between possibilities of grace and possibilities even of indecency. It is not hard to write a graceful tale, it is easy to write a loose story; it is extremely difficult to write a story that may by a stroke of the pen be either beautiful or merely sordid. But Thackeray manipulates the keys of the tale so that 'it moves like music,' an extremely apt metaphor, where harmonies can be made disharmonies by a single note.
It is a strange fact that a sequel is seldom to be compared to its forerunner: 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' is of a schoolboy who is an eternal type; 'Tom Brown at Oxford' is a poor book that does not in the least understand Oxford. The fact is, I think, that an author cannot be inspired twice on the same subject—the gods give but sparingly, their gifts do not fall as the rains.
The sequel to 'Esmond' that Thackeray wrote, 'The Virginians,' is an 'inadequate sequel,' which is not to say that it is a poor book, but rather that it is an unnecessary one. Yet, as Chesterton says, 'Thackeray never struck a smarter note than when, in "The Virginians," he created the terrible little Yankee Countess of Castlewood.' In the same way as 'The Virginians' was a sequel to 'Esmond,' so 'Philip' was a sequel (also an inadequate one) to the 'Newcomes.'
It is strange that in two things at least Thackeray's life followed the same course as Dickens. Both occupied the editorial chair: Dickens that of the Daily News, Thackeray that of the Cornhill Magazine. Both left unfinished works: Dickens that of 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood,' Thackeray that of 'Denis Duval.'
Thackeray's last work, 'Lovell the Widower,' is 'a very clever sketch, but as a novel is rather drawn out.' 'The Roundabout Papers' make very pleasant reading. In one 'he compares himself to a pagan conqueror driving in his chariot up the Hill of Coru, with a slave behind him to remind him that he is only mortal.' In 1863, suddenly, Thackeray died, seven years before Dickens also passed away.
Chesterton has in the space of a short introduction given a very clear account of the chief characteristics of Thackeray's works; it is no easy matter to give in a few lines the essence of a great novel, and Chesterton is not always the most concise of writers. It will now be convenient to take a few of the characteristics of Thackeray and observe what he says of them.
At once he is aware of the fact that there is no writer from whom it is more difficult to make extracts than from Thackeray. The reason is that Thackeray worked by 'diffuseness of style.' If he wished to be satirical about a character he was not so directly; rather he worked his way to the inside of the character, got to know all about it, and then began to be satirical. This is what Chesterton feels about the matter; it is no doubt the fairest way of being satirical and the most effective. Many people and writers are satirical without first of all demonstrating upon what grounds they have the right to be so. Satire is a wholly laudable thing if it is directed in a fair minded manner, but if it is only an excuse for bitter cynicism it is altogether contemptible. Thus he says of the Thackerean treatment of 'Vanity Fair,' 'he was attacking "Vanity Fair" from the inside.' It comes to this: if you want to make an extract from Thackeray you must dive about all over the place to make apparent irrelevancy become relevancy.
If the use of the grotesque was a strength of Browning (as Chesterton contends against other critics), so in the case of Thackeray that which some critics have held to be a weakness—I mean his 'irrelevancy'—is for our critic a strength. It was a strength, because it was 'a very delicate and even cunning literary approach.' It is the perfect art of Thackeray to get the right situation, not by an assumption of it, but by so approaching it that there is no way out, which is arriving at the situation by the fairest means possible.
'No other novelist ever carried to such perfection as Thackeray the art of saying a thing without saying it. Thus he may say that a man drinks too much, yet it may be false to say that he drinks.' What he did was not to say that a man had arrived at such and such a state, but rather that things must change. If, as Chesterton says, Miss Smith finds marriage the reverse of the honeymoon, Thackeray does not say that the marriage is a failure, but that joy cannot last for ever; that if there are roses there are also thorns. It is an admirable method, far better than saying a thing straight out. It is better to tell a man who is a cad that there is such a thing as being a gentleman, than to tell him he is a cad.
In his later life Thackeray was inclined to imitate himself. It is, I think, that the human brain is prone to move in circles. In the case of Thackeray, as our critic points out, in later days he used his rambling style, and, as was to be expected, he rather lost himself. 'He did not merely get into a parenthesis, he never got out of it,' which is to say that as Thackeray got older he inherited the tendencies of old age.
I have said earlier in this chapter that the charge against Thackeray of cynicism was one that was founded on a false premise. The charge that his irrelevancy was a weakness is based on another false but popular premise, that the direct method is always the best. It is usually the worst. It is the worst in warfare, it is the worst in literature, but it is possibly the best in literary criticism.
Thackeray had another quality that has laid him open to adverse criticism; that is, his 'perpetual reference to the remote past.' This repeated reference to the past may be a matter of conceit, or it may be that the influence of the past is genuinely felt. The reason that, as Chesterton points out, Thackeray referred so much to the remote past, was that he wished it to be known that 'there was nothing new under the sun'; not even, as our critic says, 'the sunstroke.' Chesterton admits that at times Thackeray carried this tendency to an excess; also Thackeray wanted to show that the oldest thing in the world was its youth. Thus in writing of a fashionable drawing-room in Mayfair, if he referred to some classic, it was to 'remind people how many debutantes had come out since the age of Horace.' It was quite a different thing to the pompous bishop quoting Greek at the squire's house to show that his doctor's degree, though an honorary one, had some classical learning behind it, or the small boy translating Horace to avoid the headmaster's cane. In the case of the bishop and the schoolboy, the use of the classics is, on the one hand, pomposity; on the other, discretion. In the case of Thackeray it was a reverence for the past, that it was a very large part of the present.
There are, then, roughly three main characteristics of Thackeray: his irrelevancy, his rambling style, and his frequent reference to the past. All these, Chesterton makes it clear, are matters in which the strength of Thackeray lies. Not that they are free always from exaggerations. Sometimes Thackeray became lost in his irrelevancy, sometimes he became almost unintelligible in his rambling style, now and then his use of ancient quotation became irritating. 'Above all things, Thackeray was receptive. The world imposed on Thackeray, and Dickens imposed on the world.' But it could not be put more truly than that Thackeray represents, in that gigantic parody called genius, the spirit of the Englishman in repose. 'This spirit is the idle embodiment of all of us; by his weakness we shall fail, and by his enormous sanities we shall endure.' This is the crux of the matter which Chesterton brings out, that the weaknesses of Thackeray are his strength. He loved liberty, not because it meant restraint from law, but because he 'was a novelist'; he was open to all the influences round him, not because he had no standpoint, but because he could see merit in selection; he had an open mind, but knew when to shut it.
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The passages selected from the various works have been chosen with care. It was evidently by no means an easy task. The passage chosen to show Colonel Newcome in the 'Cave of Harmony' gives in one poignant incident his character; the selection from 'Pendennis' does much the same. In the passage from 'Esmond' the story of the duel is a fine selection; the chapter on 'Some Country Snobs' is an apt choosing; the celebrated 'Essay on George IV' demonstrates Thackeray in a very different mood. The 'Fall of Becky Sharp,' taken from 'Vanity Fair,' has not been included without forethought.
Of Thackeray's poems, Chesterton has included the most significant, and not without due 'The Cane-Bottomed Chair' finds a prominent place.
Enough has been said to show that Chesterton is not a critic of Thackeray who has no discrimination in choosing from his works. He knows what Thackeray was, wherein lay his strength and weakness. He has added a worthy companion to his fuller works on Browning and Dickens.
It will be convenient for our purpose to adhere as closely as possible to the order of Chesterton's book. It is a hard task to do justice to Browning even in a long book; the task is not simplified when, in a chapter, it is hoped to give a criticism of an intricate criticism of Browning.
There are two ways to approach such a task: The first is to take the book as a whole and write a review of it, which is a method liable to a superficiality; the second is to take such a work chapter by chapter, and to piece the various criticisms into an ordered whole. This I have attempted to do. I make no attempt to criticize the method of Chesterton's approach to Browning, or his combination of the effect of his life on his work; rather I wish to take what the critic says and comment on his remarks.
There is undoubtedly a fundamental difference between Browning and Dickens which is at once clear to any critic of these two writers. Dickens was, as I have said in an earlier chapter, born at the psychological moment. Browning happened to be born early in the nineteenth century. I cannot see that it would have mattered had he been born at the beginning of the twentieth. His early life, unlike Dickens, was normal, but it did not affect Browning adversely. Had Dickens' life been uneventful, I think it not improbable that his literary output would have been commonplace instead of, as nearly as possible, divine.
There is no particular account of Browning's family, which was probably a typical middle-class family, which is to say that they were, like many thousands of their kind, lovers of the normal—a very good reason why later Browning should have acquired a love for the grotesque, which many people quite wrongly define as the abnormal.
The grotesque is a queer psychological state of mind; the abnormal is an extreme kind of individualism that is probably insane, provided the opposite is sane.
What is important, as Chesterton feels, is that we shall get some account of Browning's home. It is in the home that we can usually detect the embryo of future activity. The germ, although sometimes hidden, is nevertheless there, which is exactly why the commonplace home life of a genius, before the public has discovered the fact, is interesting.
To quote our critic: 'Browning was a thoroughly typical Englishman of the middle class,' and he remained so through his life.
But this middle-class Englishman walking through the streets of Camberwell, as the boys played in the gutters, was Browning, not then the master poet of the Victorian Era, but the young man who could 'pass a bookstall and find no thrill in beholding on a placard the name of Shelley.'
Browning found his early life in an age 'of inspired office boys,' an age that emerged from the shadow of the French Revolution, that extreme method of optimism which Chesterton believes no Englishman can understand, not even Carlyle himself. It was an optimism that was so, because it held that man was worthy of liberty, which is to say that no man is by his nature ever meant to be a slave.
While Browning was living his daily life in Camberwell, Dickens was existing in the blacking factory; yet again it was an age of the beginning of intellectual giants.
The Chestertonian standpoint with regard to the early days of Browning is interesting. It is a ready acknowledgment of the poetic instinct that was being slowly but surely nurtured in the heart of the unknown young man of Camberwell.
It is in this early period of his life that Browning attempts what Chesterton rightly describes as the most difficult of literary propositions, that of writing a good political play. This Browning essayed to do, and wrote 'Strafford,' a play that dealt with that most controversial part of history, the time when kings could be executed in Whitehall under the shadow of their own Parliament.
For our critic, Strafford was one of the greatest men ever born with the sacred name of England on his brow. The play was not a gigantic success, it was not a failure; it was, as was to be expected, popular with a limited public, which is very often one of the surest criterions of merit in a book or play. The success of the play was sufficient to assure the public that Browning had brains and, what was more unusual, could put them to a good advantage.
Browning became then 'a detached and eccentric personality who had arisen on the outskirts; the world began to be conscious of him at this time.'
In 1840 our critic tells us 'Sordello' was published. It was a poem that caused people to wonder whether it was really deep, or merely pure nonsense, a distinction some people cannot ever discover in regard to Browning.
Of this poem, its unique reception by the literary world lies in the fact 'that it was fashionable to boast of not understanding,' which, as I have said, was an indication that it might be termed extremely clever or extremely stupid. It was not a poem, as has been held by some critics, that was a piece of intellectual vanity. Browning was far too great a man to stoop down to such mere banal conceit. The poem was a very different thing. It was a creature created by the obscurity of Browning's mind, which, as Chesterton thinks, was the natural reaction for a genius, born in a villa street in South London.
What is the explanation of this poem? What is its meaning? Wherein lies its soul? These are questions every lover of Browning has constantly to ask. Our critic supplies an answer, an answer that is original, and is, I think, true—the poem is an epic on 'the horror of great darkness,' that darkness that strangely enough seems to attack the young more frequently than the old.
That which is levelled against Browning, his obscurity, is a very bulwark protecting a subtle and clear mind. This is specially so with a poet who probably of all men so lives in his own poetic world that he forgets his ideas, though clear to himself, are vague to the world occupied with conventionalities.
The real difficulty of 'Sordello' lies in the fact that it is written about an obscure piece of Italian history of which Browning happened to have knowledge—the struggles of mediaeval Italy. This obscurity is not studied, as in the case of academic distinction; it is natural. The obscurity of many of the passages of St. John's Gospel is natural because the mind of St. John dwelt on the 'depths,' as did Browning's dwell on the grotesque. The result is the same. Each needs an interpreter, each has an abundance of the richest philosophy, each has an imprint of the Finger of God.
With all the controversy it has caused, 'Sordello' has had no great influence on Browningites; its name has passed into almost contempt. Chesterton has done much to give the true meaning of this strange work. With his next poem Browning spoke with a voice that, as our critic says, proved that he had found that he was not Robinson Crusoe, which is to say that he had found that the world contained a great number of people. Despite the 1,500 millions amongst whom we 'live and move and have our being' we are apt to think that we alone are important, which is not conceit but a mere proposition demonstrating that man is a universe in himself while being but an infinitesimal part of the universe.
'Pippa Passes' is a poem which expresses a love of humanity; it is an epic of unconscious influence which, no doubt, Browning felt was the key to all that is best and noble in human activity. 'The whole idea of the poem lies in the fact that "Pippa Passes" is utterly remote from the grand folk whose lives she troubles and transforms.'
Browning's poetry in the poetical sense was now nearing its zenith. The 'Dramatic Lyrics' were published in 1842, possibly about the time that Dickens was returning from his triumphant American tour. These showed, Chesterton thinks, the two qualities most often denied to Browning, passion and beauty. They are the contradiction to critics, other than ours, who regard Browning as wholly a philosophic poet, which is to say a poet who wrote poetry not for its own sake but for purely utilitarian purpose; not that poetry of the emotions is not useful—it is on a different plane.
The poems were those that 'represent the arrival of the real Browning of literary history'; for in these he discovered what was, for Chesterton, Browning's finest achievement, his dramatic lyrical poems.
Critics have said that Browning's poetry lacks passion and the most poignant emotion of human nature, love. Chesterton, on the other hand, considers that Browning was the finest love poet of the world. It is real love poetry, because it talks about real people, not ideals; it does not muse of the Prince Charming meeting the Fairy Princess, and forget the devoted wife meeting her husband on the villa doorstep with open arms and a nice dinner in the parlour. Sentiment must be based on reality if it is to have worth. This is the strong point, for our critic, of Browning's love poetry.
The next work of importance that came from Browning's pen was the 'Return of the Druses,' which shows Browning's interest in the strange religions of the East, that queer phantastic part of the world that gave birth to a Western religion which has transformed the West, leaving the East to gaze afar off. This poem is, for Chesterton, a psychological one. It is an attempt to give an account of a human being; perhaps the most difficult task in the world, because it can never hope to solve all sides of the question. The central character of this splendid poem is one 'Djubal,' a queer mixture of the virtues of the Deity with the vices of Humanity. He is for Browning the first of a series of characters on which he displays his wonderful powers of apologizing for apparently bad men.
He attempted, to quote our critic, 'to seek out the sinners whom even sinners cast out,' which Christ always did, and which His Church does not always do.
Again Browning turned his hand to writing plays, but he was always a 'neglected dramatist' in the sense that he had to push his plays; his plays did not push him.
His next play, 'A Blot on the "Scutcheon,"' is chiefly interesting, as it was the occasion of a quarrel between its author and that most eccentric of theatrical personalities, Macready. The quarrel was, our critic points out, a matter of money. But Browning failed to see this; he was a man of the world in his poems, but not in his life.
It is interesting here to see what our critic says of Browning about this period before we consider the question of his marriage. 'There were people who called Browning a snob. He was fond of wealth and fond of society; he admired them as the child who comes in from the desert. He bore the same relation to the snob that the righteous man bears to the Pharisee—something frightfully close and similar and yet an everlasting opposite.'
It has been left for Chesterton to give the truest definition of a Pharisee that has yet been penned, because it is exactly what every man feels but has never expressed in so brilliant a paradox.
* * * * *
That Browning had faults Chesterton would be the last to deny. Faults are as much a part of a great man as virtues. The more pronounced the fault, the more exquisite is the virtue, especially in a man of the character of Browning, a character that had a certain 'uncontrollable brutality of speech,' together with a profound and unaffected respect for other people.
Chesterton's chapter on Browning and his marriage is one of the most homely chapters of the book; it gives the lie to those critics who have glibly said that he has no way in which to reach our hearts or cause a lump in our throats.
The very method of describing how a great man wooed a great woman, how the two loved, married, and disagreed upon certain matters, is one that has an essential appeal to the heart. The exquisite description of the effect of the death of his wife on Browning is pathetic by its very simplicity.
It is enough to say that Browning's marriage was a successful one, which is not to say that it was entirely free from certain disagreements. The domestic relations of great writers and poets have not always been of the rosiest. Swift did not make an ideal marriage—at least, not on conventional lines. Milton had a wife who utterly misunderstood that her husband was a genius. Dickens was not blessed with matrimonial bliss. Shelley found faith in one woman hard.
But Browning and his wife had no disagreements on their life interests. They were both poets, though of a different calibre. What they really did not see eye to eye upon was something which the human race is still much divided about. This great point of difference was with regard to spiritualism. Browning did not dislike spiritualism; he disliked spiritualists. The difference is tremendous. Unfortunately many of the interpreters of spiritualism have degraded it into a kind of blatant necromancy which is in no way dignified or useful. It is entirely opposed to proper psychic research.