G K Chesterton is a minor writer in vogue.This has less to do with his literary merits than with his religious apologetics. A Catholic convert, Chesterton wrote exhaustively on the virtues of faith. The Bishop of Northampton has appointed a priest to make initial inquiries whether Chesterton should be canonised.
These deliberations are the Church’s prerogative, but Chesterton was a public figure and his work should be judged on wider criteria. Having long admired his fiction while finding his religious writings indigestible, I’ve partially changed my mind. His literary standing is overblown and one characteristic is insufficiently acknowledged: antisemitism.
Chesterton, who died in 1936, is best known for his short stories about Father Brown, the clerical detective. A stylish BBC series last year earned mistrust from conservative Catholics for its liberties with the script, but in fact these improved the narrative.
The stories enthralled me as a child. I still read them for pleasure and have above my desk a signed (and, I believe, unpublished) photo of the author. But they don’t work as detective stories. They rely on Father Brown’s insights into sin and often rely on plot devices that are unknown to the reader till the denouement. Chesterton’s best novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, is a plodding philosophical fantasy, admired by Kingsley Amis but now little read.
What matters for Chesterton’s admirers is principally his robust defence of a Catholic faith unsullied by doubts and modernism. His remarks about Jews are not ignored but they are not convincingly explained. William Oddie, a former editor of the Catholic Herald, has pronounced Chesterton a philosemite owing to early writings showing sensitivity to persecutions against the Jews.
The evidence is not wrong but it is selective and early. (Oddie’s eccentricity is a general condition. Shortly after the death of Jimmy Savile, he castigated the media’s conspiracy of silence — about Savile’s Catholicism.)
Melanie McDonagh, a more balanced admirer of Chesterton, wrote in the Spectator last week: “G K’s views on Jews make him unapt for sainthood.” She referred to controversy over the Marconi insider-dealing scandal as a possible source for his prejudices. Yet even she omitted to mention a case that exemplifies the moral ambiguities of Chesterton’s position: the Dreyfus affair, which convulsed France and exposed official antisemitism at the turn of the 20th century.
Chesterton was hostile to Dreyfus even after the man’s innocence was demonstrated. Chesterton denounced the “acrid and irrational unanimity of the English Press”, which was uniformly hostile to the proceedings against Dreyfus. In letters to The Nation in 1911 he inveighed against the type of Jew who is “a traitor in France and a tyrant in England”. (I’m indebted to a paper by Simon Mayers in the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism for these references.)
In the Father Brown stories, as well, Dreyfus makes an appearance. In the story The Duel of Dr Hirsch, the clerical detective draws an extraordinary equivalence of guilt between the wronged Dreyfus and his persecutors.
“Now Dreyfus went on like a man who knew he was a wronged man. And yet the French statesmen and soldiers went on as if they knew he wasn’t a wronged man but simply a wrong ‘un.”
Father Brown is not merely one character among others. He is the means by which Chesterton articulates the wisdom of the faith. And he indicates here that Dreyfus is some sort of alien influence. It’s a shabby insinuation — and Chesterton is a tainted author.