“The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes,” said G. K. Chesterton, “and the business of Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Chesterton, known as the “Prince of Paradox,” was not only a political commentator, but also a poet, historian, playwright, literary and art critic, journalist, Roman Catholic lay theologian and apologist, vigorous debater and mystery writer—creator of the Father Brown series. In all, he wrote eighty books, two hundred short stories, four thousand essays, hundreds of poems, and several plays.
Born Gilbert Keith Chesterton on May 29, 1874, in Kensington Hill, London, to a family of Unitarians, he was nonetheless baptized in the Church of England, of which he remained a member until he was forty-eight, when he converted to Catholicism. He attended St. Paul’s School and the Slade School of Art at University College, London, but never received a degree. He became a columnist for the London Daily News and the Illustrated London News and was soon in demand as a public debater on issues of the day. His favorite adversaries were H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, and George Bernard Shaw, his notable “friendly enemy,” who called Chesterton “a man of colossal genius.”
The milieu in which Chesterton moved may have been a mix of serious literary and philosophical giants—but these idols liked to let their hair down occasionally, as is attested by this account of a dinner party just before World War I at London’s Reform Club. “Present were Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and Hugh Walpole. There was no talk about literature or the arts, or friendship or nature or morality or personal relations or the ends of life. There was not a touch of anything faintly aesthetic—the talk was hearty, concerned with royalties, publishers, love affairs, absurd adventures, society scandals and anecdotes about famous persons, accompanied by gusts of laughter, puns, limericks, a great deal of mutual banter, jokes about money, women, and foreigners, and with a great deal of drink. The atmosphere was that of a male dining club of vigorous, amusing, sometimes rather vulgar friends.”
Chesterton and Shaw once agreed to appear as cowboys in a silent movie being made by James M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame. Chesterton reported that he and Shaw and several other literary figures spent an afternoon being filmed rolling in barrels, being pushed over fake precipices, and lassoing wild ponies that were so tame the horses were chasing the cowboys instead of vice versa. The film was never released.
In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg. They never had children, but adopted a girl named Dorothy Collins, who became Chesterton’s secretary.
A big man, Chesterton stood six-feet-four in height and weighed almost three hundred pounds. His weight and his dietary habits no doubt contributed to his chronic edema—swelling caused by congestive heart failure. He loved beef, beer, and claret, and he was a heavy cigar smoker—always making the sign of the cross with his match before lighting his cigar. He called smoking a “Parnassian pleasure” and said tobacco smoke was the “ichor of mental life.”
In the spring of 1936 his continuing illness took him to the French shrines of Lourdes and Lisieux, seeking a cure, but to no avail. Almost immediately upon his return to Top Meadow, his home in Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, he grew worse, and on June 7 he suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma. With a crucifix hanging above him and with his wife and adopted daughter praying at his bedside, Chesterton received the last rites from his parish priest, Monsignor Smith, and a Dominican priest, the Rev. Vincent McNabb, kissed the pen with which Chesterton had written most of his works and sang the Salve Regina. Chesterton died on the morning of June 14, 1936, at the age of sixty-two.
A requiem mass was celebrated at St. Theresa’s Church in Beaconsfield, but not many of his friends were able to attend, since his illness was not widely known, and his death came as an unexpected shock. He was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Beaconsfield. Because so few were able to attend the funeral, a solemn requiem mass was sung for the repose of his soul at Westminster Cathedral on June 27, with two thousand people—including George Bernard Shaw—in attendance. The principal celebrant was Chesterton’s friend, the Rev. John O’Connor, who had received him into the Catholic Church and who had been the basis for Chesterton’s detective-priest, Father Brown. The homily was delivered by Monsignor Ronald Knox.
Chesterton left an estate of £28,389, equivalent to slightly more than $2 million in today’s values.