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Saint or sinner? The Sins of G. K. Chesterton by Richard Ingrams

Review by Jon Elsby

Some years ago, a slim, paperback volume entitled The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton appeared. It was a collection of essays by various Roman Catholic academics who shared the (still somewhat eccentric) view that Chesterton should be canonized. Now, we have a book by Richard Ingrams – best known as the former editor of Private Eye and the founder of another magazine, The Oldie – which is apparently intended as a comprehensive rebuttal of the claims advanced in the earlier work. Ingrams is a convert to Catholicism, and his co-religionists might wonder whether his time would not have been better spent in pondering the sins of Richard Ingrams than in exposing what he alleges are the sins of G. K. Chesterton.1 However, the passion for the sensational journalistic exposé has clearly not left him, and his book is in the best Private Eye tradition of moralistic indignation and merciless iconoclasm. Curiously, in spite of his own conversion, Ingrams appears to have retained a good deal of residual anti-Catholicism, or at least anti-clericalism. As early as the Introduction, we find him writing this—

[The] saintly picture of Chesterton painted by the Catholic biographers involved isolating, as far as possible, three people who exerted a powerful if not damaging influence on the course of his career – his brother, Cecil, Cecil’s wife Ada (always known as Keith) and, in particular, the friend and mentor of both brothers, Hilaire Belloc.

The names of Belloc and Chesterton have always been coupled together and so became in the eyes of many Catholics a kind of Peter-and-Paul diumvirate defending the faith in the pages of their countless pamphlets and books. No-one has suggested canonization for Hilaire Belloc, but his reputation, too, has been zealously protected by Catholic commentators who saw him as the champion of Catholicism, a man who had spent a lifetime in defence of the Church – belligerent, admittedly, but admirable and sincere. Only A. N. Wilson’s masterly 1984 biography has challenged that perception, though even Wilson is generally sympathetic to Belloc.

Leading the field in the campaign to preserve the good name of both men were their respective official biographers – Maisie Ward (Chesterton) and Robert Speaight (Belloc). Ward, who wrote two books, G. K. Chesterton (1943) and Return to Chesterton (1952) was the wife of Catholic publisher Wilfred Sheed and a close friend of Chesterton’s wife Frances. Her biography contains a valuable store of information but, as Graham Greene wrote in a review, ‘It is too long for its material, too cumbered with affectionate trivialities … Mrs Ward has amiably supposed her readers to be all friends of her subject … One wishes too that she had remembered more frequently her non-Catholic audience.’

The same criticism could well be levelled at other writers, including Chesterton’s most recent biographer, Ian Ker, whose 747-page book, published in 2011, gives precedence, as Ward does, to Chesterton’s Catholicism and his religious writings – not surprising perhaps in view of the fact that the author is a Roman Catholic priest.

It seems that Catholic biographers cannot be trusted to tell – or even to recognize – the truth about their Catholic subjects. They will be biased. They will not be objective. They will ignore or gloss over inconvenient facts (that is, anything that does not redound to the credit of their heroes) and unduly emphasize and exaggerate their subjects’ virtues. Fr Ker’s views may be discounted on the grounds that, although he is a scholar who teaches at Oxford, he is also a Roman Catholic priest. In Fr Ker’s defence, however, we may point out that at least his scholarship prevented him from committing gross blunders, such as asserting that Maisie Ward was ‘the wife of … Wilfred Sheed’, when, in fact, she was the wife of F. J. (Frank) Sheed, a well-known lay theologian and Catholic apologist, and Wilfrid (not Wilfred) Sheed, the English-born American novelist, was their son.

When a writer is caught out in such an elementary mistake in the Introduction to his book, the reader may, not unreasonably, wonder how far he is to be trusted on anything else. For example, we find Ingrams doing what no previous writer on Chesterton has done – treating Ada Chesterton’s book, The Chestertons (1941), as a reliable source of information.2 As Ingrams himself quotes from Graham Greene’s review of Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton, we need not apologize for quoting, from the same review, what Greene has to say about Ada Chesterton’s memoirs. According to Greene, The Chestertons is ‘vulgar’, ‘inaccurate’, ‘badly written’, ‘expansive’, ‘discretionless’, ‘tasteless’, and ‘spiteful’. It seems, then, that there may be sound reasons for treating Ada Chesterton’s memoirs as a fundamentally unreliable record and ignoring them.

As we read Ingrams’ narrative, it quickly becomes clear that there are two villains of the piece: Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton. Belloc is depicted as narcissistic, egoistical, given to prevarication, cavalier with regard to facts in both speech and writing, violently anti-Semitic, obsessive, self-pitying, domineering, and manipulative. He is allowed no virtue whatsoever, nor any likeable qualities – facts which should make one suspicious, as Belloc had many friends and admirers, and no one who was as repulsive as the person depicted here would have had any.

But if Ingrams’ portrait of Belloc is harsh, one-sided, and unsympathetic, his depiction of Cecil Chesterton is even more so. Cecil, we learn, although highly intelligent, was ‘physically very unattractive’. He was ‘dwarfish’, ‘ugly’, ‘ill-favoured’, and ‘unprepossessing’. His voice and laughter were ‘harsh’ and ‘discordant’. He had an unpleasant habit of obtruding himself where he was not wanted. He was contrarian, argumentative, combative in temperament, pugnacious in manner, and indomitable in controversy. He stuttered and spluttered when he spoke. As a schoolboy, he was friendless and unpopular with other boys.

The effect of this torrent of opprobrium is to make one feel a certain sympathy for the unfortunate Cecil. After all, he could not help his appearance, or his temperament, or the harsh sound of his voice. Ingrams does not mention certain facts about Cecil recorded in his Wikipedia entry – for example, that he was wounded three times while fighting in France, or that, in spite of being sick, he refused to leave his post until the Armistice. Aged thirty-nine, Cecil died in a French hospital of nephritis. Clearly, he did not lack physical courage. And it is worth mentioning that Ada Chesterton evidently did not find him as repulsive as nearly everyone else (bar Gilbert) seems to have done.3 That Gilbert was able to love even the apparently unlovable Cecil surely strengthens his claim to sainthood rather than weakening it.

The worst flaw in Ingrams’ book, however, is not the violence of its animus against persons, but its insistence on judging late Victorian people by twenty-first-century standards instead of taking account of the very different regnant standards of the late Victorian period. However offensive we may find them today, racially derogatory epithets like ‘yid’ and ‘nigger’ were commonly used in those years, and for many years afterwards. And racism was not universally condemned, as it is today, but, on the contrary, universally practised. An Englishman of the Victorian age would have taken for granted the inferiority of other races and nations to the English; similarly, a Frenchman would have maintained, as a matter of course, the superiority of the French to every other race or nation on earth. Such views in monocultural societies, where the only contacts with people of other races were likely to have been mediated by the profoundly asymmetrical experience of imperial conquest and colonial rule, were not unusual: they were what ‘all right-thinking people’ thought. A tiny minority of wealthy, cultured, and well-travelled people might have acquired an immunity to these prejudices, but the great majority of the population had not.

If we consider the way Jews were depicted in Victorian literature, it is clear that anti-Semitism4 was normal in Britain at that time. Trollope’s portrayal of Jews in Nina Balatka and The Way We Live Now is certainly not unprejudiced. It took the humanity and generosity of Dickens to create the kindly Riah in Our Mutual Friend and the luminous intelligence and scrupulous sense of justice of George Eliot to create the eponymous hero of Daniel Deronda. But for the great majority of Victorian Englishmen, the stereotype of the Jew was Fagin, not Riah; and Augustus Melmotte, not Daniel Deronda. Ingrams shows no awareness of any of this, and makes no allowances for the cultural differences between that period and ours. Nor does he bear in mind that, if we indulge in the exquisite pleasure of condemning the sins of our ancestors from a lofty position of assumed moral superiority, then we shall have no reason to complain if our posterity judges us and our prejudices with equal severity.

In the case of Belloc, there is no lack of correctives to Ingrams’ biased and condemnatory verdict. Belloc’s biographers include Robert Speaight, A. N. Wilson, and Joseph Pearce. J. B. Morton has left us an affectionate memoir of his long friendship with Belloc. The late Fr James Schall, in Remembering Belloc (2014), has written a heartfelt tribute to Belloc, acknowledging the beneficial influence of his substantial literary and intellectual legacy. Cecil Chesterton is less fortunate. Although several of his books have remained in print, his literary achievements have been dwarfed by those of his brother, and he has not aroused the interest of biographers, with the exception of the English Carmelite friar, Fr Brocard Sewell. Perhaps it is just as well. If poor Cecil was really as awful as Ingrams says, then the kindest thing might be to pass him over in silence.

And what of GKC himself? The main focus of Ingrams’ book is on the unedifying details of the Marconi scandal, from which no one emerged with much credit – and certainly not the government ministers who stood accused of what today we should call ‘insider trading’. But the attention he has given to this unsavoury episode is entirely disproportionate. He treats it as though it were the fulcrum of GKC’s public life. He seems to think that GKC’s anti-Semitism, such as it was, effectively disposes of any claim to sainthood made on his behalf. But even the greatest saints were imperfect. Saint Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians before he became the apostle to the Gentiles. Saint Augustine led a dissolute life in his youth and fathered a child out of wedlock before he became Bishop of Hippo, the scourge of heretics, and one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Of the brilliant and scholarly Saint Jerome, it has been said that he always preferred an opinion to a friend. The saints are fallible, both morally and intellectually. They have flaws, not all of which are trivial. Like the rest of us, they bear the inexpungible taint of Original Sin.

What distinguishes the saints from ordinary people is that their lives have shown a pattern of what the Church calls ‘heroic virtue’. The question whether GKC’s life, taken as a whole, displays such a pattern is not to be answered by partisan polemics like The Sins of G. K. Chesterton. It requires a much more careful sifting of the evidence and a dispassionate consideration of what may be said on both sides of the argument. Ingrams’ book is well written, interesting, and, in places, entertaining. But it is neither objective nor, in any sense, a serious or scholarly contribution to a debate about the sanctity of G. K. Chesterton.

Notes

1In my Reassessing the Chesterbelloc (2016), I set out my reasons for thinking that a reappraisal of the reputations of Belloc and Chesterton was long overdue. I argued that, although their novels were of relatively minor importance, their works in other fields of literary endeavour – including, notably, Christian apologetics – deserved more serious consideration.

2Previous writers on Chesterton  are numerous. His biographers alone include, in addition to Maisie Ward and Fr Ian Ker, Alzina Stone Dale, Michael Ffinch, Michael Coren, and Joseph Pearce. Authors of critical studies of various aspects of Chesterton’s protean output include Ian Boyd, Margaret Canovan, Stephen R. L. Clark, Lynette Hunter, Mark Knight, Aidan Nichols, and Ralph C. Wood. None of them has suggested that Chesterton was influenced by his brother Cecil or Belloc as radically as Ingrams claims.

3The photograph of Cecil in uniform which accompanies his Wikipedia entry does not suggest that he was as ill-favoured as the witnesses quoted by Ingrams claim. He was short and stocky, but his features are regular and, while not handsome, they are by no means ugly or repulsive. It may be that the testimony of some witnesses concerning Cecil’s physical appearance is coloured by their dislike of his loud and rather harsh voice and of his assertive and combative personality.

4The anti-Semitism of Victorian Britain was not the fanatical, genocidal anti-Semitism of the Nazis, but it did involve a contempt and dislike for Jews and a view that they were fundamentally untrustworthy owing to their allegedly divided loyalties. It is odd to find Catholics like Belloc and Chesterton holding such views for two reasons. First, Christians are spiritual descendants of Jews. Our Lord, his apostles, the New Testament writers, and all the first Christians were Jews. Had there been no Judaism, there would have been no Christianity. Secondly, for centuries Catholics were accused of having divided loyalties (to the Pope and the Crown) and distrusted and discriminated against accordingly. One would have thought that their historical experience would have made them more sympathetic to the predicament of Jews in British society.


Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture.