Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.
- Autobiography, 1936
And what a life was his! Few men have done so very much while simultaneously doing so very little. Gilbert never fought in any wars, invented any machines, or made any scientific or medical breakthroughs. He was not a bullfighter or a riverboat captain. He was a man - plump, genial and eccentric, but a man of great character and imagination. A man, you might say, who knew what being a man really meant even if circumstances often conspired against him living up to that glorious template. He knew the value of Fatherhood with a comprehensiveness rivalled only by that of God Himself, and yet was sadly denied children of his own. He knew the value of chivalry with that awful clarity that can only come to the Knight on the walls of Jerusalem, or on the fields of Agincourt, and yet was never called upon for that last, heroic defence; never drew his sword except in merriment or passion; never fired his revolver except in sport.
And yet, here we are, paying homage to him. Gilbert Chesterton was the avatar of successful theory, and that theory has been both expansive and plentiful. I once heard it said of Hilaire Belloc that we no longer remember how right he was about everything because we simply can not bear to consider how tragic has been our ignorance of his wisdom. There is in his warnings all of the power of "I told you so," with none of the spite. I would argue that the same is true of Gilbert, who made it his business to be right when everyone else was wrong, and who can only be properly appreciated in retrospect. For a man so utterly devoted to history and tradition, such a description is, perhaps, accurate.
He was born to honest and caring parents. His father - Edward - was the sort of attentive polymath that one would hope all men might be - an avid record-keeper who took great interest in philosophical and political matters. Better still, he was of the sort who delighted in becoming sufficiently accomplished at numerous small crafts that he would have the means of enteraining even the most mixed of company. One such outpouring of this talent was the production of a small puppet theater that would, obliquely, inform much of Gilbert's view of the world. The young man crossing a bridge to a tower. The man with the golden key. His play, The Surprise.
His mother was of the sturdy sort that belies some Scotch heritage, and of course this was the case. It is to his mother's side of the family that Gilbert claims he owes all of the infamy and intrigue that attended his early days, with that mighty ancestral name of Keith echoing across the centuries like the fall of the axe. Mrs. Chesterton was of the type who would work herself ragged for the comfort of others, though she had no compunctions about sometimes being imperious in her own home. She is remembered by contemporaries as a witty and pleasant woman, albeit one who would brook no nonsense. Gilbert's relationship with his mother was complex and - on the whole - quite positive.
Gilbert was himself an unusually serious child, but also an unusually happy one. There was in him a delight in all the world, merely as it had been presented to him, that would endure in the man even unto his dying day. He had well-developed romantic and intellectual streaks that were fostered at every turn by the learned discussion that his parents constantly brought into their home. Art was his calling, even from the beginning; as he was himself made in the image of his Creator, so too would he become a Father of Craft.
He was not without his problems. An early infatuation with the works of Walt Whitman and a burgeoning interest in the field of mysticism produced results that he has himself described as alternately morbid and embarassing, though his respect for both Whitman and the mystic would abide forever. His accomplishments at school were never what we might call astounding, during his early years, coming frequently under the censure of his masters for his slovenly inattentiveness to most everything to which one might potentially attend. Nonetheless, they saw in him the raw literary brilliance that would become his greatest gift to the world in later years, though they despaired of him ever accomplishing anything.
And so, it is those very accomplishments that I and the other contributors of this blog intend to discuss and celebrate in the coming days. Gilbert was born on May 29, and died on June 14. Between now and the anniversary of his death, you can look forward to daily articles covering various epochs and areas of Gilbert's life, ranging from a treatment of his life with Frances Blogg to his work on Father Brown to his travels around the world. These little articles - some involved, some concise - will be presented topically rather than strictly chronologically, and aim to serve as introductions to the life and work of a man who was as broad as the Earth itself.
What is more, this is an opportunity for reflection and action on the part of you, the reader. Though his political and social views were necessarily varied, Chesterton stood above all for faith, sense and family. The Internet, though wonderful in various ways, is not in and of itself highly complementary to any of those of things.
On the two Saturdays that fall within this extended festival, you will find articles about exactly these issues. The first will be an approach to the Chestertonian Life. Socrates famously opined that the unexamined life is not worth living, but we know that this is only half of the truth; the corollary to this is that the unlived life is not worth examining. Life should be a romance, even if it is a necessarily tragic romance; it should be an adventure, even if it is a dangerous one. This danger and this tragedy are both acceptable - and even necessary - because the prize at the end of the quest and the kiss at the end of the courtship are far too precious and sweet for anything mundane.
So I say to you, then, during this microcosmic treatment of Gilbert Chesterton's life, bring your family together and be. Embrace your sense, and know. Strengthen your faith, and love. This night is a night for celebration, so celebrate. The evening of Wednesday, June 14 will be a night for valediction, so celebrate all the more.
Let's get serious about life. It's what Gilbert would have wanted.