Monday, June 05, 2006

Gilbert in the Countryside

Maisie Ward writes of what an American saw:
"London," said a recently-arrived American, "is the most marvellously fulfilling experience. I went to see Fleet Street this morning, and met G.K. Chesterton face to face. Wrapped in a cloak and standing in the doorway of a pie shop, he was composing a poem, reciting it aloud as he wrote. The most striking thing about the incident was that no one took the slightest notice."
Though Gilbert was very much a man of Fleet Street, soon after his marriage to Frances it was decided that they should abandon their London flat in favour of a more robust and natural domain. And so it was that in 1909 the two of them quit their lodgings at Overstrand Mansions of Battersea and installed themselves at Overroads, Beaconsfield. The similarity of the two places' names is entirely coincidental, though in his typical fashion Gilbert found it both delightful and meaningful.

As to why they chose Beaconsfield:
After we were married, my wife and I lived for about a year in Kensington, the place of my childhood; but I think we both knew that it was not to be the real place for our abode. I remember that we strolled out one day, for a sort of second honeymoon, and went upon a journey into the void, a voyage deliberately objectless. I saw a passing omnibus labelled "Hanwell," and, feeling this to be an appropriate omen, we boarded it and left it somewhere at a stray station, which I entered and asked the man in the ticket office where the next train went to. He uttered a pedantic reply, "Where do you want to go to?" And I uttered the profound and philosophical rejoinder, "Wherever the next train goes to." It seemed that it went to Slough; which may seem to be singular taste, even in a train. However, we went to Slough, and from there set out walking with even less notion of where we were going. And in that fashion we passed through the large and quiet crossroads of a sort of village, and stayed at an inn called The White Hart. We asked the name of the place and were told that it was called Beaconsfield (I mean of course that it was called Beconsfield and not Beaconsfield), and we said to each other, "The is the sort of place where someday we will make our home."
How prophetic that remark would prove to be.

Apart from this romantic discovery, the reasons for moving out "to the country," as it could be called, were practical. The two of them had hopes for a family, and they did not want to raise it in the city. These hopes were tragically dashed by Frances' own phisiological problems, but their failure to sire an heir was not for a lack of effort. What was more, however, life in the city was beginning to become a strain on both of them. Gilbert and Frances, it must be remembered, were still very much lovers, and very much in love. It was hard for Frances to have to share Gilbert with Fleet Street every day, and being there, for him, meant that he always had to be "on," so to speak. They wanted space, quiet, and a garden. They wanted Beaconsfield.

The trend of journalists and cultural types abandoning London to live in the country was not an uncommon one, and the Chestertons' decision to do so was noted by all and sundry, endlessly commented upon, and would remain a subject of controversy even unto their deaths, if you can imagine. Some criticised them for being too far from London to be cultured; others assaulted them for not being *far* enough from London to be *counter-cultural*. Gilbert treated all of this faddishness lightly, of course, and even managed to have some fun with it:
Rival ruralists would quarrel about which had the most completely inconvenient postal service; and there were many jealous heartburnings if one friend found out any uncomfortable situation which the other friend had thoughtlessly overlooked.
For Gilbert, of course, it was not so much the countryside as the country people who made the move really worthwhile. Small towns have a way of forcing the newcomer into a community already formed rather than giving him the advantage of forming his own cliques and fellowships (at least initially), and it was for this reason that Gilbert found it so important to get on well with the town's barbers, doctors, inn and shopkeepers. He saw in them the romance of civilization writ small upon the few; the whole clash of a thousand cultures and a thousand years resounding from out the ruckus of the town meeting hall.

If in Frances Gilbert had found the one thing he had ever wanted, in Beaconsfield he found everything else. His friendships with the locals produced interesting literary and artistic results, though much of the work remained hypothetical or fragmentary. His pictures were cherished prizes for the local children, as were his jokes, puppet plays or even his mere presence. For indeed, though Gilbert and Frances were not blessed with children of their own, their home at Overroads was nonetheless conducted with children in mind, and it became a place of great delight for the local brood. Pageants and parties were also in the works, and it was in this way that Gilbert cemented himself so firmly in the local consciousness. It is from such stuff whence springs the memorable anecdote about his astonishing ability to toss buns into the air and then catch them in his mouth.

It was in Beaconsfield also that Gilbert's friendship with Fr. John O'Connor took root and blossomed into the great and lasting relationship that it would become. Gilbert found O'Connor to be a delightful companion in every regard, for he was literate, urbane, compassionate and wise. He was everything that the disparaged stereotypical priest was not, and it was this paradox that first led Gilbert to consider the prospects of a priest-detective. It is well known that Father Brown was modelled after Fr. O'Connor, anyway, so I will not go into it here. I expect it will be dealt with in the upcoming article about Father Brown himself.

In any event, the modern North American lifestyle does not allow us much in the way of enjoying the pleasures of a home as Gilbert and Frances did, and for that there can be nothing but remorse. Properties are small, and real gardens are rare, if there is even space for them. Living in apartments is becoming a grim necessity. What's worse, of course, is the pollution, the noise, and the cold impersonality that somehow manages to prevail even where quarters are too close for comfort. Reading of Gilbert's idyllic life in the countryside is simultaneously satisfying and troubling to his fans, for his adventures there are certainly delightful and brilliant, but in all of it we find one of the few areas of Gilbert's life that it is difficult - if not impossible - for us to properly emulate. Things have truly changed, and not for the better. His life in Beaconsfield is the sort of life that is no longer a substantial reality, or even much of a memory, but is, rather, almost become a myth. It was to this beautiful, lost world that Belloc's The Four Men was a valediction.

In short, Gilbert's life at Beaconsfield delights us so because it is a lively thing, and full of wonder, but confounds and depresses us because we can never ourselves attain it. In this there is the true essence of tragedy; of a line crossed and obliterated.

For we have looked down to Camelot, and the curse has come upon us.


rhapsody said...

Not so!

How disappointing this would be to Gilbert, imo, Mr. Furor.

I can understand saying- oh, it really would have been nice to KNOW him...

& in a way we kind of do, through his massive body of work.

But to regret not BEING him?

We have to learn to appreciate our own lives- none of us was meant to be like anyone else-

I believe that Gilbert would agree.

Learn from him, by all means-

Than APPLY what you've learned.

Just my opine, of course... but I think I got this one right.

Nick Milne said...

I think you misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that we are upset that we can't be Gilbert, or even should be upset that this can't be so. The problem for us - and it is a real problem which no sugarcoating will disguise - is that we simply don't have the options that he did. He lived in a world in crisis; a world on the edge. While he spoke eloquently and rightfully against the disasters that loomed on the horizon, they were still, as it were, looming.

We live in a different sort of crisis; no longer on the edge, but having plummetted to the ground and shattered. It is certainly our duty to find ways to appreciate our own situation, but it is for exactly this reason that reading about Gilbert's own situation can be so much of a downer for us, in some ways.

It's like a man in prison reading a letter about what's happening back home. We are that man, and our home is in the past. We have been wedged apart from it by time, space and evil economics, and, what's more, have been forced to stand by, eyes stapled open, as it is has been ransacked and destroyed by men who have lied and swindled in the name of the "public good" or the "free market."

So, envy Gilbert's position? We may, in some ways. At least he could still see Eden, even if he could also see the serpent approaching. But how much worse for him indeed to live under that horrible auspice of knowing that it must, like all earthly paradise, be lost.

We, at least, have the excuse of never having known it.

rhapsody said...

Thanks for your explanation, Furor.

I will read again, and I do agree to some degree.

But the world has never been perfect. Simpler, yes. But history tends to repeat itself- unfortunately mostly the ugly stuff- I'm thinking Caligula here- who probably would have been a lauded celebrity in our current age...

My opinion again- this IS the tragedy of our time. However, it is also our hope, Gilbert knew this, & we know it- that the only unchanging & everlasting Truth is God...

That is the Truth that we must recognize and apply. I do see that you do- I don't mean to preach.

& I certainly pray that I apply my words to myself satisfactorily, and that I am not falling incredibly short of the mark!

rhapsody said...

PS Mr. Furor- at the risk of making a pest of myself...

Our unrest & dissatisfaction should draw us closer to our Lord- for some of us this is thankfully true.

&, off topic but related- we are obligated to pray for those who have not realized that yet...