Wednesday, April 6, 2011

G.K. Chesterton is mostly known (by me, anyway) as the author of the Father Brown mystery series. I was interested to find out more about the man and his career in the book Defiant Joy: the Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte.  Chesterton comes through in the book as a larger-than-life character, bursting with happiness and intellectual curiosity.

His early life was happy, spent with doting (if somewhat lax) parents.  His youth was marred by the death of his older sister Beatrice when he was three.  The only thing mentioned about her death was "she fell off a rocking horse," but at age 8, that would seem to be unlikely.  Whatever the cause, her death caused Chesterton's father to periodically retreat from the family, and G.K. himself to become overly fearful of illness and death.

As with most young boys of the time (1880s), Chesterton was sent away to a boy's school, where he made lifelong friends and began his interest in debating.  After finishing at that school, however, Chesterton went to study art in London.  Away from friends and family, it was at this point that he experienced a severe personal and spiritual crisis.   While suffering through this deep depression, Chesterton suddenly had a miraculous turn-around.  He began to be extremely thankful for the gift of life and for the "personal gifts" he received from his "personal God."

He began working as a journalist and at various publishing firms.  His anonymous art criticisms brought him his first notice, after which he published two books of verse in 1900.  His two books of social criticism and personal journey to faith, "Heretics" and "Orthodoxy" cemented his place in literary history.  In these books, Chesterton laments the pessimism of the day, and details his believe in a God that brings joy, not repression.

The first Father Brown story was published in 1910.  Chesterton went on to publish 52 Father Brown stories.  The character of Father Brown was based on Chesterton's own good friend Father John O'Connor, and differs from the other sleuths of the day in that he works alone.  Father Brown has heard the worst that man can do in his confessions, so he is all too familiar with evil.  This allows him to use his knowledge of the human spirit to make connections and solve the mysteries presented to him.

In addition to writing spiritual, critical and mystery works, Chesterton also wrote novels, plays and an epic poem.  The book is also filled with well-known names that sparred with Chesterton in friendly and not-so-friendly fashion, including George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken and T.S. Eliot.

I was very happy to learn more about his amazing and prolific author.  I wish the book had concentrated more on the author's life instead of including large passages from his work, followed by what everyone who ever wrote said about them.  It got a bit tiresome to slog through all the comments that everyone else was making about Chesterton's work: a few sentences would have been preferable to three-quarters of a page.

Still, the book helps to increase interest in an author who is not so well-known today.  I hope to be able to read more works of the prolific G.K. Chesterton in the future!


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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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