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The Sins of G K Chesterton. Richard Ingrams. Review.

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 The Sins of G. K. Chesterton. Richard Ingrams. Quartet Books. 2021.

The Chesterbelloc is extinct, but the pantomime elephant still performs. The books of  one half of the duo, C.K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936), the Napoleon of Notting Hill, (a satirical plea for the break up of Britain) The Flying Inn (a broadside against Vegetarians and anti-drinking Wellness), The Man Who was Thursday (a fable on the doings of the Spy Cops of the Edwardian era), have a modest but appreciative audience. The Father Brown series, based on the detective priest of Kembleford, is televised with the 9th season soon to come. The short exposition on St Thomas Aquinas and his Permanent philosophy is treasured by many Catholics, and has the respect of those outside the Universal Church.  His Charles Dickens (1906), amongst its enduring insights highlighted the writer’s “chief fountain…cheerfulness”, egalitarian radicalism, and the democratic reforms his novels and public stands promoted. The prolific essays “with that fantastic love of paradox which gives pain to so many critics” (The Secret Society of Mankind. 1923) have been harvested for their apothegms. Lines of his poetry, let us say The Rolling English Road and not the “journalistic balladry” (T.S. Elliot) of the White Horse, are cherished.

Chesterton was not that long ago proposed for Sainthood. He was presented, Richard Ingrams writes.  as a “benign genius who had gone through life in a spirit of childlike wonder, untroubled by the worries and doubts that make life difficult for the rest of us.” The co-founder of Private Eye, himself received into the Catholic Faith, wastes no time in demolishing the basis for canonisation. With little effort he finds abundant evidence of Chesterton’s anti-Semitism and portrays a troubling personality.

Ingrams takes to heart Bernard Shaw’s jibe at the bond between Chesterton and Belloc, the Chesterbelloc and extends it. There were “three people who exercised 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 Hillarie Belloc.”.

The Anglo-French writer Belloc is known today chiefly for his Cautionary Tales, in part for his pilgrimage, The Path to Rome (1902) – and unfortunately not for his perceptive account of early French poets, la Pléiade, in Avril (1904). He was also an admirer of Charles Maurras of Action Française, and had a life-long Barrésien nationalism rooted in worship of La Terre et les Morts. “It was the Dreyfus affair which first put in his mind the notion of a threat posed by cosmopolitan (in other words Jewish) finance operating independency of democratic government and threatening all national institutions in France particularly, but also in England.”

Chesterton’s brother Cecil, who had earlier been close to the Fabians and British radicals, teamed up with Belloc. He absorbed his judgement on Dreyfus “ “all the sources of the Hebrew money could do for him was done, with the result that after many vicissitudes and another trial (at which he was again condemned) he received a free pardon.” They expounded an enchanted tale of how the equitable promise of the late Catholic middle age had been ruined during industrialisation, paving for the Servile State and The Party System, with whose acquaintance the one-time Liberal Party member Belloc made during a brief unsuccessful Parliamentary stint (1906 to 1910).

Less interested in their social and political alternative, the ‘distributive’ programme of widened property ownership than in attacking that set up and its underhand deals.  The pair joined in attacking the tyranny of National Insurance schemes, “I think the Insurance Act not only a tyranny, but one of the historic turning points of tyranny like Ship Money or the persecution of Wilkes.” Cecil launched the National League for Clean Government to root out skulduggery. All of this weighed heavily on their, and Gilbert’s, trumpeting of democratic aspirations. They came to consider that the people were being thwarted by powerful underhand forces.

It was the ‘behind the scene” doings of political villains that preoccupied the pair. Anglo-Judaic plutocracy” was soon unearthed at work in the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company scandal, whose details will absorb those interested in such affairs. In their organ the Eye-Witness, which became the New Witness, they expounded the claim that the Marconi contract was the result of conspiracy. There proved no evidence for their allegations. Finally brought to court for Criminal Libel Cecil was found guilty fined £100 with costs, claimed a “victory of sorts”. Ingrams observes that this episode did not fade from their memory. “Marconi had become, like Dreyfus, an idée fixe for Belloc (and consequently for Chesterton).”

Cecil volunteered for the Great War and passed away near the end of the conflict in 1918. Chesterton claimed he had, Ingrams says,  “died a hero ‘in a dark hour of gloom.” The nearest to the truth he can get to the facts is that was ar. “premature death from nephritis brought on by a long route march in the cold and wet – fatal to a man already suffering from chronic kidney disease and, according to Keith, drinking a bottle of wine a day – something that would have aggravated his conditions.”(P 175) Gilbert was “incapable of expressing his grief or even accepting the truth about Cecil’s death” . He wrote an extraordinary Open Letter to Lord Reading. (Rufus Issacs)  casting wild aspersions on the man and his government. It is painful to read.

For The Sins Chesterton had not recovered from the Libel Court Case. He wished to “elevate Cecil to the status of a crusading champion”. But he “had witnessed his dearly loved brother being brutally exposed as a liar and a racist and finally being humiliated, forced to withdraw the charge of a corrupt contract, and condemned by the judge for his ‘incredible ignorance of business and prejudice.’”

Ingrams judges that Chesterton was unable to come to terms with Cecil’s passing. The writer had inherited his “father’s neurosis.” He had a “terror of death”, and reluctance “to confront antagonism, disputes and unpleasantness. These psychological traits may have furthered his path towards death in 1936.

This study continues, with the story of Chesterton’s 1920s and early 1930s activities – the creation and quarrels of the micro-party the Distributionist League and G.K.’s Weekly, “Chesterton’s Potty Little Paper”. There is one stand out thread, and that is a simple one  “So far from condemning past pogroms or future persecutions Chesterton and Belloc (both highly respected proponents of Christianity) helped to promote a conception of Jews as foreigners and aliens (or worse) thus fostering, in Britain, a more tolerant attitude towards Nazi barbarities than might otherwise have prevailed.” A sign of his indulgence towards fascism in Italy and feebleness was a failure to make a clear condemnation of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.

At the end of this charge-sheet Ingrams pays a muted tribute “Whatever his failings they cannot detract from Chesterton’s undoubted genius, least of his humility”. Yet consummate talent and a humble character are not qualities demanded for the author of some good and memorable writings, the works Chesterton laid before us. There remains one point, the prejudice firmly established in the pages of The Sins.. If before and after his entry into the Catholic Church in 1922 Chesterton had a “strong sense of the physical nature of evil” some sins seemed to have passed him by.

For those who doubt the depths to which the writer could sink when expounding on ‘Jewish Question’ this will set them clear:

The New Jerusalem Author: G. K. Chesterton. 1920.

“First, the Jews already exercise colossal cosmopolitan financial power. And second, the modern societies they live in also grant them vital forms of national political power. Here the vagrant is already as rich as a miser and the vagrant is actually made a mayor. As will be seen shortly, there is a Jewish side of the story, which leads really to the same ending of the story; but the truth stated here is quite independent of any sympathetic or unsympathetic view of the race in question. It is a question of fact, which a sensible Jew can afford to recognise, and which the most sensible Jews do very definitely recognise. It is really irrational for anybody to pretend that the Jews are only a curious sect of Englishmen, like the Plymouth Brothers or the Seventh Day Baptists, in the face of such a simple fact as the family of Rothschild. Nobody can pretend that such an English sect can establish five brothers, or even cousins, in the five great capitals of Europe. Nobody can pretend that the Seventh Day Baptists are the seven grandchildren of one grandfather, scattered systematically among the warring nations of the earth. Nobody thinks the Plymouth Brothers are literally brothers, or that they are likely to be quite as powerful in Paris or in Petrograd as in Plymouth.

The Jewish problem can be stated very simply after all. It is normal for the nation to contain the family. With the Jews the family is generally divided among the nations. This may not appear to matter to those who do not believe in nations, those who really think there ought not to be any nations. But I literally fail to understand anybody who does believe in patriotism thinking that this state of affairs can be consistent with it. It is in its nature intolerable, from a national standpoint, that a man admittedly powerful in one nation should be bound to a man equally powerful in another nation, by ties more private and personal even than nationality. Even when the purpose is not any sort of treachery, the very position is a sort of treason. Given the passionately patriotic peoples of the west of Europe especially, the state of things cannot conceivably be satisfactory to a patriot. But least of all can it conceivably be satisfactory to a Jewish patriot; by which I do not mean a sham Englishman or a sham Frenchman, but a man who is sincerely patriotic for the historic and highly civilised nation of the Jews.

For what may be criticised here as Anti-Semitism is only the negative side of Zionism. For the sake of convenience I have begun by stating it in terms of the universal popular impression which some call a popular prejudice. But such a truth of differentiation is equally true on both its different sides. Suppose somebody proposes to mix up England and America, under some absurd name like the Anglo-Saxon Empire. One man may say, “Why should the jolly English inns and villages be swamped by these priggish provincial Yankees?” Another may say, “Why should the real democracy of a young country be tied to your snobbish old squirarchy?” But both these views are only versions of the same view of a great American: “God never made one people good enough to rule another.”


Written by Andrew Coates

November 16, 2021 at 1:52 pm