- Chesterton, London & Modernity
THIS VOLUME OF ESSAYS, appearing in the Bloomsbury Studies in the City series, has its origins in a daylong symposium, “G. K. Chesterton and the Paradox of the City,” held at University College, London in September 2011 to mark the 75th anniversary of Chesterton’s death. The book is not simply an expansion into published conference proceedings of those talks: three of the authors were not on the conference program, and three who were on the program are not represented in the volume. The essays brought together here deftly overcome the circumstantial arbitrariness often governing the relationship between constituent parts of conference panels, the editors having ordered them into a clear sequential—or at least associative—logic. Matthew Ingleby’s introduction acknowledges the inevitable disparateness in focus—“a variety of approaches … a range of literary critical and historical practices”—while sketching in the outline of a commonality: “all represent responses to Chesterton’s material encounters and intellectual engagement with metropolitan modernity.” Despite the nonspecific capaciousness [End Page 431] of that alliterative coinage, the metropolis in question in each case is, of course, as the book’s title reflects, London.
In the seventy-nine years since his death, Chesterton as a writer of London—author of The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday, city-based editor, journalist, and man of letters—has increasingly stood in the shadow of Chesterton as Christian. His most popular works, the Father Brown stories (which probably remain popular more for their protagonist’s skills as an amateur detective than for his professional priestly grasp of arcane Catholic apologetics, much as the one informs the other), have even, in their television reincarnation, been relocated out of their original urban and suburban settings to the kind of rustic village beloved by devotees of period English crime stories: in effect, Miss Marple goes to church. It tends not to be journals devoted primarily to modernism per se, or to literary London, that provide academic articles on Chesterton with their most receptive homes, but rather the period-specific ELT or the Christian-oriented journal Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review (Chesterton’s six co-religionists being George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Owen Barfield). And as the quite remarkable advocacy of Chesterton’s credentials for canonization has gained ground, the tendency to see him primarily as a devotional writer has grown with it. His once equally assured position as a writer of London—in the sense that, say, Charles Dickens, or George Gissing, or Peter Ackroyd, or Iain Sinclair are of London—has long since come to seem secondary to his theological affiliations.
In a variety of complementary ways, this collection does much to bring the two back into a symbiotic relationship with each other. The terms to which Michael D. Hurley’s excellent opening essay, “Why Chesterton Loved London,” recurrently resorts to pin down the particular quality of his response to the city and its inhabitants echo the distinctive visionary emphasis: “joyous mystery,” “rapt and reverent attention,” “dizzying awe,” “capable of redemption into innocence.” Lynne Hapgood’s version of “The Chestertonian City,” which works subtly with the interplay between “the single (subjective and a/historical) and the plural (material and historical),” offers a somewhat bleaker reading of the modern city: “he invites his readers to reject the idea of the urban as pregnant with ever-proliferating and significant new meanings and to recognize the modern condition as sclerotic, the channels to memory, tradition and self-actualization blocked.” Yet she too moves to a reading of The Ballad of the White Horse and The Napoleon of Notting Hill [End Page 432] that identifies in the interplay between singularity and plurality the fostering of “a sense of mystery and wonder.” This leads seamlessly into a view of the Father Brown stories as “the progress of a priest/detective through the streets and homes of London and from mystery to clarity … the process of recovering wisdom from the confusion of the city.”