- Chesterton & “Englishness”
Julia Stapleton. Christianity, Patriotism, and Nationhood: The England of G. K. Chesterton. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. xii + 238 pp. Paper $80.00
Scholarly interest in G. K. Chesterton remains a minor field today; the majority of articles devoted to him are limited to the specialist press, especially the Chesterton Review, founded in 1974. According to Julia Stapleton, reader in the Department of Politics, University of Durham, among the hindrances to studying Chesterton is that he is politically incorrect: he suffers from xenophobia, is anti-Semitic, holds traditional views of gender, is ignorant of the dynamics of empire, is an apologist for Roman Catholicism, and demonstrates Fascist sympathies. Stapleton’s book attempts to describe Chesterton’s place in the cultural and political landscapes of Britain in the first four decades of the twentieth century and finds that his concerns are rooted in certain areas of culture, belief and identity. [End Page 108]
Stapleton desires to help the reader to better understand one aspect of Chesterton’s work: his embracing of Christianity, patriotism, and nationhood early in his career as a writer and journalist along with what she terms his views of “England and Englishness.” Chesterton’s writings are filled with the ideals and images of England; his patriotism is in turn closely related to his Christian faith and he saw divine significance in all things local. From his first novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) his parochial imagination permeates his writing. She considers that this has been largely neglected or ignored by Chesterton scholars.
One of the flaws in Chesterton’s writing is his failure to adequately support his arguments by factual evidence. For example, his 1903 book Robert Browning contains little information on Browning and even his quotations from Browning are inaccurate. He quoted Browning’s poetry from memory, got most of it wrong and invented passages Browning never wrote. It is said that the senior editor at his publisher found thirteen misquotations on a single page. According to Stapleton, Chesterton was telling stories with England at their center and this may explain this flaw in his method and style. Because he found myth and legend to be more reliable than so-called objective accounts he tended to ignore the factual evidence in any argument.
Stapleton’s book is divided into nine chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. In the first chapter she discusses the enduring inspiration of English patriotism Chesterton acquired as a child but which had little to do with the Catholicism he later espoused with his friends Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring. Patriotism was of vital importance to Chesterton and gave him his understanding of England as a nation.
The focus of chapter two relates his patriotism to his journalism. Chesterton’s sense that national boundaries were distinct influenced his preference for articles that had sharp outlines. As a journalist he felt himself answerable only to his readers (his fellow English citizens) and not to any elite group his editors might wish to serve. His purpose was to persuade and instruct, not merely to amuse, and not to be content with just reporting. In spite of its importance, Chesterton’s journalism is perhaps the least examined of his voluminous output. A large part of it remains uncollected and that which has (such as “Our Note Book” from the Illustrated London News) lacks editorial context.
In the vanguard of the many influences on Chesterton’s thought in his early years is the debate about the merits of artistic and literary detachment from society. In chapter three, Stapleton pulls together Chesterton’s [End Page 109] critique of artistic and literary withdrawal on the one hand and a corruption of patriotism on the other and deals with it as a single narrative. Chesterton’s understanding of patriotism contains not only an understanding of its strengths, but also a consciousness of its weaknesses and vulnerability. To quote Chesterton: “You have never begun to love anything until you have begun to fear for it.”
Chapters four and five discuss Chesterton’s liberalism. He believed there was such a thing as a “true” liberalism that differed from the sort held by the Liberal Party. This was...