NO WRITER could be less in fashion than Chesterton now. He was a romantic, and we are cynics; fat, and we run to slenderness; an advocate of the rights of small nations, and we are giving up on Poland even as we begin to wish we had not given up Vietnam.
In short, he is precisely the sort we need. If it is true that a great man is one who never reminds us of someone else, Chesterton was as great a man as his hero, Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson, he was greater, by virtue of what he said and what he believed, than any book he ever wrote-- this though The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday are classics of fantasy, though in Father Brown he gave us one of the finest of fictional detectives (as he himself was the model for John Dickson Carr's Gideon Fell), that The Everlasting Man is as good a piece of Christian apologetics as has ever seen print, and that hundreds of his newspaper columns can still hold our interest across a gap of 60 years or more. Indeed, it sometimes seems that the chief advantage Dr. Johnson had in respect to Mr. Chesterton was Mr. Boswell.
It is an advantage Alzina Stone Dale has not sought to neutralize in The Outline of Sanity (a title Chesterton used for a book of his own). In Johnson's famous phrase, she has "turned over half a library to make one book," and every page of it is dotted with references. Yet this book, though it tells us so much about Chesterton that we did not know and are happy to know, leaves us more certain that he is dead than of anything else about him. Dead, he has become a paper chase for the author, and the more reverently she follows his trail, the more we are liable to feel that the late lamented jolly journalist passed away in the 1880s (which she defines, without saying why, as the beginning of the "modern world"). In other words, very shortly after the actual Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born.
And yet there is a great deal of interest. We learn, for example, that both Gilbert and his kid brother Cecil were spoiled rotten. (The result was that Gilbert became a genius and Cecil a nuisance of such stature as to prompt speculation on the number of geniuses the human race can afford.) We learn that the British lads who, like Chesterton, attended St. Paul's School, lived comfortably at home. And that though boys of 12 studied Greek there--a prospect before which the average American PhD. candidate would fly screaming--any actual love of books was as despised as it is in our own schools; so that it almost seems young George Orwell's joys at boarding school may have been preferable after all. We learn that when Chesterton, who was sometimes accused of anti-Semitism, ended a series of articles for the London Daily Telegraph with one supporting Zionism, the paper refused to print it.
But even as the author tells us all this--and much, much more, much of it equally interesting--she saps our confidence by egregious blunders. How are we to trust her laborious research when she writes about the idea of "Chesterton as nothing more than . . . the drinking companion of G.B. Shaw"? For a single, miraculous moment we picture Shaw and Chesterton staggering homeward in the aureate light of dawn, their arms twined about each other's shoulders, bellowing the words to the poem the author of this book calls "Gungadin." But that light is not of sea or land; it is the light of Faerie, and it fades. It fades, and the bitter memory of Shaw's carrot juice returns.
Most are not so entertaining. The author writes, "In contrast to Gilbert, Cecil Chesterton was short and stout." But Gilbert himself--our G.K. Chesterton--was tall and stout, so the contrast is something less than perfect. She refers to Dr. Johnson's being a part of "the mythical 'Grub Street' "; but Grub Street was a real London Street, and its name was changed to Milton Street only in 1830, 50 years before the beginning of "modern times," but nearly 50 years too after Doctor Johnson's death in 1784.
She even contrives to misunderstand Cecil, who called his brother's wife, Frances, a "lady of a type which a generation of advanced culture is producing a plentiful crop--the conservative rebel against the conventions of the unconventional. Living amidst the esthetic anarchisms of Bedford Park, she was in a state of seething revolt against it." The author then writes: "Cecil's opinion needs some correction. . . . The evidence suggest that Cecil was probably more 'unconventional,' or bohemian, than Frances." But of course that is what Cecil himself said. He was calling Frances a counterrevolutionary, and the reader, pierced by her stare from the fading snapshots in Dale's book, can well believe it.
Nor does American history escape. Writing of the London Daily News, the author tells us, "During the latter half of Victoria's reign it . . . supported the anti- slave trade cause, the North in the U.S. Civil War, Italian unification, and the campaign against privilege and monopoly in land." The midpoint of Victoria's reign was 1868, after which opposition to slavery should have been safe enough.
For its documentation and its revelations, this new Outline of Sanity is recommended. But for Chesterton himself, it is better to go to his Autobiography. Then the living man will come rolling out, his eyes gleaming with merriment above his pince-nez, his black Inverness cape flapping behind him, his sword cane flourishing, and his Victorian revolver bulging from his hip pocket. He bought the gun when he won Frances; and though he is famous for having raised common sense to the transcendental level, he never showed his common sense more than by buying it, unless it was by saying he had bought it to defend her. He hardly needs it to defend himself from the author of this biography. She loves him, and she has done him little harm, and a great deal of good. But what wild knight will defend her from herself?