Gilbert Keith Chesterton (May 29, 1874–June 14, 1936) was an influential English writer of the early 20th century. His prolific and diverse output included journalism, poetry, biography and Christian apologetics, but today he is probably best remembered for his Father Brown short stories.
Chesterton has been called the "prince of paradox." He wrote in an off-hand, whimsical prose studded with startling formulations. For example: "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it." He is one of the few Christian thinkers who is admired and quoted equally by liberal and conservative Christians. Chesterton's own theological and political views were far too nuanced to fit comfortably under the "liberal" or "conservative" banner.
Read G.K.Chesterton's book, The Wisdom of Father Brown, one of 29 of his works available free from Project Gutenberg..
Born in Campden Hill, Kensington, London, Chesterton was educated at St Paul's School, and later went to the Slade School of Art in order to become an illustrator and also attended literature classes at University College but did not complete a degree at either. In 1896 Chesterton began working for the London publisher Redway, and T. Fisher Unwin where he remained until 1902. During this period, he also undertook his first journalistic work as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1901 he married Frances Blogg to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. In 1902 he was given a weekly opinion column in the Daily News followed by a weekly column in The Illustrated London News in 1905, for which he would continue to write for the next thirty years.
According to Chesterton, as a young man he became fascinated with the Occult and, along with his brother Cecil, experimented with Ouija boards. However, as he grew older, he became an increasingly orthodox Christian culminating in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.
Chesterton was a large man, standing 6 feet 4 inches (1.93 m) and weighing around 21 stone (134 kg or 294 lb). His girth gave rise to a famous anecdote. During World War I, a lady in London asked why he wasn't 'out at the Front'; he replied 'if you go round to the side, you will see that I am.' On another occasion, he remarked to his friend George Bernard Shaw, 'To look at you, anyone would think there was a famine in England.' Shaw retorted, 'To look at you, anyone would think you caused it.'
He usually wore a cape and a crumpled hat, with a swordstick in hand, and had a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Chesterton often forgot where he was supposed to be going and would miss the train that was supposed to take him there. It is reported that on several occasions he sent a telegram to his wife from some distant (and incorrect) location writing such things as, "Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" to which she would reply, "Home."
Chesterton loved to debate, often engaging in friendly public debates with such men as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and Clarence Darrow. According to his autobiography, he and Shaw played cowboys in a silent movie that was never released.
Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. The homily at Chesterton's Requiem Mass in Westminster Cathedral, London, was delivered by Ronald Knox. Chesterton is buried in Beaconsfield in the Catholic Cemetery. Chesterton's estate was probated at 28,389 pounds sterling.
Chesterton wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic Christian theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer. He was a columnist for the Daily News, Illustrated London News, and his own paper, G. K.'s Weekly; he also wrote articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica. His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday is arguably his best-known novel. He was a convinced Christian long before he was received into the Catholic church, and Christian themes and symbolism appear in much of his writing. In the United States, his writings on distributism were popularized through The American Review, published by Seward Collins in New York.
Much of his poetry is little known, though well reflecting his beliefs and opinions. The best written is probably Lepanto, with The Rolling English Road the most familiar, and The Secret People perhaps the most quoted ("we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet").
Of his non-fiction, Charles Dickens (1903) has received some of the broadest-based praise. According to Ian Ker (The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, 2003), "In Chesterton's eyes Dickens belongs to Merry, not Puritan, England" (see Merry England); Ker treats in Chapter 4 of that book Chesterton's thought as largely growing out of his true appreciation of Dickens, a somewhat shop-soiled property in the view of other literary opinions of the time.
Much of Chesterton's work remains in print, including collections of the Father Brown detective stories. Ignatius Press is presently in the process of publishing a Complete Works.