Monday, June 3, 2013


G.K. Chesterton is somewhat notorious, even among his fans, for producing in his novels a range of stock characters who spend most of their time arguing about the ideas they and Chesterton—and we—think important without doing a great deal in the way of development.  Change there may be, damnation or (what is more likely, since Chesterton, by temperament depressive, was by faith an optimist) conversion; but the critic will search in vain for the reasons for such change.  His search will be vain because he is looking for the wrong sort of reason: for love or hate, for rivalry over a woman or a job, for boredom or ambition or that fact that Michael Moon's mother spanked him as a child (a probability, I must say, since he was an Irishman).

The question of whether Chesterton's is a more excellent kind of writing than that of the realistic novelist—a question generally only raised by his most ardent fans to be answered stoutly in the affirmative—is a dangerous one; these are waters I've no desire to sail on an otherwise delightful Monday.  (Besides, there does seem to be a certain disloyalty in questioning the master while one is under his masthead, as it were.)  But it is fascinating to observe that Chesterton is not the only person of his time who fell into this habit of writing; in what was perhaps a reaction to the often thoughtless but very human novelists of the Victorian era, the authors of the English literary Renaissance wrote colorful principles instead of colorful people: one thinks of Oscar Wilde, of Baring and Belloc, of H.G. Wells, of Shaw, and of Ronald Knox.

Ronald Knox, like all of the aforementioned, was a remarkable stylist—with him, as with the others of his period, one does not feel the brush to slip, or the probe to plunge too far.  This does not prevent him from writing passionately; but it does mean that his writing is never painful—not because it is more removed from reality than, say, the mad exaggerations of Dickens or Trollop, but because it is dealing with a reality that is less personal in human particulars and more personal in what matters to all of us: faith and unbelief.

This is true, of course, of his essays and sermons—masterful examples of the genre, that Fulton Sheen could have (and probably did) learn from; but it is also true of his fiction.  Like Graham Greene, Knox thought it no shame to produce serious work and unserious, up to and including at least two splendid detective novels (I am convinced there are more, if only our libraries would carry them) that have all the charm of English country houses and slightly less distress than the pleasanter stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Knox was, indeed, involved somehow in concocting that rather interesting list of rules for detection that was sees attributed now and then to various sages of the internet: you know the list, the one that calls Watson stupid, and forbids the use of magic, foreigners, and obscure poisons as solutions to the mystery.

It is a list he has one of his characters reiterate in Sanctions: A Frivolity, a rather self-conscious book that is (as another character confesses near the end) too much a work of philosophy not to bore the library reader, and too much like a novel to interest a philosopher.  Here Knox pulls out all the good old chestnuts—but they really are old and good as well as nutty—about the relation of Catholicism to Anglicanism and to unbelief in general; things we've read before, but things which it never hurts to be reminded of.  And he couches it all in the form of a conversation at a house party, with just enough of personalities involved to give him room for the sort of satirical wit that stings but does not slay—the kind of wit that belongs to Englishmen, that Americans can't seem to learn.  And lo and behold, he does by the end manage to take us some little ways further into human sympathy with his talkers than the beginning or middle would allow us to suspect; he gives us something of a development for our conclusion, to send us home with the guests feeling as if the vacation was worth its while.

May all our summers, if mildly more arduous, be equally learned and kind.


  1. At least in the case of Moon (and Inglewood) it's quite clear that all change was inspired; that is, it came with the wind the blew on Beacon Hill. Reason deeper than the voice that speaks the Logos no-one needs nor can find; but yes, it does run differently than most modish drama theory would let us believe were readable...

    I find, to my dismay, that the Fr. Ronald is unknown to Project Gutenberg, and so I shall have to find another conventional library.

    1. You shall. He is a treat, albeit one for a particular type of palate.

    2. I would hazard to suggest that the modern attraction to so-called realism is in no small part due to the fact that almost all of our media sources today try to entice the reader with emotional delights and neglect genuine development of the intellect.
      Chesterton in many even of his fictional works is proposing an argument or idea to which the characters and plot are almost a garnish or background to prepare the reader.
      The reason people dislike it now is not for the mere blatant sermonizing or moralizing, but because they are unable to eat solid food at all. The modern reader cannot ingest but the weakest gruel - i.e. an emotional appeal through characters who do not make him feel inferior or in need of improvement.
      For all our education and democratic claims, this
      is a terribly childish society.

    3. Ouch. But I'm afraid there's more than an element of truth in that. Reading and thinking are, after all, exercises of a faculty; and that faculty, just like a muscle, can atrophy.