Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874 in Kensington, London. He was educated at St Paul's School, and then attended the Slade School of Art and studied literature at University College, London. However he did not complete a degree in either subject.
Chesterton worked for the London publisher Redway and T. Fisher Unwin from 1896 until 1902. At this time he also worked as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1902 the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column and in 1905 he received a weekly column in The Illustrated London News and wrote this for the next thirty years until his death in 1936.
After the First World War, Chesterton became a leader of the Distrubutist movement and later President of the Distrubutist League; a movement whose political policy was to divide private property into the smallest viable freeholds and distribute them throughout society. His magazine, GK's Weekly, edited with his friend, Hilaire Belloc, promoted these political and sociological outlooks, as did The New Witness, which Chesterton and Belloc took over after the death of Chesterton's brother, Cecil, in 1918.
In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg, to whom he remained married until his death.
Chesterton was one of the great Edwardian men of letters. He was a literary and art critic and a prolific author of essays, verse, biography, short stories and novels. He was dubious about his ability to perform well on radio but was persuaded to give it a try and for the last four years of his life he gave forty talks a year. The talks were very popular, possibly because of their intimate quality, gained because his wife and secretary were allowed to sit with him and he directed his words to them. He was a close friend of Hilaire Belloc and well acquainted with Oscar Wilde. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw disagreed about practically everything and yet were on terms of friendship, often described as 'friendly-enemity.' Chesterton loved to debate and was part of many debates with Shaw, HG Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. When Chesterton died, Shaw is reported to have described him as 'a man of colossal genius.'
Chesterton was a colossal personality in every way. Six-foot four in height and weighing around twenty-one stone, he habitually wore a cape and crumpled hat and carried a swordstick and smoked a large cigar. When he died of congestive heart failure, at his home in Beaconsfield, his coffin was too big to be carried down the staircase and had to be lowered out of the window.
It is hard to believe that a man of such literary genius had been a slow developer academically and had not learned to read until he was over eight years old. He was also clumsy and absentminded. In later life it was common for him to send a telegram to his wife, telling her where he was and enquiring where he was meant to be.
When he was nineteen Chesterton suffered from depression and, for a time, rejected his Christian faith. It was at this time that he and his brother, Cecil, experimented with the Ouija board and became fascinated by sorcery and devil worship. In 1995 he left University College without completing his degree. In the next few years Chesterton returned to his Anglican faith, encouraged by Frances, who became his wife, and, in 1922, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Near the end of his life, he was invested by Pope Pius XI as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great.
On a more secular note, in 1930 Chesterton was one of the founding members of The Detective Club and its first President. It is not certain whether Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers wrote the oath but it seems probable Chesterton had a hand in it. 'Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?' Chesterton's detective is a Roman Catholic priest, but Father Brown does not solve crimes through Divine Revelation or Act of God. He reveals the truth using the knowledge of evil that hearing the confessions of sinners has given him throughout the years of his priesthood.
Chesterton's first fiction novel was a political fantasy, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904.) The best remembered of his novels is The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), in which the protagonist, a poet now working for Scotland Yard, fights an anarchist gang named for the days of the week. The Man Who Was Thursday has been described as a 'metaphysical thriller', certainly as well as being a political allegory it contains a large dose of fantasy and farce.
The detective stories that Chesterton is best remembered for are the five collections of short stories featuring Father Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911); The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926); The Secret of Father Brown (1927); The Wisdom of Father Brown (1929); The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). It is interesting to note that Chesterton created his Roman Catholic priest some years before he officially converted to Roman Catholicism. The first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, was published in the Storyteller in 1910. In The Blue Cross, Valentin, the Head of the Paris police, has tracked Flambeau, a master criminal, to England. Flambeau is an exceptionally tall man and when Valentin is examining the passengers upon the train from Harwich he can easily dismiss the 'very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village... The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats: he had a face as round and flat as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels of which he was quite incapable of collecting.... He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver 'with blue stones' in one of his brown-paper parcels.' This was the first appearance of one of the most astute detectives of the Golden Age. In his Autobiography (1936) Chesterton explained his reasoning behind the deceptive exterior of Father Brown: 'His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on.'
Many other Golden Age writers created detectives whose appearance and manner did not mirror their high intelligence, but these detectives always appeared to be deliberately wearing a mask to disguise their abilities. From the first, Father Brown is simply himself, unpretentious, honest, humble and with incredible psychological insight, especially into the nature of Evil. As he explains to Flambeau at that first meeting, '”Oh one gets to know, you know,” he added, rubbing his head again with the same sort of desperate apology. “We can't help it, being priests. People come and tell us these things.”... “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of real evil?”'
The Blue Cross was republished as the first story in the first collection of Father Brown stories, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911.) The detective Valentin only makes one more appearance but Flambeau is a frequent character in many of the Father Brown stories. In the next two stories featuring Flambeau, The Queer Feet and The Flying Stars, (The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911) he is still a criminal, at both times vanquished by Father Brown, until Father Brown persuades him to abandon crime. Many years later, in his respectable old age, Flambeau explains his reformation: '”Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous and seen the cold stare of the respectable; have I not been lectured in the lofty and distant style, asked how it was possible for anyone to fall so low, told that no decent person could ever have dreamed of such depravity? Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have never stolen since.”' (The Secret of Flambeau; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Flambeau becomes a private detective with an office in Westminster, until, in The Secret of Father Brown, he has married and retired to a vineyard in Spain. Flambeau also becomes Father Brown's closest friend As Watson and Hastings rarely get the correct solution ahead of their more talented detective friends, so Flambeau cannot see the solution before Father Brown, but at least the gentle priest treats him with much more consideration and respect than Holmes and Poirot show to their unfortunate followers. On more than one occasion Flambeau's great strength and quick wits in the face of danger save his friend's life. 'Then came another distant detonation , and the door he was trying to open shook under the bullet buried in it. Flambeau's shoulders again filled out and altered suddenly. Three hinges and a lock burst at the same instant, and he went out into the empty path behind, carrying the great garden door with him, as Samson carried the gates of Gaza. Then he flung the garden door over the garden wall, just as a third shot picked up a spurt of snow and dust behind his heel. Without ceremony he snatched up the little priest, slung him astraddle on his shoulders and went racing towards Seawood as fast as his long legs could carry him.' (The God of the Gongs; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Father Brown does not rely on physical clues but psychological clues and an intuition honed by years of hearing men's confessions and his own spiritual exercises. When pushed to explain his 'method' by an American acquaintance, he describes it in this way, '”You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.”... “I planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” ...“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” (The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
The little priest from Essex travels quite widely in the fifty-one stories; to London and many parts of England, and to Scotland, France, Mexico, America and Spain. Chesterton tells us very little of Father Brown's personal life, except that he has a widowed sister and a niece, Betty, of whom he is very fond. 'His gaze was shifted and recalled, however, by the breathless and even boisterous arrival of his niece, Betty. Rather to the surprise of her uncle, she led him back into the emptier room and planted him on a seat that was like an island in that sea of floor. “I've got something I must tell you,” she said. “It's so silly that nobody else will understand it.”' (The Worst Crime In the World; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Some of the information is inconsistent; in separate stories, Father Brown's first name is altered. Nor is it made clear how Flambeau escaped the detective, Valentin, and worked for many years as a detective, still using the name Flambeau, and even had friends amongst the police force, without being arrested. However, this is unimportant. The reader is drawn into the deep psychological insights that Father Brown offers and the sheer common-sense of his approach. When talking to an American police officer about the latter's dependence on the lie detector, Father Brown observes, '”You always forget that the reliable machine has to be worked by an unreliable machine”... “I mean Man.”... “If you could tell by his manner when the word that might hang him had come, why shouldn't he tell from your manner that the word that might hang him was coming? I should ask for more than words myself before I hanged anybody.”' (The Mistake of the Machine; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
The beauty of Chesterton's descriptive writing shows his early career as an artist. 'Father Brown was walking home from Mass on a white weird morning when the mists were slowly lifting – one of those mornings when the very element of light appears as something mysterious and new. The scattered trees outlined themselves more and more out of the vapour, as if they were first drawn in grey chalk and then in charcoal.' (The Salad of Colonel Cray; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Often the atmosphere in the stories is heavy with foreboding and the fear of impending violence and evil. 'There was a rather depressed silence; the room was darkening, the sea-blighted boughs of the garden trees looked leaner and blacker than ever, yet they seemed to have come nearer to the window. … For the whole air was dense with the morbidity of blackmail, which is the most morbid of human things, because it is a crime concealing a crime; a black plaster on a blacker wound.' (The Absence of Mr Glass, The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.) And yet, within two pages Father Brown sees the less terrible truth behind this mystery and the whole tone of the story has lifted into humour. '”But a hatter,” protested Hood, “can get money out of his stock of new hats. What could (he) get out of this one old hat?” “Rabbits,” replied Father Brown promptly.'
This witty playfulness is one of the most unexpected things in Chesterton's Father Brown stories and can often catch the reader by surprise. When Flambeau provisions his small sailing vessel for his month's holiday he 'had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves apparently to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want a fight; a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die.' (The Sins of Prince Saradine; The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.) Or when Father Brown is apologising for speaking hastily in response to a foolish statement: 'A sort of anxiety came back into the priest's eyes – the anxiety of a man who has run against a post in the dark and wonders for a moment whether he has hurt it. “I'm most awfully sorry,” he said with sincere distress. “I beg your pardon for being so rude; pray forgive me.”' (The Oracle of the Dog; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Father Brown is an unique detective. There is less revealed about his personal life than any other detective of his time but more about his thought processes and his belief. He is remarkably courageous, both physically and morally; unconcerned for his own safety or by public condemnation if there is a soul to be salvaged or an innocent person to be helped. The only thing that Father Brown really fears is harm to his Church. 'The priest's next words broke out of him with a sort of cry. “And if it had only been my disgrace! But it was the disgrace of all I stand for; the disgrace of the Faith that they went about to encompass. What might it have been! The most huge and horrible scandal ever launched against us since the last lie was choked in the throat of Titus Oates.”' (The Resurrection of Father Brown; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Possibly the thing that makes Father Brown stand out is that he is less concerned with crime than he is with sin; he cares more about saving souls than punishing crime. Chesterton's own religious conviction shines through the character and words of Father Brown. '”We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them.”... “Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes.”' (The Chief Mourner of Marne; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)