Review: Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton by Joseph Pearce

21 Apr

I first heard Joseph Pearce speak in an international university students’ conference in Rome last year. After that, I knew that I had to look for his books and read every one of them. Wisdom and innocence is my first, and since then, I have added to the list The Quest for Shakespeare and a few others.

Pearce, a convert to Catholicism like Chesterton, has carried out a detailed research on the life and works of the latter, and presents them in his book in an objective and attractive way. I must say that I was gripped from the beginning, itching to know everything about the literary giant that is Chesterton.  He makes use of short chapter headings with which, he chronologically presents the life of G.K. Chesterton: his personal life, writings, critics, friends, family, conversion, etc.

The book begins with a chapter entitled Father of the Man, in which we see the relationship of Chesterton with his father, as well as the artistic influence of the father on the son. The book then advances to the student days of Chesterton and the Junior Debating Society. It also presents his readings and their effect on his thought; it talks of  Frances, who he married, and her influence on him; his friends and their paradoxical friendship cum intellectual antagonism; his relationship with children, etc.

Throughout the book, the author makes extensive use of quotations from the books of Chesterton, his unpublished works, articles written about Chesterton, newspaper reports at the time, as well as biographies of Chesterton.

We not only get to know the life of Chesterton but also what people thought of him, whether good or bad. Pearce dedicates considerable time and space to the relationship of Chesterton with his friends, bringing to light their common interests as well as the differences between them in personality and thought. For example, he writes entire chapters on Hilaire Belloc, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Fr. John O’Connor, Dorothy Collins, Fr. Ronald Knox, etc. It is amazing to see how they maintained their friendship throughout their lives.

Pearce presents Chesterton as an amiable and simple person, who got on easily with the people he met. For example in a journey to America, where he was giving numerous lectures, he got time to make a drawing for the child of someone he met there. Thus, in the book, we appreciate the personal side of a great man: his sense of humour, his attraction and relationship with children, his interest in toy theatres, his serene attitude in the midst of heated conversation, etc.

The rise of Chesterton to a household name is presented in the book in a chronological way. We get to see the evolution of his literary career. He began with articles in the Speaker and Daily News. Many of those articles were later compiled in book format. He became the editor of the New Witness after his brother’s death. He was invited to give lectures both in Europe and America, where he left the audience reeling with laughter, and pondering. He gave broadcasts on the BBC. In short, Chesterton was a genius: he was a deep thinker who grasped reality profoundly and sought for truth. That search eventually led him to the Catholic Church and he in turn led many others there. C. S. Lewis (?) and Sir Alec Guinness are an example.

If you are interested in the life of Chesterton and an overview of his literary career, then this is your book. It is interesting to note that the two: life and writings are of one person, his books arise out of the conversations that he has with his friends. Pearce does a marvelous work of presenting the two aspects together. For example, Chesterton wrote the Father Brown series of books after meeting Fr. John O’Connor, who is obviously the inspiration for the series. He also wrote The Everlasting Man at the time of the storms between him and Wells and Belloc. Pearce has done a thorough research and presented a complete and attractive volume on the life and person of Chesterton: essayist, poet, playwright, Christian apologist; one of the greatest men of the 20th century.



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