Centenaries may have no real chronological significance, but they still provide the useful service of teaching us something about ourselves by how we respond to their arrival. The year 1923 brought forth a wealthy crop of literature, both experimental and traditionalist. Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury introduced the highbrows to Mrs. Dalloway, while on the other side of the Channel there appeared the posthumous fifth volume of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey gave his first performance in Whose Body?, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot gave his second in Murder on the Links. Joseph Conrad, the Grand Old Man of English fiction, published his last novel-the story of an old sailor, fittingly-and D.H. Lawrence, the fashionable barbarian of the hour, churned out no fewer than three books: two works of fiction, as well as his brash and frenzied Studies in Classic American Literature. We in the Year of Grace 2023 may be forgiven for looking back on all of this production with a stitch of envy. As I write this, the top entries on the New York Times best-seller list in fiction and nonfiction respectively are a humdrum vacation novel about suburban divorcees in Maine, and the deafeningly hyped memoirs of the current Duke of Sussex. The first of these begins with an opening paragraph composed entirely of sentence fragments, and the second may move even the most committed royalist to wonder if some new Milton should be living at this hour to write a defense of regicide for the 21st century. It may be that, as with governments and waistlines, modern people tend to get the bestsellers that they deserve.
To return to happier considerations, I recollect that 1923 saw also the appearance of G.K. Chesterton’s life of St. Francis of Assisi, which I believe remains one of his more popular books. Years ago I read it in the course of an afternoon in a Barnes and Noble and was much charmed by it, though after putting it down, I remember feeling surprised that it had relatively little to say about many of those things that a biographer would ordinarily spend many pages describing: the quotidian activities of the friars, the social conditions of 12th century Italy, the functions of the religious orders within the Medieval Church, and so forth. Indeed, Chesterton’s book barely presents the life of Giovanni di Bernardone in anything like a normal chronological sequence, seeking out the invisible quintessence of the man rather than this or that evangelical mission or ecclesiastical conflict that formed the substance of his daily life. If these are matters of principal interest to us, we need to go to other Franciscan vitae, which are fortunately abundant: those by Jørgensen, Maynard, or the Protestant Sabatier have plenty and more in the way of facts to satisfy us. Chesterton has merely insight, which in his case is too small a word, for insight with him amounted to something very like a supernatural vision of things hidden from the wise. He tells us not so much what Francis did as what he meant.
As with more than one of his historical books, Chesterton’s Francis contains stumblings which make the reader stifle a laugh, as in the following sentence: “His flame of life leapt up and his heart rejoiced when they saw from afar off on the Assisian hill the solemn pillars of the Portiuncula.” The Portiuncula, as St. Francis knew it, and as its name suggests, is quite a small affair of rough stone, with no solemn pillars to speak of. We can nitpick this and Chesterton’s other literary biographies as much as we please, but it is not easy to deny that he explains the souls of his subject-Francis or Dickens, Aquinas or Robert Browning-with an untaught precision and assuredness which makes the unhappy competition in the field look like a sad company of so many pedants and plodders. Certainly the last thing Chesterton would wish to be taken for, apart perhaps from a teetotaler, is an academic, and there is cause to believe that he encouraged the legend of his own ignorance more eagerly than is exactly consonant with the facts of the matter (“I know nothing, Madam; I am a journalist”). There was nothing professorial about the man’s body of knowledge, as it can be weighed and measured in his books; yet at the same time, as Mr. Ahlquist has somewhere pointed out, here was a man who could from memory quote statutes of Anglo-Saxon property law in the original Anglo-Saxon. And while Chesterton attended neither of the great English universities as a young man, his reading was of such depth and variety as would shame most modern professors in any Great Books program that you or I could name. The volume of his reading was apparent to those who enjoyed his friendship. Belloc, for instance, in a valuable tribute to his fellow Catholic and friend published in 1940 wrote:
In the English literature pure and simple he had an acquaintance very wide, accurate, and, what is of more moment, critical…Everything he wrote upon any one of the great English literary names was of the first quality…Chesterton continued to understand the youngest and latest comers as he understood the forefathers in our great corpus of English verse and prose.
The popular picture of Chesterton as an high-spirited idiot savant ought, I think, to be somewhat modified, though as with many distorted portraits of literary figures, I suspect this one may prove to be blessed with an irritating immortality. In more than one way, St. Francis has also suffered the fate of being affectionately misremembered. As an historical figure of flesh and blood, Francis had as little in common with the treacly prayer cards and wax figurines that represent him as the last Plantagenet king had with the depraved Machiavellian hunchback of popular legend. Reading Chesterton’s study of the Jongleur de Dieu presents to us a living character who was happily most unlike the unctuous humanitarian created by 19th century sentimentalists and foisted upon posterity by an immeasurable mass of saccharine Catholic devotional art and one or two books and films that need not be mentioned. The real Francis was pleasantly impish, boyishly cocky, and not so inhumanly humble as to be impervious to the occasional tribute of praise. An American transported back in time and confronted with the man as he was might find him surprisingly like Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Tarkington’s Penrod. It is a relief also for those of us who have neither the predilection nor the discipline to turn vegetarian to learn that St. Francis, contrary to what we may have read, had neither any religious nor personal aversion to pork or beef. These may be dismissed as minor enough details, and perhaps they are. Still, Chesterton’s book remains a classic of its kind for doing a thing not easily done in any kind of historical writing: giving us a picture of a man we have glanced at a hundred times before and proving to us that we have yet to see him.