Chestertonís Long-Lost Novel Found

LIVERPOOL, England—Forget Shakespeare In Love … hereís G.K. Chesterton in love.

A previously unpublished novel by the celebrated Catholic convert from England has been unearthed and was due to be released in the United Kingdom this month.

In a literary career that began with the publication of a book of poetry 100 years ago, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a master of many genres, from satire and polemical journalism to literary criticism. He wrote Christian apologetics, first as an Anglican and then as a Catholic. His novels included the Father Brown detective stories and his apologetics included such renowned works as Orthodoxy (about faith) and The Everlasting Man (about Christ).

An influential figure in the early 20th century, he edited and founded newspapers, was a gifted artist and cartoonist and a superb public speaker and debater.

Chesterton was also the intellectual leader of a practical intellectual movement anchored in Catholic social teaching and known as Distributism —opposed to both socialism and monopoly capitalism in the name of individual liberty and social solidarity.

His ideas and writings continue to command a following today, with Chesterton societies active in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.

Chesterton experts say the new novel, Basil Howe, is semi-autobiographical and was written when Chesterton was 20. It shows Chesterton wearing yet another literary hat: romance novelist.

If Shakespeare had what literary historians call “the dark lady” of the sonnets, Chesterton had a red-headed girl, according to this novel.

“You would never have thought it was written by Chesterton,” said Professor Denis Conlon, president of the U.K. Chesterton Society.

“His later work was influenced by his wife. This was one she did not want. It is a good romantic novel—not quite Jane Austen — but it would stand up very well,” he said. “It is the sort of work any novelist would hope to achieve especially at that age.”

Why wasn't it published by the author? “It is not really the done thing to parade one's first love before one's spouse.”

The novel, he said, “also shows the talent that was lost. Every critic has said that he cannot handle female characters or love affairs. This novel shows that he could do this extremely well.”

Basil Howe was written in 1894, 11 years before Chesterton's first published novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, was released.

It is also the product of literary detective work by Conlon, professor of English literature at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. It was among 200 notebooks and assorted papers kept in the attic at Top Meadow Cottage in Beaconsfield—Chesterton's final home—by Dorothy Collins, who was his secretary, until her death in 1989.

Most of the stories were written in notebooks because, according to Conlon, Mrs. Chesterton was very frugal with the daily allowance she gave her husband.

After Collins’ death, the collection was sold for £200,000 (about $300,000) to the British Library in London. Conlon was given access to the material before it went to its new home.

“The title Basil Howe is one I made up,” he added, explaining that “a lot of the title pages for the stories were missing, and it even seems Miss Collins could not really cope with the filing and classified two parts of the present book into two separate stories. Basil Howe does seem to be the central character, however.”

The novel, complete with commentary by Professor Conlon, is due to be published by New City, the publishing arm of the Focolare Movement, which will also published two unpublished Father Brown stories —including the last story —garnered from the same found papers.

G.K. Buzz

The novel has already created a buzz among Chesterton devotees.

Stratford Caldecott, director of the Chesterton Institute at Plater College, Oxford University, told the Register, “I would be very interested to see it. I am certainly looking forward to its publication.”

He said he is not surprised about its romantic content. “He had a very romantic heart, he wrote a lot of very moving love poetry.”

Basilian Father Ian Boyd, of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, is also looking forward to the volume. The editor of The Chesterton Review and president of The Chesterton Institute in the United States told the Register that the novel dates from a very interesting period in the writer's life.

“This was written in the period when he was attending Slade School of Art in London. Chesterton explained the situation in a chapter in his autobiography called ‘How to become a lunatic,’” said Father Boyd.

“At this period he had come to the conclusion that nature and the universe were just projections of his own mind,” he explained. “He was very close to madness, and an extreme form of solipsism [the philosophical position that the self is the only knowable or existent thing].”

Father Boyd added the experience meant that Chesterton understood modernity intimately.

Caldecott said the novel would be read around the world.

In addition to the United States and England, “Chesterton is also popular in Russia and Lithuania. During the Communist era his writings were published samizdat [underground] and were quite influential in keeping ideas such as freedom and liberty alive,” Caldecott said. “It was only natural that when Communism fell people would want to pursue their interest.”

He added that in his own British college, a student Chesterton Club had attracted at least one member from Sierra Leone. Like the rest of the students, the young African is anxious to read the new book—and may even bring it back to West Africa for others to read.

“He is setting up a Chesterton Society which is going to be an educational initiative to promote rural economic development.”

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.

------- EXCERPT: Available this month in England