“. . . a real life of anybody is a very difficult thing to write; and as I have failed two or three times in trying to do it to other people, I am under no illusion that I can really do it to myself.”
And really, what he wrote isn’t in the style we have come to expect of an autobiography. There is no timeline of events. I didn’t keep track, but it may be the case that the date of his birth on the first page is the last date he offers. There is very little comment on the details of his life, no juicy details of the lives of anyone else he knew. He seems downright reluctant to air his, or anyone else’s, dirty laundry. He doesn’t try to blame his parents or his teachers for anything.
“I am sorry if the landscape or the people appear disappointingly respectable and even reasonable, and deficient in all those unpleasant qualities that make a biography really popular. I regret that I have no gloomy and savage father to offer to the public gaze as the true cause of all my tragic heritage; no pale-faced and partially poisoned mother whose suicidal instincts have cursed me with the temptations of the artistic temperament. I regret that there was nothing in the range of our family much more racy than a remote and mildly impecunious uncle; and that I cannot do my duty as a true modern, by cursing everybody who made me whatever I am. I am not clear about what that is; but I am pretty sure that most of it is my own fault.”
What did I learn about Chesterton from himself? It seems almost by accident that he relates a bit of the thinking behind the writing of The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which would have been good information to have had before I read them.
I get the impression that he may have been one of the few Christians who has actually considered others more important than himself. This book is more a catalog of people he knew and who influenced him than it is about him. He may truly have believed that the famous people who were his friends were much more interesting than he was. Perhaps it’s just the journalist in him. Even in his autobiography, he’s still reporting. One chapter is devoted to his brother. Some of the chapter titles are, “Figures in Fleet Street,” “Friendship and Foolery,” “Some Political Celebrities,” “Some Literary Celebrities,” and “Portrait of a Friend.” Six of sixteen chapters almost exclusively about people he knew rather than about himself. It’s almost as if he sees himself more as an observer of people than as a celebrity himself.
Chesterton dearly loved a good argument, but he had the rare quality of being able to argue ideas with a man yet still consider that man his friend.
“My brother, Cecil Edward Chesterton, was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue. . . I am glad to think that through all those years we never stopped arguing; and we never once quarreled.”
“I have always had a weakness for arguing with anybody; and this involved all that contemporary nihilism against which I was then in revolt; and for about five minutes, in a publisher’s office, I actually argued with Thomas Hardy.”
In the last chapter, Chesterton refers to, “taking a serene review of an indefensibly fortunate and happy life.” He seems never to have stopped seeing his life as a gift and the world as place of wonder.
“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”
“I have said that I had in childhood, and have partly preserved out of childhood, a certain romance of receptiveness, which has not been killed by sin or even by sorrow; for though I have not had great troubles, I have had many. A man does not grow old without being bothered; but I have grown old without being bored.”