As a fan of G.K. Chesterton I was happy to review Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton a new biography by Kevin Belmonte. The author notes that this book is not a comprehensive or definitive study, but to introduce a life and legacy. I am all for introducing Chesterton to a wider range of people.
The book mostly allows Chesterton to speak for himself as there are numerous paragraphs from his books and other writings within. The basic framework of the book is to go sequentially through his books with chapters devoted to milestones of his publishing life. I would start of with Dale Ahlquists’ books instead and it does remind me that I need to read Joseph Pearce’s biography of GKC.
This book was not meant to be a comprehensive biography, unfortunately often it is hardly even a sketch biographically of Chesterton. If this had been the only book I had read on Chesterton I would hardly have any idea about the man other than some of the barest details. This is a book mainly on Chesterton the author, and not Chesterton the man. Major milestones in his life and the effect on his writing are covered in brief – often in just a sentence. His spiritual life is barely covered. The darkness he descended to in art school is covered, but nothing on the effect his wife had on him and his return to Anglicanism. His conversion to the Catholic Church got a sentence and his friendship with Hilaire Belloc was mentioned in passing. Rather odd considering that the author appears to be a Protestant who takes spiritual themes seriously in GKC’s writings. There are so many great stories about Chesterton and especially his legendary absentmindedness, yet this isn’t even mentioned or one of those famous stories told. Of course GKC called absentmindedness, presentmindeness on something else. GKC as a personality was seemingly bigger than life – you would learn none of that here. Though you do get some idea of the interplay between George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and G.K. Chesterton and how they retained their lifelong friendship despite their opposing views.
Where the book succeeds is with Chesterton the author and you do get a good summary of his writings and the reactions to them then and now. From his early literary criticism to milestones such as The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Heretics, Orthodoxy, The Man who was Thursday, Father Brown, his poems, his essays on America, plays, etc. These chapters revolve around extensive quotations of the works. Literary criticism that appeared in response to these works and what effect Chesterton’s writings had on others is a part of these chapters. The author has done his homework from other biographies and of course Maise Ward’s biography of GKC is quoted throughout. Though the author makes a major gaffe in referring to her husband as publisher Frank Ward. That should be Frank Sheed one of the great Catholic apologists and later publisher with his wife — Sheed & Ward.
I was a bit disappointed on the chapter on Orthodoxy and thought it deserved much more than just the view of it from Gary Wills and Philip Yancey. While testimonials to the impact of Orthodoxy are fitting, I would have liked to see more of an outline of this book and some of the major themes within. Though I also suspect that I would hardly be satisfied with any chapter on Orthodoxy in that I try to reread this book every year.
This book has spurred me on to wanting to read Chesterton’s literary criticism. I was aware of his works concerning Dickens and Chaucer and while reading literary criticism is not my thing, I think GKC’s take will be. I do love Dickens and I really need to learn more of Chaucer.
This book reminds me of Chesterton’s quip on George Bernard Shaw comparing him to Venus de Milo in that what is there is good. I read through the book fairly quickly since I enjoyed it, it is just that I was constantly aware of what was missing. Missing was any mention of Manalive, Lepanto, or so many other of his books. Certainly in a book of this type you can’t devote a chapter to such a prolific author, but I so love Manalive and I consider it a key to understanding Chesterton the man and his philosophy.
As a supplementary biography Defiant Joy is somewhat worthwhile, just don’t make the mistake of getting this book as a primary biography of Chesterton.