This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
The antisemitism problem with G.K. Chesterton is regrettably all too real and it is not for nothing that he felt obliged to defend himself against the charge up until his death in 1936, including in his posthumously published Autobiography. The general consensus, though, has been pretty clear-cut. As far back as 1985, no less Chestertonian an outlet than the Chesterton Review carried an essay by the historian Owen Dudley Edwards detailing the antisemitism and describing Chesterton as “unhinged”.
Ingrams frequently misrepresents evidence for a case which could have been made by citing Chesterton’s own words
A similar verdict crops up in the 2001 biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins, who said of Chesterton and his younger brother Cecil that “they were obsessed with what they saw as the conspiracies of international Jewry.” In his 2010 book Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, Anthony Julius was particularly unsparing, while Ian Ker’s now standard biography of Chesterton the following year described one particularly nasty letter as “utterly anti-Semitic” and the newspaper Chesterton’s brother edited as “violently and virulently anti-Semitic”.
When in 2019 the Catholic Church rejected a move by some of Chesterton’s usually well-meaning but often over-enthusiastic readers to have him considered for canonisation, his antisemitism was a stated reason.
So why a new study? Richard Ingrams, a past editor of Private Eye, claims in his introduction that Chesterton’s antisemitism has been “swept under the carpet” and that he has set out to dispel “the smokescreen created around Chesterton”, but it could easily be asked who is really trying to cast a smokescreen around whom?
Ingrams frequently misrepresents evidence for a case which could have been made by citing Chesterton’s own words. Instead, we get a triangular account involving Chesterton himself, his little-known brother Cecil, who died in a military hospital in France in December 1918, and the better-known writer Hilaire Belloc. The problem was much worse with the latter two than with Chesterton, however, and it is in the midst of this blurring of distinctions that Ingrams muddies the waters.
We hear that Chesterton was “led by the nose” and became antisemitic as a result of the malign influence of Cecil and Belloc. This is a more novel line of attack than the traditional account but it doesn’t stack up. Ingrams places the emergence of Chesterton’s antisemitism after his first meeting with Belloc, but it predates that encounter — with Chesterton already talking of “Jewish severity” in his earlier journalism.
The desire to present Chesterton as a spineless lackey leads Ingrams to say a number of other things which can easily be disproved. Ingrams writes that “Belloc’s high opinion of Maurras had been duly adopted by Chesterton”; the antisemitism of the French writer Charles Maurras was notorious even in his own time. But on almost the only occasion Chesterton ever mentioned him, in 1930, he wrote “democracy is threatened today… from the pen of Charles Maurras”.
Chesterton was prejudiced, but he cannot be classed with the worst of that era
Indeed, Chesterton had satirised Mussolini’s “march on Rome” in his 1923 book on St Francis of Assisi and protested the burning of books in Germany in his 1933 work on St Thomas Aquinas. Both works are studiously ignored by Ingrams who wants to give the opposite impression and who writes that Chesterton “helped to promote … a more tolerant attitude towards Nazi barbarities”. No evidence for that is offered and Chesterton’s journalism from the Thirties, in which he denounced Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, is left out altogether. Chesterton was prejudiced, but he cannot be classed with the worst of that era.
Ingrams never pauses to ask why Chesterton’s contemporaries did not see him in this unrelentingly negative light. Indeed, they usually made the distinctions of degree which Ingrams tries to collapse. He correctly notes that the high-profile Catholic convert Maurice Baring distanced himself from Belloc over the issue of antisemitism, but not that Baring remained close to Chesterton and corresponded with him during the latter’s own conversion in 1922.
Similarly, Ingrams alleges that Chesterton was unable to break with his younger brother’s influence even after Cecil’s death in 1918. But when Chesterton took over the newspaper the younger man had edited, he sacked Cecil’s virulently antisemitic wife and the tenor of the paper changed greatly. None of this exonerates Chesterton, but there is a difference between making the case against someone and a hatchet job.
Chesterton is even accused of lying about Cecil’s death by suggesting his brother had been killed in action. Ingrams quotes from Chesterton’s Autobiography, so he must have known that Chesterton did nothing of the sort, stating clearly and truthfully in its pages that his brother “died in a hospital in France”.
So who is creating a smokescreen around whom? Who is sweeping what under the carpet? Richard Ingrams is an experienced editor and a published author. He has also dealt with accusations of antisemitism before. In the same 2010 history of English antisemitism which criticised Chesterton, Anthony Julius describes the early Private Eye under Ingrams as publishing a cartoon of a “City of London Festival of Money” featuring “the Church of St Simeon Goldberg-by-Expenses”.
A tenth anniversary collection of Private Eye cartoons Ingrams edited contained other examples with Jewish references. While a 1994 biography of Ingrams, Lord of the Gnomes, by Harry Thompson, with which he appears to have cooperated, contains the index entry “accused of anti-Semitism” for his name and a variety of page references at which different episodes are discussed. A 2003 Guardian column by Ingrams opened with the remark: “I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it.”
Reviewers do well to review books rather than writers, but it is hard not to wonder if this overstated roughing up of GK Chesterton really has nothing to do with at least a bit of a bad conscience on the part of its author.
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