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Chesterton, Cecil (1879-1918)
by Gaipa, Mark


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Cecil Chesterton 1879-1918

Born in Kensington (London) to a middle-class family of bohemian and Unitarian leanings, Chesterton is perhaps best known as the younger brother of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who is rumored to have said, upon Cecil's birth, “now I shall always have an audience.” Even as a youth, however, Chesterton was intent on conducting arguments and not just receiving them; he would grow up into a man whose talent and contentious spirit earned J. Chesterton Squire's high praise: “there was no better arguer, no abler journalist, in England” (120). Biographers have noted the young Chesterton's fondness for dirt and cockroaches, in addition to argumentation, reading, and—over time—socialist politics and Swinburnian verse. He was educated, in London, at Colet Court, St. Paul's School, and the Slade School of Art; he also studied to be a surveyor (in line with the family business) before he embarked on a career in Fleet-street journalism, contributing articles to a variety of London weeklies and dailies.

Riches did not follow, which may have strengthened Chesterton's standing commitment to socialism. In 1901 Chesterton joined the Fabian Society and the Christian Social Union; in 1904, he was elected to the Fabian Executive Committee. He lost his seat in 1907, probably due to his alienating many of its female members, but also perhaps to his eccentric efforts to wed Fabian Socialism with Christianity and Toryism.

From 1907-1911, Chesterton worked almost exclusively for The New Age and became a regular and important contributor. In the first volume under Orage, Chesterton took turns with Holbrook Jackson and Clifford Sharp in composing “The Outlook,” the unsigned lead-off section of the paper that covered the week's current events and that Orage, in later volumes, would himself compose under the heading “Notes of the Week.” Chesterton's signed contributions to the first nine volumes include numerous articles offering a socialist perspective on various issues and problems: e.g., “Socialism and the Soldier” (01.13:198), “Socialism and the Drink Supply” (04.08:157), and “Liberty and Socialism” (05.11:215). In many of these articles, Chesterton sought to defend socialism against criticisms leveled against it by Belloc and his brother. Chesterton's writing for The New Age also addressed issues of equality, democracy, competition, and ownership. In the second half of Volume 4 (Jan.-Apr. 1909), Chesterton assumed the role of the paper's drama critic, and in later years he authored continuing series on topics like “How the Rich Rule Us” (07.13:295) and “The Decline and Fall of the Labour Party” (09.02:28).

In 1911, Chesterton left the NA to become assistant editor on Belloc's new weekly, The Eye-Witness. When the Eye-Witness folded in 1912, Chesterton bought the paper and renamed it the New Witness, summoning his friend Ada Jones to become his editorial assistant. The New-Witness, like its predecessor, sought—sometimes recklessly—to expose corruption at all levels of government. Such practices nearly destroyed Chesterton's career when, in the Marconi Trial, he was found guilty of libel (but—in an apparent triumph for clean government—fined only a hundred pounds). With the onset of WW1, the New Witness shifted its attacks to opponents of the war, and Chesterton—along with his brother—produced anti-German propaganda for the government.

As Chesterton aged, he was drawn ever more toward religious orthodoxy—first exchanging, in his early 20's, his Unitarian upbringing with membership in the Church of England, and then, a decade later, undergoing a conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1912. This orthodoxy may have found unfortunate expression in the increasingly bitter and anti-semitic tenor of Chesterton's writing for the New Witness.

In 1916, before Chesterton went off to war, Ada Jones finally consented to marry him, thus concluding their sixteen-year courtship. Chesterton was wounded three times, and in December 1918 his wife managed to be at Chesterton's side when he died of pneumonia in a military hospital in Paris. “He was never happy except when discussing an intellectual problem,” Squire recalls; “I should not be surprised to learn that even during his last illness he expounded theology or politics to the doctors at his bedside” (120).

—Mark Gaipa

Sources

  • Mrs. Cecil Chesterton (Ada Jones). The Chestertons (1941).
  • Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Broccard Sewell. Cecil Chesterton (1975)
  • Solomon Eagle (J. Chesterton Squire). Books in General, Third Series (1921).

Selected Works by Chesterton

  • Gladstonian Ghosts (1905)
  • G. K. Chesterton: A Criticism (1908)
  • The Party System (co-authored with Belloc) (1911)
  • A History of the United States (1919)
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