Chesterton, the "notorious anti-feminist"

From Chesterton, Belloc, Baring (1936)
By Raymond Las Vergnas

IF MARRIAGE is merely a contract, then the union between two spouses falls back into being a capricious, because commercial, alliance. The moment incompatibility becomes evident, divorce flings wide the prison-gates. The Family is disintegrated; the children are distributed according to the legality of the claims. Such is the disastrous effect of the Contract-theory. On the other hand, let divorce be forbidden, let the heroic nobility of the Oath be rediscovered, and Marriage will become again what it should never have ceased to be—an act of Faith and a Sacrament.

In that happy country which Chesterton, by studying the past, could project into the future, in that blessed Family where parents and children are as one, a high place is reserved for the Woman. But in no ‘feminist’ sense. Few writers more than Chesterton have scoffed at the attempts of the modern woman to be no more a woman. The ‘suffragette’ tends to be but a hybrid, halfway between wife and husband, and inspired him with none but the most vivacious jests. Not that he was at all blind to the heavy burden bound by a pro-masculine society on the weaker sex, which was, indeed too often sacrificed. But his argument moves us precisely because of its paradoxical justness. Woman is wrong, he considers, to try to adapt herself to society by making a man of herself. The contrary should come about—Society should adapt itself to womanhood by becoming gentler. To Feminists, he acknowledges that women undergo a revolting tyranny in factories; but he wanted to destroy the factories, while they, he felt, were content with destroying womanhood.

The return of Woman to her original condition—tending her home and bringing up her children, was not imposed upon Chesterton by any vague contempt for the intellectual or practical potentialities of a wife. Domestic life, in the noblest sense of the word, seemed to him the best possible adornment for the mind and the perfection of the heart’s virtues. What praise for the very nature of woman is the comparison between her and the Church of God—that ‘everlasting Handmaid’! A wife is, too, a modest working-woman, and there exists no vocation ‘more generous, more perilous, and more romantic.’ This romance of humility, this adventurousness of the humdrum, are characteristic of the way in which the essayist thinks of the Family. When he prays that Society shall allow the wife to be not only the soul but the very body of the Home, he is, in reality, rendering the highest homage to the Mistress of the House—a desire, not for superiority, nor even equality, but simply for being there. He recognises the helplessness of the husband, the moment he is reduced to being alone. He declares that he is at all points dependent on his ‘help-meet.’ He owns that what is best in man is the reflection of his ante-natal life in his mother’s womb: and this notorious anti-feminist could write these subtle lines to the glory of Woman:
“Every man is womanized, merely by being born. They talk of the masculine woman; but every man is a feminized man.” (Orthodoxy)
The virtues of the Family and Home, due to free choice and limitation, form the basic cell of the social organism. Banish the spirit of Home, and you suppress the very possibility of a sanely constituted society.

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Source: Excerpt from Chesterton, Belloc, Baring by Raymond Las Vergnas. Sheed & Ward, New York; 1936. The three studies contained in this book originally appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The studies were slightly amplified and translated by C.C. Martindale, S.J., for publication in a single volume. 


Poem: "The Myth of Arthur"

O learned man who never learned to learn,
Save to deduce, by timid steps and small,
From towering smoke that fire can never burn
And from tall tales that men were never tall.
Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
Of whom men say 'He could strike giants down'?
Or what strong memories over time's abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
Who hold, unheeding this immense impact,
Immortal story for a mortal sin;
Lest human fable touch historic fact,
Chase myths like moths, and fight them with a pin.
Take comfort; rest—there needs not this ado.
You shall not be a myth, I promise you.

~G.K. Chesterton

Poem: A Wedding in War-time

Our God who made two lovers in a garden,
And smote them separate and set them free,
Their four eyes wild for wonder and wrath and pardon
And their kiss thunder as lips of land and sea:
Each rapt unendingly beyond the other,
Two starry worlds of unknown gods at war,
Wife and not mate, a man and not a brother,
We thank thee thou hast made us what we are.

Make not the grey slime of infinity
To swamp these flowers thou madest one by one;
Let not the night that was thine enemy
Mix a mad twilight of the moon and sun;
Waken again to thunderclap and clamour
The wonder of our sundering and the song,
Or break our hearts with thine hell-shattering hammer
But leave a shade between us all day long.

Shade of high shame and honourable blindness
When youth, in storm of dizzy and distant things,
Finds the wild windfall of a little kindness
And shakes to think that all the world has wings.
When the one head that turns the heavens in turning
Moves yet as lightly as a lingering bird,
And red and random, blown astray but burning,
Like a lost spark goes by the glorious word.

Make not this sex, this other side of things,
A thing less distant than the world's desire;
What colour to the end of evening clings
And what far cry of frontiers and what fire
Fallen too far beyond the sun for seeking,
Let it divide us though our kingdom come;
With a far signal in our secret speaking
To hang the proud horizon in our home.

Once we were one, a shapeless cloud that lingers
Loading the seas and shutting out the skies,
One with the woods, a monster of myriad fingers,
You laid on me no finger of surprise.
One with the stars, a god with myriad eyes,
I saw you nowhere and was blind for scorn:
One till the world was riven and the rise
Of the white days when you and I were born.

Darkens the world: the world-old fetters rattle;
And these that have no hope behind the sun
May feed like bondmen and may breed like cattle,
One in the darkness as the dead are one;
Us if the rended grave give up its glory
Trumpets shall summon asunder and face to face:
We will be strangers in so strange a story
And wonder, meeting in so wild a place.

Ah, not in vain or utterly for loss
Come even the black flag and the battle-hordes,
If these grey devils flee the sign of the cross
Even in the symbol of the crossing swords.
Nor shall death doubt Who made our souls alive
Swords meeting and not stakes set side by side,
Bade us in the sunburst and the thunder thrive
Earthquake and Dawn; the bridegroom and the bride.

Death and not dreams or doubt of things undying,
Of whose the holy hearth or whose the sword;
Though sacred spirits dissever in strong crying
Into Thy hands, but Thy two hands, O Lord,
Though not in Earth as once in Eden standing,
So plain again we see Thee what thou art,
As in this blaze, the blasting and the branding
Of this wild wedding where we meet and part.

~G.K. Chesterton

Elegy in a Country Churchyard

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.

~G.K. Chesterton


"And a high old time we are having”

“IT is the time of big business; it is also the time of big bankruptcy, of big debts, of big bodies of unemployed, of a big shortage of houses, and a big blank in the minds of politicians. Ours is the time of all these things; and a high old time we are having.”

~G.K. Chesterton: in G.K.s Weekly.


"Presidents and problems"

"All good Americans wish to fight the representatives they have chosen. All good Englishmen wish to forget the representatives they have chosen. This difference, deep and perhaps ineradicable in the temperaments of the two peoples, explains a thousand things in their literature and their laws. The American national poet praised his people for their readiness 'to rise against the never-ending audacity of elected persons.' The English national anthem is content to say heartily, but almost hastily, 'Confound their politics,' and then more cheerfully, as if changing the subject, 'God Save the King.' For this is especially the secret of the monarch or chief magistrate in the two countries. They arm the President with the powers of a King, that he may be a nuisance in politics. We deprive the King even of the powers of a President, lest he should remind us of a politician. We desire to forget the never-ending audacity of elected persons; and with us therefore it really never does end. That is the practical objection to our own habit of changing the subject, instead of changing the ministry. The King, as the Irish wit observed, is not a subject; but in that sense the English crowned head is not a King. He is a popular figure intended to remind us of the England that politicians do not remember; the England of horses and ships and gardens and good fellowship....

"The popularity of a President in America is exactly the opposite. The American Republic is the last mediaeval monarchy. It is intended that the President shall rule, and take all the risks of ruling. If the hair is cut he is the haircutter, the magistrate that bears not the razor in vain. All the popular Presidents, Jackson and Lincoln and Roosevelt, have acted as democratic despots, but emphatically not as constitutional monarchs. In short, the names have become curiously interchanged; and as a historical reality it is the President who ought to be called a King."

~G.K. Chesterton: from What I Saw in America, "Presidents and Problems." (1921)

"The spirit and the period of Nicholas Nickleby"

"IF we wish to understand the spirit and the period of Nicholas Nickleby we must endeavour to comprehend and to appreciate the old more decisive remedies, or, if we prefer to put it so, the old more desperate remedies. Our fathers had a plain sort of pity; if you will, a gross and coarse pity. They had their own sort of sentimentalism. They were quite willing to weep over Smike. But it certainly never occurred to them to weep over Squeers. Even those who opposed the French war opposed it exactly in the same way as their enemies opposed the French soldiers. They fought with fighting. Charles Fox was full of horror at the bitterness and the useless bloodshed; but if any one had insulted him over the matter, he would have gone out and shot him in a duel as coolly as any of his contemporaries. All their interference was heroic interference. All their legislation was heroic legislation. All their remedies were heroic remedies. No doubt they were often narrow and often visionary. No doubt they often looked at a political formula when they should have looked at an elemental fact. No doubt they were pedantic in some of their principles and clumsy in some of their solutions. No doubt, in short, they were all very wrong; and no doubt we are the people, and wisdom shall die with us. But when they saw something which in their eyes, such as they were, really violated their morality, such as it was, then they did not cry "Investigate!" They did not cry "Educate!" They did not cry "Improve!" They did not cry "Evolve!" Like Nicholas Nickleby they cried "Stop!" And it did stop."

~G.K. Chesterton: Introduction to Nicholas Nickleby.

From Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens.

Nicholas thrashes Squeers at Dotheboys Hall.
(Image swiped from The Charles Dickens Page)