The England of G. K. Chesterton: Patriotism, Christianity, and National Identity in Twentieth-Century Britain

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Government and International Affairs


A new study of Chesterton is important to a number of central and interrelated concerns in the historiography of twentieth-century Britain at present. The issue of the Victorians in the twentieth century has much exercised historians recently. It was the subject of a landmark study edited by Peter and Susan Pedersen in 1994 and an international conference at the Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies last July. The question of English and British national identity and patriotism since the late-nineteenth century remains high on the agenda of historiographical debate, most notably through recent works by Krishan Kumar, Jonathan Clark, and Robert Colis. All three historians emphasis Chesterton's importance in developing the populist undercurrents of English identity in this period and enhancing national self-consciousness; but a detailed exploration of his work as a prophet of English nationhood, its basis, impact and historical legacy has yet to be undertaken. Similarly, J.H. Grainger's book, Patriotisms: Britain, 1900-1940 (1 986) well succeeds in eliciting Chesterton's contribution to the 'noisy' atmosphere of Edwardian patriotism. But there remains much scope for elaboration, not least in relation to the tension between the discourses of citizenship and patriotism that I have worked out in a recent article in The Historical Journal. Finally, the study of literary journalism in early-twentieth century Britain as a key channel of political debate and opinion has continued to thrive under the influence of John Gross's The Rise and Faff of the English Man of Letters (1969), with recent articles in the Journal of Victorian Culture by Mauriello and Macleod.

My main aims and objectives are to demonstrate how Chesterton's writings

represent a moment of English national identity that clashed with the largely secular discourse of citizenship propagated by the intellectual and cultural elite in early-twentieth century Britain; also racial conceptions of England

played a significant role in shaping English self-understanding and identity in the twentieth-century and beyond, despite the increasing secularisation of the national culture

sustained in altered guises the tradition of the late-Victorian man of letters as public moralist well beyond the Edwardian period complicate existing understandings of the boundary between the Victorian and the modern in twentieth-century Britain
helped to raise the 'English' profile of Roman Catholicism in Britain between the wars

have been misjudged by contemporary writers and critics with 'modernising' agendas

1 Potential Applications and Benefits

This research bears directly upon the public debate about the nature of national identity and patriotism in England and Britain that has intensified in recent months. Chesterton's conception of the English nation as the 'Secret People'- averse to both domination and being dominated- and his advocacy of patriotism have left a permanent mark on the national culture. This has been recognised recently by the writer and critic; Patrick Wright in The guardian Review and_- subsequently the journal, surroundings but Wright has fundamentally misunderstood Chesterton and his admirers as mindless reactionaries. This study offers a richer, more balanced view of Chesterton's patriotism and his English vision.
In addition, this research will go some way to correcting the lacuna in studies of early twentieth century literature that Chris Baldick has recently highlighted in volume 10 of the Oxford Literary History, The Modern Movement. As he argues, current preoccupations with Modernism and Modernists in English Studies have effectively sidelined non-Modernist authors such as Chesterton, whose influence was far greater than some of the major Modernist figures. As Chesterton's prose works and poems cannot be divorced from the controversy he continually courted through journalism, my study will contribute to a wi


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Description 1)The project emphasises the close interaction between Chesterton's political and religious thought, showing how his Christian and Liberal convictions crystallized simultaneously in response to the Jameson Raid and the Boer War. These convictions became focused in the notion of 'boundaries' and 'edges', underpinning his rejection of pantheism, imperialism, and cosmopolitanism. While some Chesterton scholars have been sensitive to his early preoccupation with 'frames', they have attributed it to a latent Roman Catholic concern with dogma rather than the wider influences of Liberal politics and English patriotism.

2)The project emphasises Chesterton's early life in late-Victorian London as the foundation of his keen sense of Englishness. This was rooted in an ancestral Liberalism, on the one hand, and close contact with a developing canon of English literature, on the other. His reaction to the second trial of Dreyfus sharpened his English loyalties in ways not previously noted. The project further links his English identity to a wider movement of popular patriotism centred on England at the turn of the century.

3)The project emphasises the close link between Chesterton's journalism and his readerships. Initially, he helped to focus Liberal opinion beyond its national elite among the growing suburban classes who read the Daily News. His connection with the Illustrated London News over three decades proved pivotal in strengthening his patriotism and ideal of nationhood; both were criticised heavily, not least in advanced Liberal organs such as The Nation.

4)The project emphasises Chesterton's complex relationship with Liberalism as a product of his disillusion with the Liberal government before 1914. In his view the collusion of the Government with plutocracy and its readiness to exercise the disciplinary powers of the state across a range of legislation posed a grave threat to liberty.

5)The project shows that Chesterton's reaction against modernism should not be interpreted as a reaction against modernity. It underlines his embrace of the modern world - its people, invention, and some -at least - of its ideals.

6)The project emphasises the weak ground of his patriotism during the First World War in drawing a moral parallel between Germany and England. However, it also shows that he retreated from this position in the early 1920s, at the same time emphasising the future of the English as a 'heroic' rather than revolutionary people. The interwar period witnessed the 'inward' turn of English national identity away from the celebration of national power associated with much Edwardian patriotism; in this, the project shows, he felt some sense of vindication, while continuing to lament the failure of the English to destroy plutocracy.

7)The project underlines Chesterton's significance in countering the view that patriotism merely defends raison d'etat. It also emphasises that his anti-Semitism did not define his sense of Englishness. In addition, the project finds echoes of his narratives of England in the work of the popular historian, Arthur Bryant. This suggests a wider channel of his influence immediately after his death than that which ran, for example, through A.R. Orage.
Exploitation Route The book at the centre of this research is relevant to a growing interest in what has become known as 'The English Question'. This is rooted in the constitutional imbalance within the United Kingdom created by the failure to secure comparable representation of England to that of Scotland and Wales in the devolution settlement of 1999. In these circumstances, the question of England's status as a nation has exercised many commentators. The research focuses on a prominent literary figure of the early part of the twentieth century who identified strongly with England and wrote extensively about its distinct identity as a nation. But while the reference to the people which 'dare not speak its name' in his poem 'The Secret People' (1907) is widely quoted, his antipathy towards parliamentary government is less familiar. As the research shows, it is unlikely that he would have supported a separate English parliament; this would have been because of, not in spite of, his commitment to democracy. Chesterton's legacy is more effectively invoked against journalists and commentators who regard English identity as weak and ineffective relative to that of other nations, both within and outside the United Kingdom. Chesterton emphasised the 'subconscious' existence of England as a nation, much in keeping with the claim of a later writer, George Orwell. This did not mean that English nationhood was inferior to other forms of nationhood; indeed, quite the opposite.

Chesterton's legacy underlines the continuing chasm between popular politics and elites on the 'English question'. The research emphasises the importance he attached to patriotism as an integral feature of democracy, a patriotism focused on the nation against the 'modernizing' structures of the state, on the one hand, and the international machinery of government and civil society, on the other. The priority he gave to the nation against the state has been reversed recently by the social commentator Patrick Wright. Wright criticises Chesterton as the voice of political reaction and of the narrow mindset of the people he championed. Yet Chesterton's writings speak compellingly of the problem of tyranny once nations are discounted. For all his anti-political bias - a bias that is emphasised in the book's conclusion - his insights into nationhood would serve organisations such as the Campaign for an English Parliament well. His work especially underscores the close relationship between democracy and the nation in advanced political societies, as against democracy and nationalism. In Chesterton's view, nationalism is anti-modern in seeking a return to tribalism. By contrast, the nation is the quintessence of modernity, if not of the metropolitan, imperialist phase of modernism at the end of the nineteenth century. For Chesterton, nations are most modern in providing the cornerstone of the individuality and humanity of their members, despite their roots in antiquity

This research on Chesterton has much to contribute to the kind of critical discussion that takes place in think tanks such as Open Democracy and Open Europe concerning the relationship between nation-states and the nations they purport to represent.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government/ Democracy and Justice