Thursday, September 6, 2012

More Life Than Biography: Chesterton on Cobbett

G.K. Chesterton's short life of William Cobbett, author of Rural Rides and The History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland contains, of course, some of Chesterton's famous paradoxical turns of phrase. One of my favorites comes in the penultimate chapter, "The Rural Rider": "Even the most elementary sketches of Cobbett have tended to give too much of his biography and too little of his life." (p. 82 of the IHS Press edition).

Chesterton really enshrines paradox--or seeming contradiction--as the method of this study of William Cobbett, for he says: "It is the paradox of his life that he loved the past, and he alone lived in the future. . . . he seemed like a survival and a relic of times gone by. And he alone was in living touch with the times that were to come."

Certainly Cobbett's reinterpretation of the English Reformation expressed great contradiction; contradiction of all that Englishmen had been taught about the 16th century: “He seemed to be calling black white, when he declared that what was white had been blackened, or that what seemed to be white had only been whitewashed.” Cobbett called Elizabeth I, "Bloody Bess" and Mary I, "Good Queen Mary"--and people reading his work knew that Elizabeth I had been Bloody, "if pursuing people with execution and persecution and torture makes a person bloody" and that Mary I had been good, "if certain real virtues and responsibilities make a person good" -- as Chesterton notes, "It was not really Cobbett's history that was in controversy; it was his controversialism. It was not his facts that were challenged, it was his challenge."

Dale Ahlquist of the American Chesterton Society provides a "lecture" on Chesterton's William Cobbett here, noting that "Chesterton’s books about others are really about himself. The qualities he admired in these indeed admirable characters were qualities that we immediately recognize in Chesterton. This is especially true of William Cobbett." So if you are interested in knowing more about either Cobbett or Chesterton, I recommend this book.

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