Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Francis Chesterton, Gilbert's Wife

Our G.K. Chesterton reading group will discuss the first three chapters of this biography of Frances Chesterton, G.K.'s wife, published by the American Chesterton Society:

The Woman Who Was Chesterton is a love story. But it is also a detective story. And best of all, it is a true story, told here for the the first time. Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a romantic, a writer of detective tales, and a teller of the truth. His own story and the stories he told are becoming better and better known. But what has remained unknown is the story of the most important person in his life: his wife Frances Chesterton.

Nancy Carpentier Brown has done incredible detective work to uncover the mystery of Frances, tracking a figure who managed to leave very few traces of herself.

It is quite likely that as more is discovered about Frances, more biographies will be written of her, and they will be even more complete. But they will all come back to this one:
The Woman Who Was Chesterton.

The title is, of course, a play on The Man Who Was Thursday, one of Chesterton's novels.

Nancy Carpentier Brown, who had previously edited a selection of Frances Chesterton's poems and plays, How Far Is It to Bethlehem, admits that she has somewhat limited resources for this biography because not many of Frances Chesterton's diaries or journals survived. She does have the letters that Frances and Father John O'Connor, Chesterton's model for Father Brown, exchanged which shed some light into their marital relationship. Brown also makes it clear that she is not writing a biography of G.K. Chesterton; she assumes the reader knows the general outline of his life.

This is not a scholarly biography; Brown is trying to describe the personality of Frances Chesterton and her marriage, partnership, and relationship to Chesterton. They were true partners in Chesterton's career: his writing, publishing, speaking; Frances was also a writer, publishing poetry that was admired and set to music. They were also partners in suffering: although they wanted children, they were infertile (Frances' gynecological history is discreetly described) and decided to help children in their extended families and friends rather than adopt (they had dozens of godchildren too). Both suffered chronic illnesses and often had to nurse one another through health crises, hospitalizations, and therapeutic travel.

Brown offered an excellent summary of this book when she wrote this about How Far Is It to Bethlehem?:

Frances Alice Blogg Chesterton spent most of her life in the shadow of her larger than life husband British author Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Subject to gossip and rumors often started by her sister-in-law, Ada Chesterton, Frances chose to keep quietly in the background, letting her husband and others take center stage. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a woman of talent and extraordinary gifts; it shows she had tremendous humility.

Her story is a love story. The love between Gilbert and Frances was romantic. She was his best fan, his most successful marketer, his biggest cheerleader. She took dictation from him; she tied his shoes. She clung to him when her life seemed out of control. She cherished the love poetry he wrote her, holding the words tenderly in her own heart, never sharing the most intimate of them with anyone. She loved him, and he loved her.

For nearly a century, Frances’ story has been hidden amongst the pages of poetry Gilbert wrote, Christmas cards sent to friends, letters to priests and friends stored in library special collections, biographies written by literary contemporaries, and in scattered periodicals and books. Rarely is it known that Frances had her own writing career. Only recently has anyone been aware that she had four books published during her lifetime.

It’s time to bring Frances out of the shadows and into the light. The story of Frances is intimately woven with the story of Gilbert. They worked as a team; they were lovers and friends, writing coaches and companions. They worked, ate, and slept together for 35 years, dependent on each other physically, emotionally and intellectually. One can hardly understand Gilbert without some understanding of Frances.

Gilbert’s story cannot be written without knowing Frances, but up till now, not enough has been known about Frances. This is the moment when that changes. Frances asked Gilbert to keep her out of his autobiography, but she isn’t here to stop us now. Frances is a woman who will come to be respected ever more, as it is discovered just who she really was, and how much she had to do with who Gilbert was.

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