Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton-Admiration in Many Forms

By Kujawska-Lis, Ewa | Dickens Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Charles Dickens and G. K. Chesterton-Admiration in Many Forms


Kujawska-Lis, Ewa, Dickens Quarterly


That G. K. Chesterton was an ardent admirer of Dickens's talents is well known among Dickensian scholars. His two major works, Charles Dickens (1906) and Appreciation and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens, published in book form in 1911, and previously as prefaces to Dickens's novels, are considered classics of Dickens criticism, among the best ever written, according to Peter Ackroyd (184) and Ian Kerr (ccxlvi). Chesterton refused to focus on the "Dark" Dickens and wrote enthusiastically about his comic achievements and unusually fertile imagination. Although Chesterton exaggerated the impact of Dickens's work on Victorian England and on its institutions, his discussion of the structure of the novels and their formal features was often ahead of its times. Despite his tendency to link fictional characters with their apparent originals, he succeeded in conveying the idea that Dickens was not merely recreating reality, but creating his own with reworked images of what he had personally experienced in the real world.

However, Chesterton's appreciation of Dickens is far from being confined to his critical studies. On the contrary, echoes of his admiration can be found elsewhere, particularly in the five volumes of Father Brown detective stories published between 1911 and 1929. In some respects untypical of the genre, the stories about Father Brown portray a detective who, as a Catholic priest, is often more concerned with saving a soul than with seeing the criminal imprisoned. In their moral atmosphere, most of the stories have been compared to that of Dickens's novels (Dale 158). With an emphasis on confession and repentance, the stories tend to disseminate Catholic theology and the priest-detective solves puzzles not so much by reasoning and analyzing clues, but rather by following insights based on a flash or on a sudden epiphany. Another striking feature of the Father Brown stories is the quality of their language. Abounding in numerous poetic devices, this cycle departs from conventional detective fiction, where characterization and narration are secondary to solving the mystery according to the rules of reason and logic. The mysteries in Chesterton's stories incorporate the idea of the "unfamiliar in the familiar" that has been linked to The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dale 158), whereas their style has been described by P. D. James as "richly complex, imaginative, vigorous, poetic" (James xiv).

Of the literary devices one finds, intertextual allusions are the most common, employed generally to prompt readers to decode the intended meaning on the basis of larger frames of reference than textual clues provided by the narrator. This practice is neither infrequent nor limited to any particular background and ranges widely to include the Bible, mythology, English and French literature and fantastic stories of the Far East. In "The Blue Cross," Hercule Flambeau, the eminent criminal, is compared to the mythological colossus, whereas the result of his quitting his profession is likened to "a great quiet upon the earth" after the death of Roland, which clearly refers to La Chanson de Roland. In "The Eye of Apollo," as the title itself suggests, mythological allusions predominate. The intrigue in "The Strange Crime of John Boulnois" is based on the staging of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The original lovers are played by the "false" ones: Mrs. Boulnois (a professional actress) and Sir Claude Champion (her husband's rival, who attempts to seduce her). Chesterton reverses the original situation of the play; and yet, as in Shakespeare's tragedy, the false Romeo stabs himself, although he intends his death to look like a murder. In this story, Sir Champion is also compared to Haroun Alraschid from The Arabian Nights. Additionally, there are allusions to Poe's "The Raven" and to Sir Walter Scott, and frequent Biblical references. Biblical allusions are scattered all over "The Queer Feet," where there are direct quotations from the Bible and certain passages are reworked to contain implicit allusions.

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