Autobiography (Chesterton)/Chapter XII

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Chapter XI Autobiography
Chapter XII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Chapter XIII



Chapter XII: Some Political Celebrities

On almost every occasion when I have met somebody, I have met somebody else. That is, I have met a private man who was oddly different from the public man. Even when the character was not the very contrary of the caricature, as outlined in the newspapers, I might employ a licence of language, by saying that it was even more contrary than a contrary. I mean that the relation was more subtle, and the reality on another plane; that when after long experience, I discovered with some amazement that a tribute was true, even when the truth was almost the opposite of the tribute. We all rejoiced, for instance, in the chorus of spontaneous tributes to the late King George the Fifth. And yet the very repetition of testimony, about the honesty of his public service, gave an indescribable impression of routine which made the impression incomplete. I only met him once myself, at the house of the late Lord Burnham, where he was shooting; and for what my impression is worth, he certainly did strike me as about as genuine a person as I ever met. But he was genuine in a rather unexpected way. He was not only honest but frank, and so free and easy in his likes and dislikes that he might have been called indiscreet. G.B.S. said truly of his public talks that they were indeed the King's English; the private were also decidedly Plain English. He was anything but the supreme Permanent Official many eulogies implied; he was not like some reliable solicitor in whom family secrets are locked up, or some doctor congested with the silence of professional confidences; he was much more like a little sea-captain, who keeps a certain silence and etiquette on his quarterdeck; but plenty of anecdotes, not to say anathemas, in his cabin. But there is no substitute for meeting a man, even meeting him for an hour or two; it will always tell us when a real distortion of history or legend is beginning. And if it should ever happen that I hear before I die, among the new generations who never saw George the Fifth, that he is being either praised as a strong silent man, or depreciated as a stupid and empty man, I shall know that history has got the whole portrait wrong.

Sometimes I have had even briefer contacts, with even more curious surprises. I talked to the late Marquess Curzon for only about ten minutes, in an accidental crush, though I had been to his house once or twice; he did not seem to mind the crush; he did not even seem to mind the conversation, or to mind me; he was entirely pleasant and good-tempered. And he said the one thing out of a thousand that hardly anybody, including myself, would have expected Curzon to say. He said how heartily he agreed with me that the cries, catcalls, jokes and jeers of the mob at a public-meeting were very much wittier and more worth hearing than the speeches of statesmen from the platform. I had expressed this view in an Illustrated London News article; but he, who was so often the stateliest of statesmen on the most privileged of platforms, would not have occurred to me as the most ardent supporter of the rabble or the buffoon who championed it. Yet it is unquestionably true that he did on many occasions say and do things, that provoked and even created the popular legend of his unpopular attitude. He was the one and only example of an English aristocrat who presented himself as a Prussian aristocrat; and this is very odd, because English aristocrats may often be cynics but are not barbarians. In a word, they are more subtle; but I sometimes fancy that Curzon in some queer way was more subtle than that subtlety. Everyone knows that there was a sort of heroic artificiality about his bodily life; that he sustained his very posture with difficulty; and I suspect that something of that strain turned itself to a sort of stiff and swaggering joke. He came from Oxford when it was the fashion to be a pessimist in philosophy and a reactionary in politics; and rather as the artistic decadents made themselves out worse than they were, he made himself out more undemocratic than he was. It is typical that many of the tales against him are said to have been invented by himself. But in all that I am merely guessing, from a few words said to me by a man who could not have been as stupid as a Prussian; in other cases, in which I had limited but still longer intercourse, I have noticed the same contradiction.

My first illumination, about the contrast between a human being and his political portrait or caricature, came to me with the case of Lord Hugh Cecil. I believe I met him first at the house of Wilfrid Ward, whom I ought to have mentioned long before as an influence enlightening me in many ways; for he had written in the Dublin Review a most sympathetic critique of Orthodoxy, at a time when many of his world must have thought it a piece of rowdy paradox. He laid down the excellent critical test; that the critics could not understand what he liked, but he could understand what they disliked. "Truth can understand error; but error cannot understand Truth." It was through his kindness that I was, at a later stage, made a member of the Synthetic Society, which was justly proud of its continuity with the Society in which the great Huxley could debate with the equally great Ward (called. God knows why, Ideal Ward), and in which I was privileged to meet several very pivotal persons, such as Baron von Hugel and my old friend Father Waggett of Palestinian days. But if it be asked why I mention it here, the answer is rather curious. For some reason, there were very few literary men in this group devoted to philosophy; except Wilfrid Ward himself, who was an excellent editor and expositor. But there were all the better sort of politicians, or those who might have been statesmen. There I met old Haldane, yawning with all his Hegelian abysses; who appeared to me as I must have appeared to a neighbour in a local debating-club, when he dismissed metaphysical depths and pointed at me, saying, "There is that Leviathan whom Thou hast made to take his sport therein." But I never forgot that England betrayed him in charging him with betraying England. There also I met Balfour, obviously preferring any philosophers with any philosophies to his loyal followers of the Tory Party. Perhaps religion is not the opium of the people, but philosophy is the opium of the politicians. All of which brings me back to Lord Hugh Cecil.

In Liberal caricatures, and in all the letter-press of Liberalism generally, Lord Hugh Cecil was always depicted as a mediaeval ascetic; it was all very restrained and refined, or he might have been actually denounced as a saint. "F. C. G." always depicted him in a long cassock and a very Italian-looking biretta; and something like a Gothic stained-glass window was introduced, if possible, as the sort of thing he carried about with him. I absorbed all these things in my simplicity; I could not even then feel so much horror of them as did the clientele of the Daily News; but that made it all the easier to believe that an obviously intellectual gentleman was really in love with mediaeval architecture and authority. And then I happened to meet Lord Hugh Cecil. I met him at the house of Wilfrid Ward, that great clearing-house of philosophies and theologies; for the vast and valuable work of Wilfrid Ward largely turned upon the very fact that he was more fully in sympathy with the Cecils and the Balfours and the rest than I myself could ever have been. I listened to Lord Hugh's very lucid statements of his position; nobody who loves logic could be unimpressed by so logical a mind; and I formed a number of very definite impressions about him. One was that he had many quite individual ideas of his own; another that he regarded all such ideas, including his own, in what has been called a dry light. But the strongest impression I received, was that he was a Protestant. I was myself still a thousand miles from being a Catholic; but I think it was the perfect and solid Protestantism of Lord Hugh that fully revealed to me that I was no longer a Protestant. He was, and probably still is, the one real Protestant; for his religion is intensely real. From time to time, he startles the world he lives in by a stark and upstanding defence of the common Christian theology and ethics, in which all Protestants once believed. For the Protestant world in England today is a very curious and subtle thing, which it would not become me to criticise; but this may be said of it without offence, that while it is naturally a little disturbed by a Protestant accepting Catholicism, it is far more terribly disturbed by any Protestant who still preserves Protestantism. And then I thought of the dear old Radical caricatures of the mediaevalist in the cassock; and laughter came as a relief. Old Kensit was a Jesuit compared with Hugh Cecil; for anti-ritualism is only a riotous form of ritualism; and poor old Kensit actually had the simplicity to be photographed with a crucifix in his hand. I once thought it queer that a Cecil should become famous for a revolt against the Reformation. And I have lived to see such men accused by blatant Jingoism of protecting Germany, as once by blatant Radicalism of favouring Rome. But I lived to realise that Hugh Cecil has been as heroically loyal to his house as to his country. No man has been truer to a tradition than he to the tradition of that great Protestant England, which the genius of the founder of his family established.

It was George Wyndham who once confirmed this notion of mine, by noting what he called the extreme Individualism of Lord Hugh Cecil. The commercial character of that compact and patriotic England of recent centuries had much to do, for instance, with Lord Hugh Cecil being so stubborn a Free-Trader. For he is not only an Old Protestant; this chivalric Tory is also most emphatically an Old Radical. He would have been much more at home in the Manchester School than in the Middle Ages. And I have here dwelt so long on his name, with no other basis than having listened to his luminous conversation, because I do seriously think that he stands at the very centre of that recent civilisation today; and might be called the one strong pillar still upholding the England in which I was born. But George Wyndham's ideas were always flowing in a different direction, as were my own; and they were in a sense marked or measured by our common feeling about this other Conservative statesman. For Wyndham was not a Conservative; he was a Tory; that is, he was capable of being a Jacobite, which is something as rebellious as a Jacobin. He did not merely wish to preserve Protestantism or Free Trade, or anything grown native to the nation; he wanted to revive things older and really more international. And my first impressions of the falsity of the Party System came to me, while I was still a Liberal journalist, in the realisation of how much I agreed with Wyndham and how much Wyndham disagreed with Cecil.

I first met George Wyndham at Taplow, at the house of Lord and Lady Desborough, who had long been very good friends to me as to many literary people of all colours and opinions; and I felt almost immediately that Wyndham's opinions were at least of the same general colour as my own. And if ever there was a man of whom the word "colour" in his opinions and everything else, recurs naturally to the mind, it was he. He also suffered, of course, from the silly simplifications of the political comments and cartoons. Because he happened to have been in the army, he was always depicted as a drawling guardsman; and because he happened to be a handsome man, it was always insinuated that he was merely a ladies' man. In most essential ways it was curiously untrue. Wyndham was very definitely what is called a man's man. He was passionately fond of the particular things that ladies do not generally like; such as sitting up all night to pursue pertinaciously the same interminable argument, upon all sorts of points of detail and pure logic; so that he would not let his guests go till almost daybreak, unless he had settled to his own satisfaction the meaning of "T. T." in Shakespeare's Sonnets; or what were the private expectations of Chaucer touching the publication of Troilus and Cressida. He was not in any sense a dandy; but in so far as he did dress well, he was totally indifferent to how other men who were his friends might dress, which is another mark of purely masculine companionship. He was a good companion in sporting society as in literary society; but in neither was he anything like what is called a society man. He had huge sympathy with gypsies and tramps; and collected many men of letters (including myself) who looked rather like tramps. The inward generosity which gave a gusto or relish to all he did was really at the opposite extreme to all that mere polish, implied by those who slandered him by calling him "charming." He had first written to me some congratulations upon a letter I had sent to the Westminster Gazette on Religious Education; in which, even at that early date, I suggested that many Anglicans felt that Christ is not entirely disconnected from His own Mother. Wyndham was supported in this by the deep natural mysticism of his wife; a woman not to be forgotten by anyone who ever knew her, and still less to be merely praised by anyone who adequately appreciated her. She always showed a most moving curiosity about where I had picked up this passion for what is called Mariolatry in this Protestant land; and I could assure her with truth, though without any complete explanation, that I had had it in some form from boyhood.

It was at Taplow, at the same time as my first meeting with Wyndham, that I also had my first meeting with the late Earl Balfour; but, though I talked to him fairly often on abstract things, I never came to know him thus personally and certainly never to understand him so well. I do not think he was a very easy person to understand. He was, of course, quite an easy person to misunderstand; having all those external features, whether of elegance or eccentricity, which go to make up a public character; that is, a political cartoon. But in his case the caricatures were even more wildly wide of the mark; and I think that the compliments were worse than the caricatures. His foes in the press depicted him as Miss Arthur; and his friends in the press referred to him gracefully as Prince Arthur; and I do not know which of the two was more misleading. There certainly was nothing feminine about him, in the unchivalrous sense in which that word is used for what is silly or weak or wavering; very much the other way. It is typical of these times that he was always criticised as a cloudy and confusing speaker, when he was in fact a remarkably clear speaker; and anybody could follow him who could follow an argument. Only to the Modern Mind it would seem that lucidity is more bewildering than mystification. As for the contemporary pictures of a drooping lily, they might as well have represented his uncle Lord Salisbury as a little broken snowdrop. But there was really something odd about Arthur Balfour. He was always most pleasant and amiable to me; but he had not the general reputation of being pleasant and amiable to everybody. For him alone might have been invented the true definition: "A gentleman is one who is never rude except intentionally." But though he was perhaps an aristocrat to excess, he was not in the least like an ordinary excessive aristocrat. I have met many men of his rank; some arrogant gentlemen; and a few really offensive gentlemen. But they had the simplicity of vanity and ignorance; and the case of Balfour was not simple, as he was not the ordinary bad extreme, nor was he the ordinary good extreme; the good squire or even the good knight. Describing Arthur Balfour as Prince Arthur was far less true than describing George Wyndham as St. George. Wyndham really had that romantic or chivalric touch; in Balfour there was something else that I never understood. I have sometimes thought it was national rather than social. Charles II is often quoted as saying that Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman; it is less often quoted that he also said Anglicanism was no religion for a Christian. But it is odd that his brief and distorted memory of the Scots made him say that Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman, touching the one country where gentlemen were often Presbyterians. Scotland has been much modified by this Puritan creed long ruling among the nobles, like old Argyll of my boyhood's time. And Balfour had something in his blood which I think was the cold ferocity of Calvinism; a bleak streak sometimes felt when the wind changes even in the breezy voyages of Stevenson. The comparison will show that this is without prejudice; for I had from childhood a romantic feeling about Scotland, even that cold flat eastern coast. It may not be believed, but I have played golf as a lad on the links a bowshot from Whittinghame, in the days when ordinary English people asked, "What is golf?" It came with a rush over the Border, like the blue bonnets, a year or two later; and grew fashionable largely because Arthur Balfour was the fashion. Whatever else it was, his spell was a Scottish spell; and his pride was a Scottish pride; and there was something hollow-eyed and headachy about his long fine head, which had nothing in it of the English squires; and suggested to me rather the manse than the castle. Also, as one who went to neither great University, and has many jolly friends from his, very unlike him, I may be allowed to hint that somehow one did think of him as a Cambridge man.

I have known practically nothing of politicians after the Age of Asquith and Balfour; but I had some knowledge of one other who is also a Scottish type and another sort of Scottish enigma. To me the mystery about Mr. James Ramsay MacDonald was this; that when I knew him slightly, in my youth, in the days when we were all Socialists, he had the name of being rather a cold and scientific exponent of Socialism; the more expansive and even emotional sort of eloquence seems to have developed late in life, in quite poetical speeches I have heard from him when we have since sat on the same platform, being supposed to do something to restore Rural England. But I remember when I was emotional and expansive, and full of early enthusiasm for Blatchford's Merrie England, feeling in him a more than Fabian frigidity, as he said (neatly enough) that Blatchford's popularisation was like a man fully explaining a motor-car by describing a wheelbarrow. On the later occasion, he was really deploring with me the ravages of the motor-car; though I can hardly picture him carrying rusticity so far as to be wheeled about like Mr. Pickwick in a wheelbarrow. But perhaps there was always something about him more suited to tranquil and traditional things. When he was still counted a revolutionary Labour leader with a red tie, I heard Balfour refer to him in Parliament with respectful regret; "confessing myself an admirer of the Parliamentary style of the honourable gentleman," and somehow, when I heard those words, I think I knew that the man with the red tie was destined for a National Ministry. Even then, at least, he looked much more like an aristocrat than most aristocrats do.

But these statesmen were not the kind of men, or even the kind of Scotsmen, with whom I tended to linger. I felt much more kinship with the sort of Scot who, even when he was interested in politics, would never really be allowed in practical politics. A splendid specimen of this type of man was Cunninghame Graham. No Cabinet Minister would ever admire his Parliamentary style; though he had a much better style than any Cabinet Minister. Nothing could prevent Balfour being Prime Minister or MacDonald being Prime Minister; but Cunninghame Graham achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham. As Bernard Shaw remarked, it is an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance. Nor can it be said in this case, that the Scots are in a conspiracy to praise each other; for I grieve to say that I heard one of these great statesmen deliver a speech full of the noblest ideals with Cunninghame Graham at my elbow, muttering in my ear in a soft but fierce fashion: "I never could stand a Protestant sermon."

There was a small row or scandal, connected with Cunninghame Graham and his candour in politics, which has always stuck in my memory as a symbol. It explains why I, for one, have always got on much better with revolutionists than with reformers; even when I entirely disagreed with the revolutions or entirely agreed with the reforms. In Ireland it would have been different; but in England, during most of my life, the revolutionists were always Socialists; and in theory, almost always State Socialists. And I had early begun to doubt, and later to deny, the Socialist or any other assumption that involved a complete confidence in the State. I think I had begun to doubt it ever since I met the statesmen. On the other hand, I really did agree with the Liberals on many definite points that had become part of the Liberal programme; such as Home Rule for Ireland and a democratic decentralisation many held to be the death of the Empire. But I always felt, and I still feel, more personal sympathy with a Communist like Conrad Noel than with a Liberal like John Simon; while recognising that both are in their own way sincere. I think the reason is that the revolutionists did, in a sense, judge the world; not justly like the saints; but independently like the saints. Whereas the reformers were so much a part of the world they reformed, that the worst of them tended to be snobs and even the best of them to be specialists. Some of the Liberal specialists, of the more frigid Cambridge type, did faintly irritate me; much more than any mere anarchist or atheist. They seemed so very negative and their criticism was a sort of nagging. One distinguished man, who happened to affect me in this way, was the late J. A. Hobson, not to be confounded with the S. G. Hobson whose excellent economic studies still enlighten our debates; but a most high-minded and public-spirited speaker and writer in his own right. I hesitate to name so honest and earnest a man in a critical spirit; but nobody who recalls, with whatever respect, that gaunt figure and keen and bitter countenance, will pretend that his own spirit was not supremely critical. He was one of the most independent and intelligent of the Liberal critics of Imperialism, and on that point I was wholly with the Liberals; I disliked Imperialism; and yet I almost liked it by the time that Hobson had finished speaking against it. And I remember one occasion when he took the chair at some meeting of or about Aborigines or the native races of the Empire; and he had Cunninghame Graham on his right, while I had the honour of sitting on the other side. Hobson made a very able political speech, but somehow it seemed to me to be a party speech; concerned more for Liberalism than Liberty. I may be wrong; anyhow, I missed something, as he picked holes in the British Empire until it consisted entirely of holes tied together with red tape. And then Cunninghame Graham began to speak; and I realised what was wanting. He painted a picture, a historical picture, like a pageant of Empires; talking of the Spanish Empire and the British Empire as things to be reviewed with an equal eye; as things which brave and brilliant men had often served with double or doubtful effects; he poured scorn on the provincial ignorance which supposes that Spanish Empire-builders or proconsuls had all been vultures of rapine or vampires of superstition; he declared that many of the Spanish, like many of the English, had been rulers of whom any Empire might be proud. And then he traced such figures against the dark and tragic background of those ancient human populations which they had so often either served or conquered in vain.

Now in the course of this speech Cunninghame Graham had occasion to say in passing, touching some local riot and crime; "I have never been able to feel myself that tyrannicide, in certain circumstances, is intrinsically and inevitably indefensible." Will it be believed that there was immediately a horrible howling fuss about these words; that they were the only words of the speech that anybody bothered to remember; that these were only remembered as an execrable example of the frenzy of the foes of the Empire; and that all the funny people on that platform were lumped together as gory regicides who went about drinking the blood of kings? And all the time, I had been saying to myself that Cunninghame Graham at least had been fair to Empires as Empires--whereas J. A. Hobson had not been fair to the British Empire at all. There was nothing particularly unprecedented or preposterous in what the Scottish Socialist had said about tyrannicide, though we may disagree with it for particular moral or religious reasons. He only said what practically all the great Pagans would have said; what all the admirers of Hermodius and Aristogiton would have said; what many Renaissance theorists, Catholic and non-Catholic, would have said; what all the great French Revolutionists would have said; what practically all the classic poets and tragedians down to modern times would have said. It was no more than was implied in a hundred sacred pictures of Judith or a hundred secular praises of Brutus. But Mr. Hobson would have been shocked, I fear, at the faintest suggestion of the killing of an evil king; but he was not in the least shocked at the implied impossibility of the power of a good king, or the modern ignorance of all that men have meant by kingship.

It was the irritant of this irritation, which seemed to me a little local irritation, against any large views either of loyalty or liberty, that slowly estranged me from political liberalism. But it would not be fair to say so, without adding that I did know men, capable of working with the party, who were really full of something that was not liberalism but liberality. Two men of that type remain in my memory; and it is for their sake and in their sense that I say I am a Liberal. One was Augustine Birrell, who enlivened his politics through literature; and the other was the last Gladstonian, G. W. E. Russell, who did it by inheriting the very real religion of Gladstone. They were both very Victorian, as became their generation; but they inherited an appreciation of all the great Victorians, which covered a great variety. Birrell was a Nonconformist with a very rich comprehension of Newman. Russell was a High Churchman with a quite detached admiration of Matthew Arnold. And they both drew out of these deeper and wider things a certain rich repose in humour denied to the mere men of the Party System. I shall never forget the occasion when old Birrell, roused by the rather vulgar refinement of the popular Puritan press, as expressed by a suave editor who patronised the polysyllabic style of Dr. Johnson, rose like a white-maned lion at the dinner-table where the editor had spoken, and told him that if he wanted to understand the style of Dr. Johnson, he should consult the passage in which Dr. Johnson called somebody the son of a bitch. It was spat out with such virile anger that it sounded alarmingly like a personal remark. And I shall never forget the other occasion, in which Russell figured in what might seem the opposite fashion; for Russell was a sleek, slow-moving, heavy man and had the name of a sybarite; but he was never afraid of being in a minority; and he took the chair at a Pro-Boer dinner when Pro-Boers were most unpopular. At the end his health was proposed by Sir Wilfrid Lawson, the celebrated teetotal fanatic, or shall we say enthusiast, who was also a brave man, and could fight for the few. He was by this time an old man; and anyhow, by some accident, he confused the terms of the toast; calling it a vote of thanks; or what not. I only know that, for some reason, the last scene of this dinner is also astonishingly vivid in my memory. For Russell rose like some vast fish, gazing upwards insolently at the ceiling as he always did, and began: "This toast, which Sir Wilfrid Lawson seems to have a post-prandial difficulty in enunciating ..."

There were many others, of course, who were complete exceptions to anything I have said here about the atmosphere of political Liberalism. One to whom I owe more than to most other people was Philip Wicksteed, the Dante lecturer; but there again, the modern mind had been broadened by a study of narrow mediaeval dogmas. But on the whole, I must confess that I reached a point of practical separation; I did not in the least desire to come any nearer to the imperialism of Curzon, or the cynical patriotism of Balfour, or the patriotic pacifism of Cecil; I am not a Conservative, whatever I am; I am certainly not a Unionist, whatever I am; but the general atmosphere of liberality was too illiberal to be endured.

Mr. Lloyd George's Insurance Act roughly marks the moment of my disappearance; for I thought it a step to the Servile State; as legally recognising two classes of citizens; fixed as masters and servants. But a comic coincidence helped it; for I had just written The Flying Inn, containing a verse of violent abuse of Cocoa. After all these years, it can do no harm to mention that a Liberal editor wrote me a very sympathetic but rather sad letter, hoping that no personal attack was meant on some of the pillars of the Party. I assured him that my unaffected physical recoil from cocoa was not an attack on Mr. Cadbury; also that the Praise of Wine was a traditional thing not intended as an advertisement for Mr. Gilbey. So I left the Liberal paper and wrote for a Labour paper, which turned ferociously Pacifist when the War came: and since then I have been the gloomy and hated outcast you behold, cut off from the joys of all the political parties.