When the BBC showed their new series of GK Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries in January, featuring the lovably familiar mug of Mark Williams, better known in the comforting role of dear Mr Weasley, I felt that at last I would acquaint myself with Chesterton. I have come across him before in passing – either in his relation to CS Lewis, a figure who hovered over my growing up like an ancestor, or as a patron saint of the literary journal where I worked for six months – but was never familiar with his work.
But this BBC incarnation - which, to my surprise, has received a commission for a second series – is no way to get to know the clerical sleuth or his author. Even before I read a single Father Brown story, it was clear that the adaptation was dull, blunted, amplified, and misshapen. With additions and new characters to stretch out Chesterton’s jewels into forty-five minute segments, the series drafted a Keep Calm and Carry On tea-and-bunting brigade, resetting the stories in the post-war years (twenty or so years too late), adding various village caricatures to make up an ensemble cast. Much better were the radio dramatizations which were aired on BBC radio 4 simultaneously.
Nevertheless, I found my way to Father Brown – the real Father Brown – through Borges, whose own stories and paradoxes exist because of Chesterton. If Chesterton seemed dumpy at first, Borges’ sleek cosmopolitanism tempted me to reconsider. With Borges’ commendation in mind, I checked out a homely relic of the Father Brown stories published in 1929 with a gradually fracturing spine. (The English Faculty Library has decided Chesterton is just as worthy as disregarding as the popular press, as Penguin has recently reissued the complete stories and there were no other editions of the stories available). No biographies, and very few critical studies, seemed to be on the shelves. Despite Chesterton occupying a significant place between Wilde and modernism, with pockets of De Quincey, Dickens, and Poe, there is silence. When I mentioned to my tutors that I was reading him – avidly, hungrily, almost narcotically – they were all delighted but quizzical. Why Chesterton?
Despite the BBC series and its evident popularity, there has been a telling lack of critical response in the papers, a moribund silence emphasizing Chesterton as being determinately out of fashion. The kind of moral certainty found in the Father Brown stories – searing, uncompromising, profoundly Roman Catholic (and with tinges of unwelcome political analysis, if Christopher Hitchens is to be believed) – is unacceptable in a society which misreads it as offensively fundamentalist and as a vehicle for proselytising.
Instead, Chesterton’s Catholicism attracts me by its polar strangeness. For all the stories’ modernist setting – indeed, spiritualists and Freudians are often drafted in as the spooks – and his own intuition, Brown believes in reason, uncovering a criminal masquerading as a priest by saying that any priest who preached against reason could not be authentic; it would be bad theology. Brown is knowingly old-fashioned, even flamboyantly old-fashioned. Chesterton’s Catholicism – or rather, the Catholicism made vivid in Brown – is something fierce and iron-like, uncompromising. Take his announcement in ‘The Wrong Shape’ that in the crime there was a
‘twisted, ugly, complex quality that does not belong to the straight bolts either of heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man’.
His declarations display a moral strength which is heroic and entirely out of place in our world of hedging and clarifications, but is as impressive as a wrought iron construction, with its visible slivers of air around the bars. I admire it as a made, a resistant thing.
The stories are brief and crystalline. They are halls of mirrors which rebound in likenesses, duplication, sleight of hands, tricks, illusions. Reading them continually teaches one to look backwards and upside down, becoming eager to invert and rearrange. The mystery genre condenses into a conundrum, a fuse of the mystical and the logical. Brown’s world is one where blood is controlled and aesthetic and the atmosphere is lurid. Sex is largely absent, or unbelievable. Rape never happens, nor mutilation. This genre it is a celibate form, although it can be endlessly reworked, like a machine, an algorithm, an equation. (Hitchens called this ‘scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley’, but I read them straight through. It’s comparable, perhaps, to those who complain – falsely – that Jane Austen wrote the same book six times.)
These stories are also romance: Brown does not age, has no childhood, but rather always returns to his parish in Essex or to London, his courts. But one can build up fondness for this unobtrusive, unselfconscious, shabby man – whose face is described as being ‘as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling’ – during the sequence, and for his rangy Continental friend Flambeau.
It seemed like a pity to devour all of them in one go. I felt I should perhaps pace myself to avoid the terrible moment at which there are no more to read. And yet, I came across a volume of the complete stories for £2 at a second hand store. It had Mark Williams’ BBC-fied face – alas – on the cover. And yet, inside there were another twelve stories I hadn’t come across. For the 1929 volume had not the advantage of Chesterton's 1936 compilation, The Scandal of Father Brown. A reprieve.