The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce | From "Literary
Converts" | IgnatiusInsight.com
The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce | From Literary
Converts: Spiritual Inspiration In An Age of Unbelief | IgnatiusInsight.com
In 1908 Chesterton produced one of his most influential books.
Orthodoxy, published on 25 September,
was written in response
to a reviewer of his earlier book, Heretics,
who had complained that Chesterton had condemned
the theology and philosophy of others without clearly stating his own. 'With
all the solemnity of youth,' Chesterton wrote, 'I accepted this as a challenge;
and wrote an outline of my own reasons for believing that the Christian theory,
as summarised in the Apostles' Creed, would be found to be a better criticism
of life than any of those that I had criticised. 
Orthodoxy was Chesterton's first
explicitly Christian title and his biographer Maisie Ward considered it so
important that 'more must be said of it than his other published works'. 
Her father, Wilfrid Ward, whose talk at Oxford had done so much to stimulate
Christopher Dawson's interest in Newman, proclaimed it as a major milestone in
the development of Christian thought. In an article on Orthodoxy and its author in the Dublin Review, Ward wrote:
I class his thought — though not his manner — with that of such men
as Burke, Butler and Coleridge ...
The strength of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and the key to its success, was the way the author made the subject
attractive to his readers. Dorothy L. Sayers was a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl
when she first read the book and was inspired and excited by Chesterton's image
of the Church as a heavenly chariot 'thundering through the ages, the dull
heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect'.  This
invigorating vision rekindled her faith at a time when adolescent doubt and
growing disillusionment with the low-church puritanism to which she was
accustomed was threatening to extinguish it. 'In the book called Orthodoxy,' she wrote, 'there were glimpses of this other
Christianity, which was beautiful and adventurous and queerly full of honour.
 She told a friend in later years that, but for Chesterton's vision of
Orthodoxy, she might in her schooldays have abandoned Christianity altogether.
 In 1952 she put the matter more eloquently: 'To the young people of my
generation G. K. C. was a kind of Christian liberator. Like a beneficent bomb,
he blew out of the Church a quantity of stained glass of a very poor period,
and let in gusts of fresh air in which the dead leaves of doctrine danced with
all the energy and indecorum of Our Lady's Tumbler. 
The spectacle of this intensely active and earnest modern intellect ... reminds
us how much that is indispensable in the inheritance of Christendom our own age
has ceased adequately to realise and is in danger of lightly abandoning? 
A few years later Arnold Lunn made the same point. The modern world, he wrote
in 1956, was in danger of overlooking the debt so many people owed to Chesterton,
of forgetting the impact which his books made on the minds of the young men who
were infected by the fallacy of Victorian rationalism'. 
Another writer who was affected profoundly by Orthodoxy was Theodore Maynard who had first read the book as
a nineteen-year-old: 'It still seems to me a most extraordinary work and it
sank deeply into my mind ... Chesterton did not himself enter the Church until
thirteen years later ... long before that he had made a Catholic of me.' 
Theodore Maynard was a minor literary light, never destined to gain the international
reputation of either Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, although he enjoyed a
period of renown as both poet and biographer stretching from the beginning of
the First World War until the end of the Second. Throughout his literary career
he continually acknowledged 'the great influence of G. K. Chesterton upon his
thought and writings and to a lesser extent that of Hilaire Belloc'.  Other
minor literary figures gathering round the flame of orthodoxy around this time
included Ernest Messenger, received in 1908, who gave up his career as a Fleet
Street journalist under T. P. O'Connor to study for the priesthood before
becoming a writer of popular theology and a translator of philosophical works
from the French; Naomi Jacob, who converted the previous year as an
eighteen-year-old, and who was destined to become one of the most prolific and
popular of novelists, writing light fiction chiefly concerned with the delineation
of character; and Lewis Watt, received in 1906 and later becoming a Jesuit, the
author of several books on Catholic social teaching.
It is not clear whether Chesterton's Orthodoxy had any direct influence on Maurice Baring's
imminent conversion but considering his admiration for Chesterton's earlier
works, and his growing fondness for the author, it would be surprising if
Baring had not read Orthodoxy in the months immediately preceding his reception
into the Church on 1 February 1909.
Although Baring had written to Vernon Lee from St Petersburg in January 1906
asking whether Lee had read Chesterton's books, The Napoleon of
Notting Hill and Heretics, and stating that 'I like his ideas',  it seems
that Chesterton and Baring did not become good friends until as late as 1907.
Considering that they had both been friends of Belloc since the turn of the
century, this is surprising. As late as March 1908 Baring was writing to
Chesterton from Moscow requesting a greater intimacy in their relationship:
Dear Gilbert may I leave out the Chesterton?
The slow development of their relationship had a lot to do with Baring's long absences
from England in places as diverse as Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Moscow and Manchuria,
but, once formed, their friendship grew stronger as the years passed.
Eventually Frances Chesterton was to say that 'of all her husband's friends'
there was none he loved better than Maurice Baring.
(Prince, may I call you by your
(Your surname is so solemn & so long:-
Prince may I call
you by your Christian name?)
I hope to be back in London this week.
let us meet & swallow wine & beer.)
I hope to see you very soon on my
(Prince, there is no one like you in the East.)
I hope you & I
& Hilaire may meet. 
Baring was received into the Catholic Church at Brompton Oratory by Father
Sebastian Bowden, the same priest whom Oscar Wilde had approached over thirty
years earlier. The event was recorded in Baring's autobiography, The Puppet
Show of Memory, with the simple statement
that it was 'the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never
regretted'.  Apart from the candour of this solitary statement the event is
passed over without further comment.
Such uncharacteristic reticence is surprising from an author who later fear- lessly
used the medium of his fiction as a means of expressing his faith. However, the
feelings he felt unable or unwilling to express in prose he expressed admirably
in verse, particularly in his sonnet sequence 'Vita Nuova'. Divided into a
chronological trinity, the first sonnet deals with the initial approach to conversion:
'I found the clue I sought not, in the night, While wandering in a pathless
maze of gloom...'
The second sonnet describes the act of conversion itself:
One day I heard a whisper: 'Wherefore wait?
The final sonnet deals with hopes of eternity beyond the grave where 'That
tranquil harbour shines and waits ...' 
Why linger in a separated porch?
nurse the flicker of a severed torch?
The fire is there, ablaze beyond the
Why tremble, foolish soul? Why hesitate?
However faint the knock, it will be
I knocked, and swiftly came the answering word,
Which bade me enter to
my own estate.
I found myself in a familiar place;
And there my broken soul began to mend;
I knew the smile of every long-lost face -
They whom I had forgot remembered me;
I knelt, I knew - it was too bright to
The welcome of a King who was my friend. 
Endeavouring to explain his reasons for conversion he wrote that 'directly I came
to the conclusion inside that
life was for me divine, and that I had inside me an immortal thing in touch
with an Eternal Spirit, there was no other course open to me than to become a Catholic'."
He explained to Ethel Smyth, a close friend and confidante, that his faith was
a fusion of want and need: 'I feel that human life which is almost intolerable
as it is, would be to me quite intolerable without this which is to me no
narcotic but food, air, drink."' It is not surprising, therefore, that
Smyth should describe Baring's conversion as 'the crucial action of his life'
and that when she had been informed of the event she 'had the feeling that the
missing piece of a complicated puzzle, or rather the only key wherewith a given
iron safe could be unlocked, had at last been found'. 
A similar view was held by the French writer Raymond Las Vergnas. In his critical
study of Chesterton, Belloc and Baring, translated into English by Father Martindale,
Las Vergnas wrote that Baring's Christian faith was the 'powerful unifying
force' responsible for 'harmonising the complex tendencies' in his artis- tic
News of Baring's conversion was greeted with jubilation by Hilaire Belloc who
had observed his friend's slow but steady progress over more than a decade.
Three years earlier, on 19 April 1906, Belloc had written a rhyming letter to Baring
offering encouragement as his friend fumbled his way faithwards:
My ardent love
Emma Letley, Baring's biographer, gave her study the title Maurice
Baring: A Citizen of Europe and it is not
difficult to see why. Baring travelled widely throughout Europe as diplomat,
journalist and man of leisure. He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian
and Russian and he was widely read in the literatures of all these languages.
He was the quintessential European. With this in mind, Belloc's words in An
Open Letter on the Decay of Faith,
published in 1906, must have struck Baring with a particular resonance:
Accompanies your soul and on the whole
I doubt if
all the saints could roll your soul
One tittle faster to the Faith than He
made your soul is rolling it. H.B. 
I desire you to remember that we are Europe; we are a great people. The faith
is not an accident among us, nor an imposition, nor a garment; it is bone of
our bone and flesh of our flesh: it is a philosophy made by and making
ourselves. We have adorned, explained, enlarged it; we have given it visible
form. This is the service we Europeans have done to God. In return He has made
us Christians. 
Following Baring's conversion, Belloc wrote a celebratory letter to Charlotte Balfour,
who had been received into the Church herself in 1904: 'They are coming in like
a gathering army from all manner of directions, all manner of men each bringing
some new force: that of Maurice is his amazing accuracy of mind which proceeds
from his great virtue of truth.' 
Belloc's profound gratitude at the gathering army of converts belonged, at least
in part, to the work of his friend G. K. Chesterton. More than any writer in the
first decade of the century Chesterton had taken on the secularists, doing battle
with 'heretics' such as Shaw and Wells with a good-natured joviality which was
infectious. Chesterton's Christianity was catching and through his piercing
paradoxes and quixotic enthusiasm many were beginning to discoved the
attraction of orthodoxy.
 G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography,
London, 1936, p. 177.
 Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, p. 181.
 Maisie Ward, Resurrection
versus Insurrection, London, 1937, p. 206.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy,
London, 1908, p. 169.
 Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her
Life and Soul, London, 1993, p. 57.
 ibid., p. 74.  Dorothy L. Sayers, Preface to Chesterton's play, The
Surprise, London, 1952, p. 5.
Lunn, Now I See, London, 1956, p.
 John A. O'Brien (ed.), The Road To Damascus, London, 1949, p. 114.
 ibid., p. 105.
Chesterton Review, Vol. XIX, No. 1,
February 1988, p. 2.
 Emma Letley, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of
Europe, p. 140.
 Maurice Baring, The
Puppet Show of Memory, London, 1922, pp.
 Maurice Baring, Collected Poems, London, 1925, pp. 65-6.
 ibid., p. 67.
 Emma Letley, Maurice Baring: A Citizen of Europe, p. 144.
 ibid., p. 144.
 Ethel Smyth, Maurice
Baring, London, 1938, pp. 39-40.
 Raymond Las Vergnas, Chesterton, Belloc, Baring, London, 1938, p. 95.
 Robert Speaight (ed.), Letters
from Hilaire Belloc, London, 1958, p. 7.
 Karl G. Schmude, Hilaire Belloc: His Life and Legacy, Melbourne, Australia, 1978, p. 5.
Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, London, 1957, p. 245.
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British author Joseph Pearce has
firmly established himself as the premier literary biographer of our time,
especially in interpreting the spiritual depths of the Catholic literary
tradition. He has written biographies of Chesterton, Belloc, Oscar Wilde, and several others. His new book,
The Quest for Shakespeare, is a
provocative biography of the world's most revered writer. He is also the editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions.
For more about Pearce and his books, visit his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
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