The Woman Who Was Chesterton: The Life of Frances Chesterton, Wife of English Author G.K. Chesterton. By Nancy Carpentier Brown, ACS Books, 2015.
(Full disclosure alert: Nancy Carpentier Brown is a colleague and friend of mine. I have not let my friendship with the author affect the content of my review.)
The life of G.K. Chesterton has been studied extensively in many biographies. By all accounts, he was very much in love with his wife, Frances, but Frances’s life is largely overlooked, and her story has largely been overshadowed by her husband’s massive reputation. In the first full biography of Frances Chesterton’s life, Nancy Carpentier Brown pieces together the life of an intelligent, devout, and loyal woman who shunned the spotlight. Though Gilbert Keith Chesterton may have served as the cause of a metaphorical eclipse, with his imposing frame blocking his wife’s light from the world, it appears that to a significant extent Frances Chesterton’s shunned a position of prominence, preferring instead to keep her privacy where possible.
In his introduction to Brown’s book, Dale Ahlquist writes:
“This is a love story. But it is also a detective story. And best of all, it is a true story, told here for 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. She has been a mystery. In spite of how much we know about him, we know so very little about her. Part of this was by her own design. Although she accompanied him everywhere, she kept herself under his ample shadow and thus out of the limelight. She even asked him to keep her out of his autobiography, a request which Gilbert of course honored, but it must have been a handicap to write his own story and having to leave out half of it, and what he would have insisted without cliché, the better half. “
Now that nearly eighty years have passed since Frances Chesterton died, it might seem as though it is difficult to reconstruct the details of her life, but Brown has risen to the challenge by searching the existing biographies of G.K. Chesterton for details about his wife, some additional secondary literature, personal correspondence, and Frances’s own poems and other writings in order to create an image of Mrs. Chesterton. In Brown’s book, Frances comes across as an intelligent, caring woman, who preferred to let her husband stand in the limelight.
Brown addresses some of the rumors that have circulated regarding the Chesterton’s marriage. Most of the gossip that paints the Chestertonian marriage in a strained light comes from the book The Chestertons by Gilbert’s sister-in-law Ada. Ada was a Communist writer who was briefly married to Gilbert’s brother Cecil after seventeen years of acquaintance (Cecil died in the First World War). Ada described Gilbert and Frances’s marriage as scarred by sexual frustration, but this is widely by biographers seen as a malicious fantasia crafted by Ada as a means of making the couple look unhealthy and strained.
Brown stresses that she believes that Ada’s narrative has no foundation in truth, and throughout her book, Brown treats the Chesterton’s marriage as an inspiring love story and a mutually beneficial partnership. However, not everybody else in Frances’s circle of friends and family was quite so convinced that the pair were made for each other. Often the blame comes from the beliefs that Gilbert was not quite right in the head, and the influence of Gilbert’s overpowering personality.
“By the time they were engaged, Frances was convinced that Gilbert was a genius with a promising future. She just needed to persuade her family and friends he was the right man for her. This she never fully accomplished. Such was the case with Isabel Sieveking, one of her close friends, whose son later wrote:
“Frances…was one of my mother’s closest friends. One bond between them was the devout Christianity they shared, and another was the fact that each lady thought the other’s husband an unsuitable husband for her friend, a point of view which was not altogether without foundation.”
This concern may be partly derived from the conception (shared by some) that Frances was subsumed into her husband and somehow lost. Indeed, in later years, it would be said of Frances that she had an amusing habit of saying on the next day what Gilbert had said the day before—not because she had no opinions of her own, but because she seemed to agree with almost every sentiment her husband expressed. The flourishing of talent brought about through the uniting of these two minds and hearts can be seen very early.”
One of the hardest parts of the Chesterton marriage was Gilbert’s sudden illness, which left him bedridden and Frances struggling to keep going in the middle of an uncertain future. Chesterton hovered between life and death for a month, before making an abrupt recovery and surviving for several more years.
“While Gilbert lay sick, Frances worked on a collection of his poetry for publication, correcting proofs—and much more. The book, called Poems, had a section called “Love Poems”—which Frances selected and added herself—all but one of which had never been published before. Frances worked beside her ill husband, searching through the love poems he’d written to her years before, selecting the less personal of them. Re-reading the poems must have brought back many keen feelings and affections for the man she had known and loved for so long, bringing special intensity to her hope and prayer that he would get well again.
Many things may have prompted her to work toward publication of these most private poems. Frances may have decided that it was time to share with the public how much Gilbert loved her. In addition, she may have been working on the poetry book to provide income while Gilbert was ill. Interestingly, later on, when Gilbert was well and the book was reprinted, he removed some of these love poems from the book.”
The other major challenge of the Chestertons’ marriage was Gilbert’s embrace of Catholicism. Chesterton became a Christian early in his relationship with Frances, then a devout Anglican. As the decades passed and Gilbert became increasingly interested in Catholicism, and was widely seen as a Catholic apologetic long before he entered the Church, Gilbert’s conversation was for some years a strain between the Chestertons, until Frances finally became a Catholic herself. Brown writes:
“Frances’ resistance to converting alongside her husband came from many sources. She may even have been resistant because of his very enthusiasm. From Gilbert’s previous comments, he felt a responsibility towards Frances for bringing her to the truth, once he converted. Frances nearly always believed Gilbert was right about things, and almost always shared his opinions. She seemed to know she would convert eventually, but wanted to do it in her own time, at her own pace.”
G.K. Chesterton and his close friend Hilaire Belloc were so closely connected in the public eye that George Bernard Shaw coined a phrase to describe them: the Chesterbelloc. Due to the intertwined relationship between Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, it seems as though the couple could be comparatively described as the “Franbert.” In Brown’s description, Frances was the grounding force for the absent-minded Chesterton, looking after his physical appearance (including giving him a hat to cover up his unruly hair), organizing many personal matters, and constantly joining him on trips in order to make sure that he didn’t get lost. During their engagement, some of Frances’s friends and family thought that Gilbert was not quite right in the head, and that to marry him would be pure folly. In The Woman Who Was Chesterton, Brown creates the impression that Frances would have been foolish not to embark on this mutually beneficial and deeply loving relationship.