Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
This book is difficult to summarize except to say that it is not at all what you expect based on its title; but it is 100% what you expect based on its author. Where others would see cause and effect, Chesterton sees principles and personalities. He is not aptly suited to introduce the layman to English history; but he is aptly suited to make comments to someone who knows English history well.
I would commend this book to readers who enjoy Chesterton’s works of criticism, such as Heretics.
In my opinion, there is not much remarkable about this book except that Chesterton wrote it, (which makes it almost impossible to give it less than three stars, because of the wit and interest that pervades everything his pen touches). Much of this book was inscrutable for an American such as myself, who is not already versed in English history before beginning the book.
At the time Chesterton wrote this, it had become popular to try to focus more on daily life through history rather than just reciting and dates and battles as so many others had done. Chesterton, however, seems to do neither—rather, he tries to trace changes in English thought.
As someone very poorly versed in European history as a whole, I had thought how pleasant it would be to be introduced to it through the pen of Chesterton; but I believe now that Chesterton did not write this to introduce anyone. Rather, he wrote it to respond to what others British authors had said in their own histories of England. After all, books of English history were quite in vogue in the Victorian period.
Chesterton was a journalist, not a historian; and the book, if not for John Richard Green, could have been titled therefore, A Short Commentary on a Short History of England. It simply does not read as a history book.
Despite all my caviling and criticisms, as I implied above, it is a remarkable thing that Chesterton wrote it. He is still his snarky, pithy, paradoxical self, as my quick collection of quotes will prove.
“It is an excellent habit to read history backwards.” (ch. 7, loc. 708)
“All government is an ugly necessity.” (ch. 8, loc. 856)
“The scientific age comes first and the mythological age after it.” (ch. 3, loc. 198)
“All men bear the image of the King of Kings.” (ch. 15, loc. 2031)
“It is sometimes valuable to have enough imagination to unlearn as well as to learn.” (ch. 5, loc. 425)
“The visionaries are the only practical men.” (ch. 4, loc. 367)
“Slavery was for the Church not a difficulty of doctrine, but a strain on the imagination.” (ch. 2, loc. 136.)
“The very work ‘monk’ is a revolution, for it means solitude and came to mean community—one might call it sociability.” (ch. 4, loc. 377)
“I would maintain that thanks are [is?] the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (ch. 6, loc. 582)
Chesterton is critical of John Calvin’s ideas, which he summarizes: “that men must be created to be lost and saved.” (ch. 13, loc. 1671)
His conclusion is reminiscent of his poem, The Ballad of the White Horse:
“At least, if there be anything valid in my own vision of these things, we have returned to an origin and we are back in the war with the barbarians.” (ch. 18, loc. 2414)
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