Dear G. K. C. As I am a supersaturated Dickensite, I pounced on your book and read it, as Wegg read Gibbon and other authors, right slap through.
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW (1906)
Chesterton may be said to have written two great literary studies. Robert Browning, published by Macmillan in 1903, was the first. The second, published by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1906, was Charles Dickens: A Critical Study. These books represent the twin pillars of Chesterton’s literary criticism. He was never in better form.
Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton, from Chapter 11
Today, Charles Dickens is uniformly regarded as one of the towering figures in English literature. Few know that much of this enduring success, beyond of course Dickens’ masterful writing, is due to his biography written by G.K. Chesterton in 1906. Chesterton set the bar high three years prior with this his excellent book on Robert Browning, where he created what many regard as the pinnacle of his efforts. That bar was nonetheless surpassed. In Chapter 11 of Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte quotes the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens saying Chesterton’s “exuberant style” was a powerful complement to his exploration of “Dickens’s supreme comic artistry and fecundity, and his glorification of the common man.”
Chesterton’s study of Dickens is his most important work of criticism, and the most influential. When it was published in 1906, the literary fortunes of this preeminent Victorian novelist were at a low ebb. He seemed destined to remain among the rank of those novelists who were prolific and popular but consigned to a second tier of literary artistry. Chesterton’s study did more than any single book ever has to alter that perception. More than this, Chesterton’s criticisms are still read and appreciated. Scholars reference his reflections as a point of departure for further reflection and debate. He continues to be a part of the literary conversation.
Bearing all this in mind, what Chesterton the critic was able to do for Dickens the writer remains singularly impressive. It was, and will remain, one of his greatest achievements as a man of letters.
Which Charles Dickens book is your favorite?
Have you read Chesterton’s Biography of Charles Dickens?
D I G D E E P E R
Kevin Belmonte holds a BA in English from Gordon College, an MA in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second master’s degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He has twice been a finalist for the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography, and in 2003, his biography, “William Wilberforce,” won that award. On several occasions, he has served as a script consultant for the BBC, and also for the PBS documentary, “The Better Hour.” For six years, he was the lead script and historical consultant for the critically-acclaimed film, “Amazing Grace.” He has spoken in a wide array of noteworthy settings, from the Houses of Parliament in London, and gatherings of legislators in Washington, D.C., to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. For several years, his biography of Wilberforce has been required reading for a course taught by David Gergen on leadership and character formation at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Sources & Resources
Philip Yancey, introduction to G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday, 2001), xx.
G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 4th ed. (London: John Lane, 1907)
Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).