Frances Chesterton: The Courtship and Conversion of Gilbert K. Chesterton
“Chesterton was married? I didn’t know that.”
I hear that often. And then the frustration: Why haven’t we heard about his wife? What was his marriage like? Did he have children?
G.K. Chesterton is perhaps the most famous writer of the 20th Century, and yet we still know very little about him and his family life. One of the reasons is because his wife was a shy person—a Victorian English lady who valued her privacy and kept herself hidden from the world.
Keep me Out of Your Book, Gilbert
Frances Alice Blogg Chesterton knew that her husband Gilbert was unhealthy in 1935 when several of his friends suggested he begin to write his autobiography.
“Please, Gilbert,” she is reported to have said, “keep me out of your book.” And so he tried to. But their lives were intricately woven, so that he still managed to say quite a bit about her anyway. But not enough for the curious. Not enough for me.
Who was Frances Chesterton? How did she and Gilbert meet? What kind of woman marries the most famous journalist of the 20th Century? How did she cope with his absentmindedness? What kind of marriage did they have?
These are all questions I wanted answered.
Discoveries about Gilbert and Frances’s Courtship
Gilbert and Frances met right in Frances’s front living room. She was Frances Blogg then. Her family, except for her father—who had died when she was fourteen years old—had a fashionable address in Bedford Park, London’s first suburb, and a bohemian place to live in those days. Artists, painters, poets, writers, philosophers, socialists, communists and atheists all mixed and mingled in this neighborhood, enjoying the intellectual stimulation of debates, literary gatherings, and political meetings evening after evening.
Her mother, Blanche Blogg, had advanced ideas about education and politics. She had sent her daughters to the first kindergarten in London. The grammar school Mrs. Blogg chose was an early precursor to a Montessori school, but was a controversial choice at the time. The Blogg girls were taught to be independent thinkers, and they prepared for employment as they finished high school, except for Frances, who had bigger plans.
Frances wanted to become a teacher. She spent two years at St. Stephen’s College. She became a tutor, and began teaching Sunday school at her local Anglican church in Bedford Park, where she was the only Blogg family member to be an active participant. She had grown up Anglican, but her family had never practiced their faith. They described the atmosphere of the family as agnostic.
But Frances had discovered faith at St. Stephen’s College, which was run by the Clewer Sisters of St. John, Anglican nuns who inspired the future Mrs. Chesterton. Frances became a regular at Sunday services, and participated in the social and voluntary activities of the parish. She began reading the Bible in college, and became devoted to Mary and the saints.
The Blogg family wanted to do something intellectual in the Bedford Park neighborhood, and so along with some friends, they began the “I.D.K. Debating Society” in 1894. If asked what the letters stood for, the member was instructed to shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”
The debate club participants included Frances’s sisters and brother, their cousins, neighbors and friends. There was a social aspect to the group, and eventually, all three sisters would meet their future spouses within the membership of the I.D.K.
In 1896, while the debate club was on hiatus, the Blogg family held open houses on Sunday afternoons, where their friends and neighbors could drop in for tea and conversation. During one of these, Lucian Oldershaw, Gilbert’s friend from his Junior Debating Society days at St. Paul’s, was invited to visit. Lucian became enamored with the Blogg sisters. He set his sights on the lively blond sister, Ethel, and described the home to Gilbert, telling him that the girls were all remarkably pretty, and Gilbert should come along next time. Gilbert and Frances had not yet met, but they had many mutual friends.
Frances Chesterton’s first Convert
They met in the autumn of 1896, in Frances’s living room at Number 8, Bath Road. Gilbert fell instantly in love, describing how he intuitively believed that Frances would be faithful and true.
“If I had anything to do with this girl I should go down on my knees to her: if I spoke with her she would never deceive me: if I depended on her she would never deny me: if I loved her she would never play with me: if I trusted her she would never go back on me: if I remembered her she would never forget me.” (GKC)
He was especially attracted to the firmness of her faith. While others in the neighborhood were interested in the occult or spiritualism, Frances firmly believed in Christianity, and nothing anyone could say would deter her from it. Gilbert admired that. He would soon become her convert.
“She wore a green velvet dress barred with grey fur, which I should have called artistic, but that she hated all the talk about art; and she had an attractive face, which I should have called elvish, but that she hated all the talk about elves. But what was arresting and almost blood-curdling about her in that social atmosphere, was not so much that she hated it, as that she was entirely unaffected by it.
She never knew what was meant by being “under the influence” of Yeats or Shaw or Tolstoy or anybody else. She was intelligent, with a great love of literature, and especially of Stevenson. But if Stevenson had come into the room and explained his personal doubts about personal immortality, she would have regretted that he should be wrong upon the point, but would otherwise have been utterly unaffected. She was not at all like Robespierre, except in a taste for neatness in dress, and yet it is only in Mr. Belloc’s book on Robespierre that I have ever found any words that describe the unique quality that cut her off from the current culture and saved her from it. “God had given him to his mind a stone tabernacle in which certain great truths were preserved imperishable. (GKC autobiography)
For Gilbert, in 1896, was not a Christian. He might have described himself as agnostic possibly, although he would have admitted to belief in a Higher Power of some sort—“Someone” to whom he could give thanks for existence. But his theory of faith was hardly developed, until he met Frances. Her “stone tabernacle” of great truths attracted Gilbert.
Then he went rapidly from skeptic to theist to Deist to Trinitarian Christian. She not only introduced him to his first real experience of faith, but she had the practical sense to actually practice her faith: a phenomenon that took Gilbert by surprise. He’d met Christians before Frances: but never one who actually went to church. That was new to him, and he admired Frances even more.
Frances, observant and insightful about others and coming from a literary background, found Gilbert intriguing. His name meant nothing to her, for he had yet to become famous. Nameless though he was, she discovered in Gilbert a budding writer, poet, and art critic, with an interest in the spiritual life. This resonated personally with her on every count.
Soon after he met her, Gilbert wrote a letter to a friend:
“She is good, she is nice, she is polite, she is intelligent. She is sane. These things are scarcely novel, they are among the common objects of a morning walk. If you care to know ordinary conversation, we talked about laughter, and I said how sacred it was, and she said her monosyllable. By the way, not that it matters much, and although she does say “Yes,” she is really an acute, if not clever girl, I find. I really didn’t know it until I began to throw out a few Christian reflections. She hasn’t been broadened enough by reading, but when it comes to interior meanings, she’s all there.” (GKC)
Later, he would dedicate his epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse to her with these words, “To you, who brought the cross to me.” He owed his conversion to Christianity to her. Thirty years later, she would owe her conversion to Catholicism to him. Chesterton was famous for his paradoxes, and this is perhaps the best paradox of all.
In the autumn of 1896, when the I.D.K. Debating Society began meeting again, its newest member was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Frances had obtained a full time position in the Parents National Educational Union in 1895. She was the general secretary, taking handwritten notes at all committee meetings, and writing them up neatly in the minutes book. Her office on Victoria Street was on Gilbert’s way to work, and many mornings, he stopped by, slipped up to her desk, and drew her a picture or wrote her a quick poem on her desk’s blotting paper, so that it would be there to greet her when she came in to work a few hours later.
After eighteen months, they were engaged. Gilbert was far from the famous journalist he would become. He worked at a publisher’s office, going through the piles of manuscripts, finding the ones that should be published. On the side, he wrote stories and poems, and started writing a few critiques of art books. These first few articles were published anonymously. He also kept a notebook, where he jotted down thoughts, poetry fragments, story fragments, and ideas. Frances kept a poetry notebook, too. When Gilbert showed her some of his poems, she recognized something great. And she wanted to do something about it since Gilbert seemed to have no plans for his work.
This was a time of growth and extraordinary potential, all of which came together to imbue the fledgling courtship of Gilbert and Frances with great hope and enthusiasm. With so many mutual friends, their meeting was inevitable. Their friendship, which began with literature, the spiritual life, art, debate, and poetry, was well situated in every respect: Gilbert, the eccentric and burgeoning genius, needed grounding and a sounding board for his ideas; Frances, the quiet, devoted romantic, needed someone to share a love of poetry, someone to love and of whom she could take care, someone with whom to start a family. The couple seemed ideally suited for battling every fresh challenge life might bring their way.
Frances Chesterton Launches Gilbert’s Book Publishing Career
When Frances met Gilbert’s parents, Edward and Marie Louise Chesterton, she immediately recognized in Mr. Chesterton a kindred soul. Mr. Ed, as Gilbert’s father was called, liked Frances. So after Frances read Gilbert’s poems she took them to Mr. Ed, and the two began conspiring.
It should be noted here that the Blogg family had rich ties to many literary people: Frances Blogg’s uncle was the famous poet Laman Blanchard, his best friend was playwright Douglas Jerrold. Both men were in Charles Dickens’ inner circle. Besides that, her aunt wrote the first English-language translation of the life of artist Albrecht Durer, bringing her fame as an art historian. Another uncle, Cosmo Hamilton, was both an art critic and a poet. The Blogg family knew how to handle literary souls and help them in their careers.
There was a young friend of the I.D.K. Debating Society, Rex Brimley Johnson, now dating Frances’s sister Gertrude. Rex had wanted to start a small publishing firm, and when Frances and Mr. Ed approached him with Gilbert’s poems, he agreed to publish a book. Greybeards at Play, a lighthearted collection of poems, was prepared for publication. Frances had a second collection of Gilbert’s more serious work, called The Wild Knight, which included some memorable poems, such as “By the Babe Unborn” and “The Beatific Vision,” as well as what proved to be his most famous poem, “The Donkey.” Johnson turned the second book down, so Frances and Mr. Ed found another man, Grant Richards, who agreed that if Mr. Ed would put up the money, Richards would publish. So, in 1900, with the push from his fiancée, the first two books of the future journalist were published.
Frances was always at work behind the scenes to ensure her husband’s success. She was Gilbert’s biggest fan; she enjoyed all his poetry, essays and books. She fought for publication of his work, negotiated with his agents and publishers. She took dictation from him, and made sure his columns were on time and in the hands of the delivery boys.
Their courtship wove together two lives. They talked, prayed, wrote love poetry, dreamed of a future in the country, and they hoped his writing work would provide enough income so that they could raise a nice big family. Frances wanted seven children. They now shared faith. They wanted to join the rest of their lives together, and so they planned to make rash vows together in the company of friends and family at church. They didn’t just want a union or a partnership. They wanted the sacrament of matrimony to bind them together forever.
Gilbert Chesterton would not have been the author he was without his wife at his side to help and guide him. Frances became every name spouses have been given: his better half, the woman behind the man, helpmate, partner, soul mate, lover, and best friend. When the priest said, “And the two shall become one,” Gilbert and Frances truly did. It’s time the world recognizes this amazing couple.