Monday, November 16, 2015

Flying Stars Interviews Nancy Brown about The Woman Who Was Chesterton

Flying Stars (FS): So how did you get interested in Frances Chesterton?

Nancy: Years ago when I first became interested in G.K. Chesterton, I read Joseph Pearce’s biography Wisdom and Innocence. I didn’t know anything about Chesterton at that point, but he sounded a lot like my husband, whom I consider an artistic genius. As a woman and a wife, I immediately was curious about Gilbert’s wife. I knew that being the wife of any kind of genius has its own set of challenges, and I wanted to know how Frances handled being the wife of the famous G.K. Chesterton.

FS: What did you discover?

Nancy: Nothing of what I wanted to know. Oh there were little snippets of information, like that she came from a London family. That her father had died when she was a young girl. That her father was a diamond merchant. I found out a few things from Gilbert’s point of view, like that he fell in love with her the first time he saw her, that he wrote her love poetry, that he depended on her to keep him on task and on schedule.

FS: What kind of information did you want to know about Frances?

Nancy: I wanted to know who was she that Gilbert could fall in love with her. He was an extraordinary man; she had to be an extraordinary woman. But there was nothing in the biography that indicated her extraordinariness. I wanted to know how they came to love each other, how they worked out their individual lives as a married couple, if Frances had a career before she married him, and if she carried that on afterwards. I wanted to know what skills she brought to the marriage, and how she was able to cope with Gilbert’s absentmindedness without going crazy. I wanted to know how she had enough patience to keep tying his tie every day. I could see that their day-to-day life was very similar to my own.

FS: What do you mean?

Nancy: Gilbert basically worked from home. He did go into an office once a week, but the rest of the days he woke up, had breakfast, and then began dictating articles, books, and so on—at home. The day-to-day life of Gilbert and Frances was together. Constantly. They were together a lot. And some couples don’t do well being together that much. Often a wife is dependent on having her own domain during the day while the husband goes off to work. Like Gilbert’s essay on the “Emancipation of Domesticity” —which I love—a wife is often the queen of her domain during the day. She can cook what she likes, clean when she wants, and teach her children everything. But it’s a little different for the queen if the king is at home all day.

FS: And your life is like that? Like Gilbert described?

Nancy: At first, my life was like that—I was queen of my domain. My husband went off to work every day like most husbands. We had decided to homeschool our children, so I was at home raising and educating them. My husband and I would occasionally show his art at art shows on the weekends, but then he would rush off to work again on Monday morning. I was the queen of my world—until my husband was laid off of work. Instead of finding another wage slave job, we decided we would do the Chestertonian thing and live a distributist life by running our own small business and selling his art full time. That’s when our lives began to resemble Gilbert and Frances’ very much.

FS: But the distributist life is ideal, everyone wants that kind of life!

Nancy: Of course, and it is a wonderful life. But every spouse has quirks, and perhaps artistic types have a few more quirks than your average. Not that I don’t have any. I’m sure I do. Minor ones, of course. Somehow I just felt that if Frances and I could sit down to tea, there would be a mutual meeting of the minds over the challenges of our husbands.

FS: What would you and Frances say those challenges are?

Nancy: First, how to be with each other every hour of every day. And not go crazy. Maybe how to find space for individual projects. I think of how Frances found space eventually, in writing poems and plays, teaching Sunday school, and helping the kids put on plays. She also ran a poetry circle, gave talks, and did a lot of gardening. These were all ways in which she maintained her sense of individual identity. She also had a genius for friendship.

Secondly, I think one needs a lot of patience. I think Frances cultivated the virtue of patience to a degree nearing perfection. She took dictation from Gilbert. I can see her sitting with pen and paper, dipping the pen in the ink, the pen poised just above the paper, just waiting for Gilbert to let her know what the next sentence was going to be. And then she had to wait for him to finish his essays so she could send them off to the papers. She had to wait for him to dress, and eat, and smoke. I think she spent a lot of her life waiting for him. Patiently. I want that kind of patience. I want Frances to teach me that.

FS: Did you look at Frances’ family tree at all? Were there any surprises?

Nancy: Yes, I did look, and she had a lot of famous relatives. She was directly connected with famous poets, playwrights and authors. Her family was much more connected to the literary world than Gilbert’s. Gilbert came from a family of house agents and surveyors. Frances was tied to people whom we no longer know, but at the time were quite famous. Samuel Laman Blanchard, Douglas Jerrold, Mary Margaret Heaton and Cosmo Monkhouse, for example. Blanchard and Jerrold were intimate friends with William Makepeace Thakeray and Charles Dickens. In fact, Dickens was a pallbearer at Blanchard’s funeral. Frances’s mother’s name was Blanche, named in remembrance of this uncle, Laman Blanchard, who was a famous journalist in his day. Douglas Jerrold was even more famous, because he was a journalist, a drama critic, a playwright, and actor. His most famous play was Black-Eyed Susan. Jerrold sailed aboard a ship for a year and a half under Captain Charles AustenJane Austen’s brother. He wrote plays; he wrote articles for Punch, and he coined the phrase ‘Crystal Palace’ for the beautiful crystal building Paxton was building for the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was said to be the funniest man in London at the time he wrote his comic plays.

FS: What about this diamond business of Frances’s father’s?

Nancy: That was very interesting to investigate. Frances’s father, George Blogg, was indeed a diamond merchant, as were his father, grandfather and great-grandfathers before him. They were also all makers of find gold chains, and so considered artisans. Frances’s maternal grandfather and great grandfather were silk printers, what we would now call silk screening. They created beautiful silk products, including souvenir type scarves and kerchiefs. In addition, they were glaziers, so they were making things out of glass, and possibly doing stained glass work. Her grandfather’s business was so big he employed ninety people. So on both Frances’ mother’s and her father’s sides of the family, there were fine craft artisans. In fact, that’s possibly how her parents met.

FS: Did you find out anything shocking about Frances?

Nancy: Sort of. I discovered within her medical files something that explained a lot about her health, which always seemed fragile. During her teen growth spurt, one of her legs grew longer than the other. So from then on, she walked with a limp, and was always fighting this off balance situation. It wasn’t till she was in her fifties that a doctor recommended getting a lift in the shoe of the shorter leg. Meanwhile, her spine, hips, pelvis—everything was out of alignment because of the leg. But don’t tell anyone that, because I’m saving that piece of information for the book.

FS: That is interesting, and I’ll keep it mum. Did you find out anything about Frances’s past? Did she have any boyfriends before Gilbert came along, for example?

Nancy: I have to admit that I actually don’t know the answer to the question about former boyfriends. You can see from her picture that Frances was a beauty. I mean she was really pretty. However, I don’t know if, because of her limp, was she less attractive to boys? I just don’t know. But surprisingly, Frances and her family found a way to mix and mingle with all the eligible young men in the neighborhood anyway.

FS: What was that?

Nancy: They started a debate club. I’m sure this was one of the things that Frances and Gilbert talked about when they first met. But in the early 1890s—before she ever met Gilbert—Frances and her Bedford Park friends formed a debate club called the “I.D.K. Debating Society.” They met in each other’s homes, chose a topic, and debated for the evening. Once a year, they held a dance for all members and their friends. One year, the dance was in the Blogg home.

FS: What did “I.D.K.” stand for?

Nancy: I don’t know.

FS: Oh, ok. Was this debate club where Frances and Gilbert met?

Nancy: Surprisingly, no! They did meet at the Blogg home, at 8 Bath Road in Bedford Park, but it was not during an IDK meeting. However, after they met, Gilbert did start attending the IDK meetings. In fact, he was a regular. He lost a debate there.

FS: Now how do you actually know that?

Nancy: I discovered the notebook in a library special collection where Frances and her sister Ethel took the minutes of their monthly meetings. They kept track of who attended, who the proposer was, who the opposer was, who was the chairman of the meeting. They collected a small amount for dues, and kept track of that, as well. Many of the famous artists and painters who lived in the area at that time participated in the debate club at the Blogg home.

FS: That’s cool! What was the debate Chesterton lost?

Nancy: That a man’s character is his fate. The proposer argued that character was a sense of ethical qualities that define a man. Fate is destiny. A man is given a certain character in which he starts out life, and so he makes his own fate. Chesterton strongly opposed this argument, saying the notion was false, disastrous and immoral; that it severed us from all that makes ethical life valuable. He reminded the debating society that there were many things which contribute to man’s fate besides his character.  These included the characters of other people, such as our parents, our teachers, our friends—the great minds of our day; and there are circumstances over which we have no control. If we believed that we stood in a position of independence from all other people—Chesterton said this is characteristic of the mindset of the day—this leads man to think he is his own God Almighty. This leads to an unhappy frame of mind edged with egoism. Despite Chesterton’s strong argument, he lost the vote. The I.D.K. Society apparently believed a man’s character was his fate. But I should remind everyone that Chesterton was possibly the youngest member of the debating society, at this time he was just twenty-two years old. It’s probable he didn’t have his power of persuasive speech developed to its greatness yet.

FS: So why should people get The Woman Who Was Chesterton?

Nancy: I think the most important reason is because Frances was the most important person in Gilbert’s life. She was the most important relationship he had, and their marriage was the most important thing in both their lives. To find out more about Frances means we find out more about Gilbert as a person. Yes, he was a great writer and gave us great books, but to know Gilbert as a person is perhaps even more interesting than just reading his books. And once you know him as a person, his books become more enjoyable. And to know him better, we need to get to know his wife. I hope everyone will enjoy getting to know Frances better.

FS: Thank you, Nancy!

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Peek Into Top Meadow: Christmas with the Chestertons

My Christmas gift to you, my readers. I hope you enjoy.  --Nancy

Christmas with the Chestertons

While contemplating the Christmas Holidays, I thought I’d like to peek in at Top Meadow, the home of our friends Gilbert and Frances Chesterton out in Beaconsfield, and see what the holiday couple might be doing for Christmas this year. Why don’t you come along?

I only thought of taking this trip because of Dickens. Our friend Chesterton fell in love with Charles Dickens’ work at a very young age, and contributed greatly to a revival of Dickens. Because of the renewed interest in Dickens, there was a renewed interest in Dickens’ work A Christmas Carol. Originally published in 1843, extremely popular during its day, after Dickens died in 1870, the work languished. In 1906, Chesterton himself revived an interest in Dickens by writing quite a lot about the author.

So, in reference to Dickens, it could be said that the Chestertons know how to “keep” Christmas. Their holidays are always filled with friends, family, plays, music, conversation, food, spirits, and gifts. Let’s take a peek in the door. No, let’s do more than peek as long as we’ve made the train journey; let’s knock and hope the couple is at home. They are.

Entering the front door at Top Meadow, you and I, the guests of Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, are warmly greeted, our coats and hats taken and hung up, and hot cider or another warm beverage pressed into our hands. We’ve wiped our shoes, and come in closer to the hearth, and we’re invited to sit by the crackling fire.

Gilbert and Frances make us feel immediately at home, and we notice Christmas decorations everywhere. Frances collects nativity scenes from around the world, and there is a different one set up in each room of the house. There are presents under the tree, and a few of them are for us—how did they know we were coming?! A plate of beautifully decorated cookies is sitting on the table in front of us; Frances insists we have some, and we do—they are delicious. After warming up, gifts are exchanged, and Gilbert suggests we all sing carols, and so we sing.

Then a knock is heard at the door, and the neighborhood children come in, and Frances shoos them into the studio where they are preparing costumes, props, and rehearsing last minute. They will put on a play for all of the adults this evening. Winkle the dog is barking, hoping you’ll toss him a little bit of that cookie you’re eating. Two cats are purring at your feet, begging to have their ears scratched.

While we’re all waiting for the children to get the play ready, Gilbert lights a cigarillo, makes a large sign of the cross in the air with the smoke, and offers you one if you’d like. He pours a bit of burgundy for anyone who wants it, and then asks you to pass the cookie plate back his way. He pulls out a well worn copy of A Christmas Carol from his coat pocket, and asks if you’d like him to read from it. Everyone wants to hear Gilbert read.

He reads with expression, in between drags of the cigarillo, and one particular time, proves that he does indeed know how to blow smoke rings. As he reads, he is reminded—during that part where the gentlemen come in and ask Ebenezer to contribute to their campaign for the poor—that he and Frances are collecting for the local nursing home this Christmas—St. Joseph’s Convalescent Home—and Gilbert has a tin in which you can place your donation. You do so, quite willingly, because it is Gilbert asking. After this pause, he continues to read. His voice turns quite rough when he becomes Ebenezer Scrooge, and quite high and quiet when he becomes Tiny Tim. But before he even gets to the first ghost, Frances opens the door and announces that the children are ready.

We all enter the studio, and the children put on a play that Frances Chesterton wrote for tonight’s visit, called The Christmas Gift. The costumes are wonderful, the children do a fine job with memorization, and they sing Christmas carols in between quite a few of the scene changes, asking the audience to join along. Holly is strung all along the walls, and a small bunch of mistletoe is hanging from a strategic place in the center of a doorframe you can’t help passing under. You are kissed. Flowering plants line the table near the window, and the nativity scene in this room came from Spain.

When the children finish, Frances brings out more cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies and best of all, chocolates; there is more cider and some hot buttered rum as well. A few of the children have brought small instruments, and they play more carols, and everyone sings. Frances would like to return to the hearth, and so we all go back to the main room, where a little fairy must have put a few more logs on the fire while we were away. One of the children asks Frances to read her poem How Far IsIt To Bethlehem, and she says she knows it well by heart, and recites it for us, and by the end all the women are wiping tears. We all clap, and Frances is embarrassed, and says, “Gilbert, do something!”

We remind Gilbert to finish reading the Dickens’ story, and he does, with great wit and charm, keeping us all entertained and laughing alternatively with crying. The story ends with a flourish, and God bless us, everyone, we have, indeed, kept Christmas at Top Meadow this year. What a nice visit we’ve had with the Chestertons. Let’s all do this again next year.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Woman Who Was Chesterton's finally here! After years of research and years of writing and years of editing (literally) I can finally hold my book!!!!