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The 'deeper intentions' of Chesterton's Father Brown tales

Chesterton, like Evelyn Waugh and others, excelled at using conventional literary methods for spiritual purposes

  • Richard Griffiths
  • United Kingdom
  • January 14, 2013
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When Evelyn Waugh went to Hollywood in 1947 to discuss a film version of his novel Brideshead Revisited, he was horrified to find that the writer who would be adapting it for the screen did not appear to understand what the novel was about. “He sees Brideshead purely as a love story,” Waugh wrote in his diary. “None of them see the theological implication.”

This was a problem that faced many 20th-century Roman Catholic writers. Attempting to avoid the obvious and simplistic treatment of religion typical of their predecessors, they tried to introduce their religious message far more subtly into novels and stories which in every other way conformed to the literary norms of their day. The trouble was that some people then completely failed to see the message – and Brideshead has no meaning if you ignore the religious element. Happily, the 1981 television version of it went some way towards producing a balanced picture.

These things came to my mind when I heard the news that a new television series based on G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories will be starting tomorrow, starring Mark Williams. In these stories, Chesterton tackled one of the most popular genres of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that of the detective story.

His hero, Father Brown, is an eccentric in the mould of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. As with them, his superior insights are the result of an unusual way of looking at the world – but in this case the view is that of a Catholic priest, and an apparently very simple one at that.

Chesterton depicted Father Brown as a most unlikely person to show worldly skills: a clumsy, amiable little man with “a face as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling”. The contrast between this and his methods of detection is, as with Miss Marple, a sure-fire formula for success with the reader. This odd figure, underestimated by those around him, continually reveals an understanding based on knowledge gained in an existence which, to the eyes of the uncomprehending, appears a world of innocence.

There is more to Chesterton’s stories than this, however. Hidden within them are lessons of specifically religious import. One of the best-known examples of this is the story “The Queer Feet”, in which Brown is depicted as having “averted a crime and, perhaps, saved a soul”.

Full story: The strange case of the simple little priest

Source: The Telegraph

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