I recently spent a delightful evening in Nashville with a good friend, Trevin Wax. There he shared with me a letter from G. K. Chesterton I had never seen before. It was discovered by Maisie Ward, and published in her celebrated biography (on pages 102–104; all online).
In his own enchanted way, here’s Chesterton narrating an average day, by letter, to his inquisitive fiancé, Frances.
11, Paternoster Buildings
Sept. 29, 1899
I fear, as you say, that my letters do not contain many practical details about myself: the letters are not very long to begin with, as I think it better to write something every day than a long letter when I have leisure: and when I have a little time to think in, I always think of the Kosmos first and the Ego afterwards. I admit, however, that you are not engaged to the Kosmos: Dear me! What a time the Kosmos would have! All its Comets would have their hair brushed every morning. The Whirlwind would be adjured not to walk about when it was talking. The Oceans would be warmed with hot-water pipes. Not even the lowest forms of life would escape the crusade of tidiness: you would walk round and round the jellyfish, looking for a place to put in shirt-links.
Under these circumstances, then, I cannot but regard it as fortunate that you are only engaged to your obedient Microcosm: a biped inheriting some of the traits of his mother, the Kosmos, its untidiness, its largeness, its irritating imperfection and its profound and hearty intention to go on existing as long as it possibly can.
I can understand what you mean about wanting details about me, for I want just the same about you. You need only tell me “I went down the street to a pillar-box [mail box],” I shall know that you did it in a manner, blindingly, staggeringly, crazily beautiful. . . .
As to what I do every day: it depends on which way you want it narrated: what we all say it is, or what it really is.
What we all say happens every day is this: I wake up: dress myself, eat bacon and bread and coffee for breakfast: walk up to High St. Station, take a fourpenny ticket for Blackfriars, read the Chronicle in the train, arrive at 11, Paternoster Buildings: read a MS called “The Lepers” (light comedy reading) and another called “The Preparation of Ryerson Embury” — you know the style — till 2 o’clock. Go out to lunch, have — (but here perhaps it would be safer to become vague), come back, work till six, take my hat and walking-stick and come home: have dinner at home, write the Novel till 11, then write to you and go to bed. That is what, we in our dreamy, deluded way, really imagine is the thing that happens. What really happens (but hist! are we observed?) is as follows.
Out of the starless night of the Uncreated, that was before the stars, a soul begins to grope back to light. It gropes its way through strange, half-lighted chambers of Dreams, where in a brown and gold twilight, it sees many things that are dimly significant, true stories twisted into new and amazing shapes, human beings whom it knew long ago, sitting at the windows by dark sunsets, or talking in dim meadows. But the awful invading Light grows stronger in the dreams, till the soul in one last struggle, plunges into a body, as into a house and wakes up within it. Then he rises and finds himself in a wonderful vast world of white light and clear, frankly coloured shapes, an inheritor of a million stars. On enquiry he is informed that his name is Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
This amuses him.
He goes through a number of extraordinary and fantastic rituals; which the pompous elfland he has entered demands. The first is that he shall get inside a house of clothing, a tower of wool and flax; that he shall put on this foolish armour solemnly, one piece after another and each in its right place. The things called sleevelinks he attends to minutely. His hair he beats angrily with a bristly tool. For this is the Law. Downstairs a more monstrous ceremony attends him.
He has to put things inside himself. He does so, being naturally polite. Nor can it be denied that a weird satisfaction follows. He takes a sword in his hand (for what may not befall him in so strange a country!) and goes forth: he finds a hole in the wall, a little cave wherein sits One who can give him the charm that rules the horse of water and fire. He finds an opening and descends into the bowels of the earth. Down, among the roots of the Eternal hills, he finds a sunless temple wherein he prays. And in the centre of it he finds a lighted temple in which he enters. Then there are noises as of an earthquake and smoke and fire in the darkness: and when he opens the door again he is in another temple, out of which he climbs into another world, leagues and leagues away. And when he asks the meaning of the vision, they talk gibberish and say, “It is a train.”
So the day goes, full of eerie publishers and elfin clerks, till he returns and again puts things inside him, and then sits down and makes men in his own head and writes down all that they said and did. And last of all comes the real life itself. For half-an-hour he writes words upon a scrap of paper, words that are not picked and chosen like those that he has used to parry the strange talk of the folk all day, but words in which the soul’s blood pours out, like the body’s blood from a wound. He writes secretly this mad diary, all his passion and longing, all his queer religion, his dark and dreadful gratitude to God, his idle allegories, the tales that tell themselves in his head; the joy that comes on him sometimes (he cannot help it!) at the sacred intoxication of existence: the million faults of idleness and recklessness and the one virtue of the unconquered adoration of goodness, that dark virtue that every man has, and hides deeper than all his vices — he writes all this down as he is writing it now. And he knows that if he sticks it down and puts a stamp on it and drops it into the mouth of a little red goblin at the corner of the street — he knows that all this wild soliloquy will be poured into the soul of one wise and beautiful lady sitting far away beyond seas and rivers and cities, under the shadow of an alien Cathedral.