Book Review: Rethinking G. K. Chesterton and Literary Modernism: Parody, Performance, and Popular Culture

Noreen Masud, University of Durham

Shallcross, Michael. Rethinking G. K. Chesterton and Literary Modernism: Parody, Performance, and Popular Culture. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018. pp. xii + 295. £105. ISBN 9 7811 3867 8736.

What single-author criticism can do so well – despite the New Modernist Studies’ shift towards an emphasis on expansion, networks and juxtaposition – is to look closely and carefully at one thing, until the broader field begins to look different in unexpected ways. [1] Michael Shallcross’s monograph reads Chesterton through the lens of literary modernism, focusing particularly on the way that modernists constructed identities and relationships. From this perspective, literary modernism itself starts to seem, at times, convincingly Chestertonian. In Shallcross’s analysis, Chesterton slips from his long-held position as a reactionary, in implacable opposition to an emerging avant-garde, with no cogent relationship to modernism, and instead joins Eliot, Joyce, Lewis and Pound as ‘participants in a cross-pollinating dialogue’ (14). The Enemy must puppeteer his own enemies. Chesterton becomes indispensable to Lewis and Pound.

Parody is the basis on which Shallcross establishes this complex push-and-pull relationship. Chesterton joins the ‘Men of 1914’, as well as figures like Woolf, Beerbohm, Bentley and Shaw, in a literary landscape deeply grained by parodic tendencies, bouncing between gravity and levity, irreverence and reverence. The carnivalesque, in fact, offers a way of negotiating between similarity and difference, opposition and identification. So Chesterton becomes an essential Other for Pound, Lewis and Eliot; he shores up his persona as Edwardian buffoon, and they do too, moulding their work playfully and viciously around this half-imaginary Chesterton-caricature in order to separate and distinguish themselves. From being a vacancy in the history of modernism, Chesterton looms into view: the vase between two faces, shaping the work of high modernists with previously unacknowledged forcefulness. But the line is less stark than it seems. Parody can slip into pastiche and back again; homage can mask itself as subversion and vice versa. Shallcross deals well with the subtlety of parodic relationships, and the contested expectations of nonsense in this period. With a recent resurgence of interest in Edward Lear, and the forthcoming publication of The Edinburgh Companion to Nonsense (2019), among this monograph’s many contributions is a valuable addition to the growing field of parody and nonsense studies.

Shallcross begins the monograph by exploring how that ambivalent relationship between intimacy and distance might operate between friends. Proffering the figure of the ‘Chesterbentley’ to go alongside the better-known amalgam of comic writers, the ‘Chesterbelloc’, Shallcross argues for the importance of the long friendship between Chesterton and E. C. Bentley in shaping Chesterton’s ethics and dialogical sensibility. If Bentley cleaved to an ‘academic’ mode of nonsense, Chesterton was more drawn to nonsense which participated in coherent moral satire, and was underpinned by folk or democratic impulses. Shallcross’s excellent archival work reveals subtle moments of resistance towards Bentley in Chesterton’s drafts of nonsense poetry, as Chesterton seeks to separate himself from his friend’s allegiances in parodic episodes which betray irritation or distance even while they overtly express friendship.

The monograph goes on to position Chesterton within literary society, examining his complex self-presentation: self-aggrandising and self-deprecating, revealing and concealing, living as though on a ‘treacherous double-mission’ (79). Once again, this self-presentation hinges on the energies of parody: his essays in The Defendant essays pastiche Beerbohm’s ‘A Defense of Cosmetics’ – itself a parody – but in Chesterton’s hands, the form becomes a vehicle for moral sincerity. Yet this project and others, as Shallcross shows, involved the creation of a Chestertonian persona which risked becoming depersonalising, raising the question of the relationship between performance and authenticity (is performance a way of being authentic?) (78). Costume and disguise become an unexpected and highly rewarding line of enquiry through the monograph: Shallcross positions Chesterton’s theatrical, shapeless garb (dressed, in the former’s witty phrase, as a ‘penny dreadful’ (80)), Lewis’s sartorial merging of the penny-dreadful with refined literary culture (131), Beerbohm’s ostentatious lack of flamboyance (82) and the subtle play in Eliot’s famously severe dress (214) as different kinds of embodied performative, parodic relationships to their peers and forebears.

As the book draws Lewis, Eliot and Pound into the discussion (Joyce is a shadowy fourth: future work might connect in greater detail some of Shallcross’s work on Chestertonian nonsense and parody with Joycean nonsense strategies), Shallcross’s analysis illuminates even well-trodden texts. Juxtaposing Prufrock with Chesterton’s detective story ‘The Queer Feet’ reveals invigorating similarities: both juxtapose formal social codes and ungovernable energies, both ‘turn upon nonsensical renderings of paltry banquets’ (123) and coerce the reader into a compact against the emptiness of high society (126). Parody continues to be key to Chesterton’s own performances, to the literary performances of publications like BLAST, and also to Lewis and Pound’s resistance of the Chestertonian worldview. By inscribing a deceptive polarity between themselves and Chesterton, through parodic pokes, Lewis, Pound and Eliot fostered their group identity and advertised a clean break with the past (162). Pound skirts Chesterton obsessively, as a potential pollutant of his movement’s radicalism (171): in a suggestive aside, Shallcross places this tendency in opposition to Chesterton’s ethics of buffoonery, which insists that the proud individual must be viscerally contaminated by the abject world (178). As if to prove the accuracy of the theory, Lewis, Pound and Eliot became more open to Chesterton’s influence as their careers progressed, and public personae gave way to private channels of communication (236).

Occasionally the book’s breadth of ambition and scholarly thoroughness weigh it down on a stylistic level. Some critical quotations might have been paraphrased, for instance, without threat to credibility. Overall, however, the book is expertly structured. Remarks which appear to be asides recur, transformed, in later chapters, and metaphorical motifs are sustained without being forced in a style which is quietly witty. Shallcross constructs intricate relationships between concepts including parody, costume, performance, anti-modernism, modernism, nonsense, detective fiction, abjection and caricature which span the whole text, meaning that this is a book to be read in its entirety, rather than dismembered for parts. The investment is worth making, by scholars with interests in modernism and beyond.


[1] Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, ‘The New Modernist Studies’, PMLA 123(3), 737-748.

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