Thursday, February 21, 2008

G.K. Chesterton and Martin Gardner's (ed.) The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown

Chesterton, G.K., Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

(The original book was published in 1911.)

Warning: if you’re going to read Father Brown, please suspend all disbelief. Then, fasten your seatbelt, hang on, and enjoy the ride. A friend of mine described the Father Brown stories to me as “fun.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, although after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, I was beginning to have a bit of a clue. Note, though, I said, “beginning to.” I had absolutely no idea just how much fun this book was going to be.

If you’re someone who loves classic cartoons, you might be able to understand what I mean when I say reading these stories is like watching a series of classic cartoons. You know how so much of what happens in a really good and clever cartoon is completely implausible and yet it tickles your imagination in such a way that you enjoy it immensely while marveling at the genius of its creator? Well, that’s Father Brown for you.

Imagine John Dixon Carr’s Gideon Fell plopped down in a fantasy world that’s as dark as the one in Pan’s Labyrinth but that portrays itself for all intents and purposes as the England or France or Scotland you know and recognize. I sat down with this book believing I was reading a collection of straightforward detective stories. I closed it wondering what genre this was: mystery? Fantasy? Horror?

So much like a cartoon was the book for me that I find it impossible to picture Father Brown as anything other than a cartoon caricature of a wise and portly monk. Chesterton didn’t provide us with much detailed description concerning Father Brown’s appearance, but we do know he had light brown hair, wore glasses, was not very tall, and dressed in the standard black of priests. However, I’ve got him in my brain as though he were a character in The Name of the Rose or something, un-bespectacled, and mostly bald. He wanders onto the scene, the voice of reason and sanity (except when he, as he often does, hypothesizes supernatural causes before discovering the real answer to the mystery) in this mad, mad world he inhabits. In this world, freshly severed heads are stolen from guillotine baskets to lead detectives astray, and small hammers are dropped from great heights in order to kill others. His solutions always sound perfectly sane and reasonable in such a world.

What made these stories even more fun was reading this annotated version. I had originally planned to read The Father Brown Omnibus, but when I went to check it out of the library, I discovered it was missing. I decided this one might be more interesting, and I’m sure I was right. The details and anecdotes Gardner provides in this edition certainly add to the enjoyment of reading it (although I will beg to differ with his statement that “the littlest priest is by all odds the second most famous mystery-solver [next to Sherlock Holmes, of course] in English literature.” I'm sure we can all come up with others who are more familiar at this point). His notes certainly helped illuminate parts of the text that would have been lost on me without them. The most delightful note he provides, though, is his explanation of who Waldo and Mildred D’Avigdor of Chesterton’s dedication are (long-time friends). Gardner includes the letter Chesterton wrote to Mildred announcing his engagement to Frances, his wife. This letter can’t help but endear any but the most stone-hearted reader to the writer (we all know that I of the marshmallow heart was completely touched). It’s too long to quote here, but I promise you it’s well worth your finding a copy of this book to read.

Those of you with less of an interest in religion than I have might find Father Brown a bit annoying at times (but you’re forewarned, at least. After all, he is a priest. I much prefer fictional priests who spout off religious dogma over fictional characters I don’t expect to do so). He definitely needs to be put in his historical place and time. The anti-Semitism bothered me the most, as it does with everything I read that was written in the early part of the twentieth century, knowing as I do what was on the horizon. However, I find his Catholic anti-Calvinism merely amusing. And you just know the atheists and cultists can’t be up to any good, right? (I will spare you my thoughts on bigoted “Christians” here.) He’s also unapologetically racist, but that, too, is nothing new for books written in this era.

My vote is that Chesterton be removed from “outmoded author” status. Let’s start a neo-Chesterton movement. I’m now ready to move on to some of the books in this edition’s bibliography, and I’m sure I’m going to start forcing him on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in bookstores, because, well, you know, I’m a tiny bit passionate when it comes to books and authors I love.

Cross-posted here.


Eva said...

I read The Wisdom of Father Brown and really enjoyed it (I even read two of my favourites to my mom while she was cleaning one Sunday, lol), so I'll hop on the neo-Chesterton bandwagon!! And Father Brown's religiouness didn't bother me, even though I don't share his beliefs. He's just adorable. :)

Litlove said...

I really MUST read some G. K. Chesterton - I even possess the collected works and promised to read them for the Outmoded authors challenge. And yet I haven't got around to him still! Wonderful review, Emily, and a great incentive.

Stefanie said...

I loved the Man Who was Thursday. I have the Father Brown Omnibus on my bookshlef but maybe I should look for the annotated one. Hmm...

Lokesh said...

Have you seen the 1954 film 'Father Brown' with Alec Guinness as the good Father and Peter Finch as the thief 'Flambeau'? If you haven't, it might be worth a look, though watching any adaptation can be fraught with peril of course, and there are no severed heads (which was fine by me but tastes vary).

Dorothy W. said...

Well, this sounds fascinating, and I'm glad I've got a Chesterton novel on my shelves now! It's going to be fun to read when I get there.

Emily Barton said...

Eva, "adorable," yes, that's exactly what he is.

Litlove, don't worry. You're bound to get around to him one of these days. Save him for one of those days when you just don't want to do anything but spend the day in bed with a really fun read.

Stef, oh yes, I would definitely look for a copy of this version, and then you can read all the stories in the omnibus that aren't in it.

Lokesh, Gardner mentions the film in his notes, but I haven't seen it. Sounds like something I'd enjoy, though.

Dorr, my advice to you is that same as my advice to Litlove: day in bed devoted to reading something fun.