G.K. Chesterton wrote, “[W]e should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Privately, he joked, “One pint is enough, two pints is one too many, three pints isn’t half enough.”
Which of the sayings did he live by?
This is part of what Fr. John Udris will research. Fr. Udris is the cleric conducting the inquiry into Chesterton’s cause for canonization. Catholic Household e-mailed to ask if Chesterton’s eating and drinking habits would factor into the inquiry. Fr. Udris promptly responded, “The short answer to your query is YES – obviously any investigation into his sanctity will entail answering doubts in this regard.”
So, what are the doubts? Is it even so important to answer them since, as is frequently heard, there are many “fat saints” in the Church? St. Thomas Aquinas typically heads the list, and St. John XXIII is given as a recent example. In St. Thomas’ case, as Chesterton wrote, legends about his weight are “exaggerated” (see note at the end of article) and there is certainly no documentation he was intemperate. Temperance, the moderate use of created goods, is a cardinal virtue, and its exemplary practice is necessary for canonization.
Surprisingly, in a case like St. John XXIII, documentation suggests he was temperate, even heroically. The pope dispensed the papal privilege of eating alone in order to dine with others, and ate, according to his secretary and witnesses, like a bird. He avoided fatty foods, lived into his 80’s and died of cancer.
While awaiting Fr. Udris’ findings, in a process that can take years, what evidence do we currently have about Chesterton in regards to temperance?
An incongruity fitting of Chesterton is that for the first half of his life, he was a man caricatured for thinness. Up to his mid-twenties, he displayed the slender build of his family. In Chesterton’s words about this time, he was “thin as an arrow”; his mother-in-law thought him a “scarecrow.” He took long walks and even played tennis.
The rise in fame and weight began with his arrival at Fleet Street. It was the center of London journalism at the time, and writers congregated in pubs and restaurants to debate ideas over food and drink. Chesterton’s intellectual originality and physical capacity for drink quickly became legendary. His weight began to expand, in the words of his friend George Bernard Shaw, “beyond all decency.”
Shaw pressed his friend Chesterton to try his own vegetarian, nonalcoholic way of life. But philosophically and personally, Chesterton prided himself on defending “beef and beer” from the “hygienic severity” of Shaw.
Hygiene and severity were two of Chesterton’s pet peeves. He had received an undisciplined, indulgent upbringing from his parents, who did not insist on even basics of cleanliness and self-care. Good friend Christopher Hollis said Chesterton was unable to perform “the normal achievements of daily life—such as dressing or shaving himself—others had to do these things for him.”
A secretary noted that Chesterton had an “utter abhorrence of anything approaching discipline, restraint, or order” or “any attempt to bring order or discipline into his or anyone else’s life.” In regards to physical exertion, Hollis said Chesterton “quite frankly loathed” it. H.G. Wells had difficulty trying to get Chesterton to take an occasional walk. Chesterton once rejoiced when he sprained an ankle because now “nobody could bother him to take exercise.”
George Bernard Shaw outlived Chesterton by over three decades, still performing yard work at 94.
The Crash of 1914
In 1914, the world almost lost Chesterton at 40 years old.
In 1909, Gilbert and his wife Frances had traded bustling London for a quieter country life in Beaconsfield. Instead of improving, it seems Chesterton’s unhealthy lifestyle worsened.
One secretary remembered how Chesterton would smoke cigars, lighting a new one from the old one, until the room was a dense fog. He also smoked cigarettes until there was a ring of cigarette butts around him, what Chesterton described to friend William Titterton as “the fatal clues of my bad habit of smoking.” Pulmonary problems followed him throughout his life.
Regarding food, a lady who hosted Chesterton for several weeks said he “[d]idn’t care for salads or vegetables” and ate mainly meat and potatoes. But drinking seemed to form the most dangerous threat to Chesterton’s health. Fr. O’Connor, the basis for Chesterton’s Fr. Brown, related that at one party, Chesterton had been drinking “to the detriment of social intercourse.” Chesterton was unsteady to the point that Fr. O’Connor offered him his arm, which Chesterton “refused… with a finality foreign to our friendship.” He then tripped and landed full on his arm, breaking it.
There was also drinking while writing. Maisie Ward was something like Chesterton’s Boswell, a long-time friend with access to a host of his other friends in writing her 1943 biography. “[I]ntimate friends” told her Chesterton “had come to depend, ‘almost absent-mindedly’ one said, on the stimulus of wine for the sheer physical power to pour forth so much” writing.
A heavy diet, excessive smoking, an incredible obesity, a complete lack of physical exertion, beer with visitors, wine with meals, drinking to stimulate his writing. At the end of 1914, Chesterton had a total physical collapse, which his doctor attributed to his heart. He was found in a contorted position on a bed that had given way beneath him. He slipped in and out of comas and fought for life for almost half a year.
Near Easter of 1915, his condition stabilized. His physician at the time, Dr. Pocock, laid down a rule: no more alcohol. And Chesterton, for the next several years, obeyed.
For somewhere around the next decade, Chesterton was a man in his prime. Pictures from this time lead many to wonder who invented the idea that Chesterton was obese.
From 1915 to somewhere in the late 1920s, though heavy tobacco use continued—a co-worker called Chesterton “practically a chain smoker”—the abstinence from alcohol was total or practically so.
In 1922, Chesterton entered the Catholic Church. This would certainly have suggested a celebratory libation. But seven years after his collapse, Chesterton, in the words of a Fr. O’Reilly, “drank water and poured wine for everyone else.”
Somewhere towards his late 50’s, Chesterton began drinking again. In the marriage of Gilbert and Frances, Ward called alcohol “the deepest—perhaps the only deep—problem for them both.” It was a battle “against the real danger that [Chesterton] might again drink too much, as he had before the illness that so nearly killed him in 1915.”
The struggle can be seen in an incident related by a friend, when a visitor came to Beaconsfield. Chesterton called for wine. Frances delicately attempted to deflect the request. “There’s some squash” (a non-alcoholic drink), she suggested. Chesterton said, “I want wine.” When wine glasses were produced, Chesterton said, ‘I like my wine in a tumbler.'”
A close friend, Clare Nicholls, related an episode from when she had dinner alone with the Chestertons:
“G.K. said to me, ‘Will you have red or white wine, my dear?’ I answered, ‘Well, I’d love either if Auntlet [Frances] is having some too.’ To my dismay G.K. slapped the bottle he was holding onto the table, positively glared at me and said forcefully, “Look here, Clare, if you want wine, say so: if you don’t want wine, say so: but for goodness sake don’t make your having wine or not having wine dependent on what other people do.”
By 1931, Chesterton’s drinking and weight seem to have gotten away from him completely. When Chesterton visited Notre Dame to deliver a series of lectures, a professor remembered him drinking “ale by the quart.” Chesterton’s chaffeur put his weight at “close to 400 lbs.” Hard drinking friend Hilaire Belloc, as he aged, could only handle one bottle of wine. Chesterton’s daily intake of wine, according to Ward, was now “several bottles.” Worse, Frances wrote that Chesterton had returned to drinking as a stimulus to writing. Months later, Chesterton succumbed to heart disease.
Ada Chesterton and The Doctor
Chesterton’s sister-in-law, Ada, who knew him for over 35 years, stated in her book The Chestertons that excessive drinking killed Chesterton.
Rather than addressing the claim, some Chesterton scholars employ ad hominem attacks to discredit the source. In his 2014 Chesterton book, Ian Ker theorizes that Ada “resented she had been married to the much less famous brother.” He uses the nickname ‘Keith’, one used by her friends, in every single reference to her.
(For another side of Ada, see this video on the Cecil Houses, a charity she founded for the homeless, still in operation today.)
Dr. Bakewell, Chesterton’s physician for the last twenty years of his life, was asked to respond to Ada’s statement and put an end to the idea. Instead, Dr. Bakewell’s remarks were completely puzzling.
Ada thought Fleet Street a healthier environment for Chesterton than Beaconsfield. On Fleet Street, his drinking was more social. Dr. Bakewell took the opposite view, making the rather extreme statement that Chesterton’s lifestyle at Fleet Street was so deadly that had he stayed, “he would have died twenty years before.” But it was at Beaconsfield, six years after Fleet Street, that Chesterton actually had the crash that almost killed him.
He did admit he had to put Chesterton on complete alcoholic abstinence “several times.” But he says he did this not because “drink was in any way affecting Gilbert’s health” but “simply to make liquid less attractive, as too much of even water was bad for Gilbert.”
So the doctor forbid alcohol, the drink not affecting Chesterton’s health, to reduce the attractiveness of liquid in general, like water? If, as one source states, Chesterton’s death certificate “gave, as a contributary cause, the effects of alcohol,” Ada’s words deserve reappraisal and Dr. Bakewell’s ideas a great deal more scrutiny.
The internet ubiquitously lists Chesterton as a 6’4, 300 pound man. 6’4 was the estimate of Chesterton’s secretary: Chesterton gave his height as 6’2. As for weight, Chesterton said it had “never been accurately calculated.” Chesterton’s weight was not so simple and static; it went through phases.
In this picture, a year before his death, Chesterton is suffering from heart disease. On top of his own weight, perhaps edema is swelling his hands and legs, and his face displays the confusion and fatigue he was increasingly suffering. Whether he weighed 300 pounds in this picture or more is up to the viewer. But it’s not the jolly, stylized version celebrated in caricatures of him.
There are so many things to praise in Chesterton: his wit, wisdom, and innocence. Until Fr. Udris can find substantial evidence to the contrary, temperance does not seem to be one of them.
(Note on Aquinas: The popular image of a morbidly obese St. Thomas is nothing like Butler’s Lives description of Aquinas as “very tall, and every way proportioned” or paintings of a normal-sized Aquinas by Giotto and Daddi made a few decades after his death. Premier Aquinas biographer Jean-Pierre Torrell points out the “physical power” of St. Thomas, who once single-handedly hauled a boat upstream when several sailors failed to and walked thousands of miles in his travels. Chesterton summed up the evidence about Thomas’ weight when he said his “stature was more remarked than his stoutness.”)
Sources used in this article:
The Chestertons by Ada Chesterton
Gilbert Keith Chesterton by Maisie Ward
Return to Chesterton by Maisie Ward
G.K. Chesterton by Michael Finch
G.K. Chesterton by Christopher Hollis by Christopher Hollis
G. K. Chesterton: A Biography
G.K. Chesterton: A portrait
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1. The Person and His Work
We Have A Pope A Portrait Of His Holiness John XXIII
[Editor’s Note: The President of the American Chesterton Society, Dale Ahlquist, has written a rebuttal article for Catholic Household that can be found here: Chesterton the Glutton and the Drunk]
Latest posts by Steven Drummel (see all)
- Chesterton’s lack of temperance could block his canonization - November 18, 2014