From an eccentric book I came across online, The Walking-Stick Papers by Robert Cortes Holliday, comes this vivid short portrait of G.K. Chesterton as a young man. Holliday, an American writer, decided to visit England and wrote to a number of authors to arrange meetings. Here is his account of meeting G.K. Chesterton in 1915:
Mr. Chesterton is a grand man. Smokes excellent cigars. But first, as you come up the hill, from the railway station toward the old part of the village and to the little house Overroads, you enter, as like as not, as I did, a gate set in a pleasant hedge, and you knock at a side door, to the mirth later of Mrs. Chesterton.
This agreeable entrance is that for tradesmen. The way you should have gone in is round somewhere on another road. A maid admits you to a small parlour and in a moment Mrs. Chesterton comes in to inquire if you have an appointment with her husband. She always speaks of Mr. Chesterton as “my husband.” It develops that the letter you sent fixing the appointment got balled up in some way. It further develops that a good many things connected with Mr. Chesterton’s life and house get balled up. Mrs. Chesterton’s line seems to be to keep things about a chaotic husband as straight as possible.
Mr. Chesterton is a very fat man. His portraits, I think, hardly do him sufficient honour in this respect. He has a remarkably red face. And a smallish moustache, lightish in colour against this background. His expression is extraordinarily innocent; he looks like a monstrous infant. A tumbled mane tops him off. He sits in his parlour in a very small chair.
Did I write him when I was coming? Wonder what became of the letter? Doesn’t remember it. Perhaps it is in his dressing gown. Has a habit of sticking things that interest him into the pocket of his dressing gown. Where, do you suppose, is his dressing gown? However, no matter. “Have a cigar. Do have a cigar. Wonder where my cigars are! Where are my cigars?” Mrs. Chesterton locates them.
Now about that poem, “The Inn at the End of the World,” or some such thing. He is inclined to think that he did write it, but he cannot remember where it was published. Now he has lost his glasses, ridiculously small glasses, which he has been continually attempting to fix firmly upon his nose. Slapping yourself about the chest is an excellent way to find glasses.
Well, it is very flattering to be told that one is so well known in America. But so he had heard before. Describes himself as a “philosophical journalist.” Did not know that there was an audience in America for his kind of writing. Wonders whether democracy as carried on there “on such a gigantic scale” can keep right on successfully. Admits a division between our two peoples. “Trenches have been dug between us,” he declares.
Rises to a remark about the Englishman’s everlasting garden. “He likes to have a little fringe about him,” he says. And then tells a little story, which one might say contains all the elements of his art.
When he first came to Beaconsfield, Mr. Chesterton said, the policemen used to touch their helmets to him, until he told them to stop it. Because, he said, he felt that rather he should touch his hat to the policemen. “Saluting the colours, as it were,” he explained. “For,” he added, “are they not officers of the King?”
Mr. Chesterton apologised for being, as he put it, excessively talkative. This was occasioned, he said, by “worry and fatigue.” I declined to stay for tea, as I noticed a chugging car awaiting in front of the house. “You must come to see me again,” said the grand young man of England. The last I saw of him he was rolling through his garden, tossing his mane; the famous garden that rose up and hit him, you remember, at the time of his unfortunate fall*.
* (I believe the reference here is to Chesterton’s illness in late 1914 to early 1915 which left him in a semi-comatose state.)