Recently, one of my teens had to give an impromptu speech in class on the subject, “If your life were a song title, what would it be?” She had 60 seconds to think, and then two minutes to give the short speech.
I must have had that in mind as I finished, The Woman Who Was Chesterton Nancy Carpentier Brown’s sweeping biography of Frances Chesterton, the wife of celebrated writer G.K. Chesterton.
That’s because I thought, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards surely didn’t have Frances in mind when they wrote, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but the refrain fits exceedingly well for her life and times.
Frances Chesterton was a poet, a playwright, and a writer. But she’s best known as the wife of “GKC,” one of the best-known and best writers of the 20th century, who is the author of “Everlasting Man,” “Orthodoxy,” The Father Brown Mysteries, and many, many other books and articles on cultural and Catholic topics.
Their love story, partnership, and her influence on him is detailed in The Woman Who Was Chesterton. But what’s best about this book is Brown’s careful assessment of Frances’ character and life, and how she bore her misfortunes and struggles with grace and a fundamental hopefulness.
Nancy Carpentier Brown is a writer who’s been a Chesterton authority for some time. She’s written two children’s versions of Father Brown stories, among other works and writings on Chesterton and Frances Chesterton.
Brown’s The Woman Who Was Chesterton is part a fascinating look at England during a time of vibrant Catholic intellectual and spiritual renewal. Notables like Chesterton (and eventually Frances) converted to Catholicism with the help of priests like Fr. Vincent McNabb and Msgr. Ronald Knox. And GKC’s own exceptional writing and lecturing career is recounted well.
But the book is mostly about Frances Chesterton, and the many misfortunes, along with happy times, she lived through. She wasn’t perfect, and often began with less than ideal responses to problems she encountered.
For instance, chief among her crosses was infertility. She had written that she and GKC would have “seven beautiful children.” At first, she found it almost unbearable to see the babies of friends and relatives. The couple consulted many doctors and Frances had several operations, but all the efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
Rather than stay in despair, she not only made peace with it, but became a beloved aunt to her relatives and friend to many, many children over the years. She also wrote a number of charming religious children’s plays and helped stage them.
And that was true for many of her trials—she struggled in some fashion, but eventually grew into a spiritual and emotional maturity and found a way to rise above things instead of descending into bitterness.
Frances Chesterton’s life exemplifies a triumph of grace, but that was because she cooperated with grace.
Most of us won’t have the trials that Frances faced, or at least not all of them—infertility; the death of two beloved siblings—one to suicide; her own and GKC’s severe health issues; and many more. But each person has his or her own misfortunes, big and small, that shape us and can affect us. And how we strive to accept and live with these shows our spiritual maturity.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls this kind of faith—corresponding with grace even in the midst of reversals or bad things— “a trusting faith, a hoping faith,” instead of just an intellectual faith. It’s something all mature Christians can do well to learn more about and to emulate.
As Brown writes in the introduction to The Woman Who Was Chesterton, “I hope that this humble effort will give readers the opportunity to get to know and respect her—as herself, and for herself. … My greater hope is that Frances’s life will be an inspiration to all of us, married and unmarried, to live a more faithful, hopeful, and humble life in the midst of good times and bad, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.”
Reading an outstanding biography like The Woman Who Was Chesterton is a great way learn about a fascinating time in Catholic history, and about some of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century. But more importantly, the book is a lovely telling of how grace works in one person’s life.
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I have reviewed other books by Nancy Carpentier Brown. Here is one of The Father Brown Reader II: More Stories from Chesterton. Here is a Q&A with Nancy Brown when the book first was released. I also reference Brown’s books in “Good Books for Kids” here.
One thing I neglected to put in my review of The Woman Who Was Chesterton was one of my favorite parts of Frances’ early life–her family hosted a regular meeting/salon on social, cultural, and political topics in their home called the “IDK Debating Society.” And yes, IDK means “I Don’t Know,” showing how far ahead of the times Frances and her family were. 🙂