Cambridge in Literature: G. K. Chesterton’s “Manalive”

Published in The Cambridge Student, November 2010

G.K. Chesterton was his friend C.S. Lewis’s only real competitor as England’s greatest Christian apologist, but unlike Lewis, his career as a novelist seems to be less widely acknowledged than his bestselling polemical works, like Orthodoxy and The Eternal Man. But always underlying the novels of both writers was the spirited attempt to affirm a decidedly Christian worldview of fallible Man who by the grace of God might lead a meaningful and fulfilled life. In his 1912 novel, Manalive, Chesterton affirms the Christian message in the character of Innocent Smith (the name is hardly subtle), a Prince Myshkin-like Cambridge graduate, ‘a holy fool’ who is falsely accused of burglary, attempted murder and polygamy: hardly Christlike. After letters from his contemporaries at the fictional Brikespeare College are mined (sarcastic descriptions of which suggest Chesterton’s contempt for 19th century liberal Bible Criticism), it transpires that the house he burgled was his own, the attempted murder merely his habit of firing bullets near people to make them cherish life and the polygamy his kinkily Catholic hobby of eloping with women who are actually his wife posing under various aliases so that they may repeatedly re-live their thoroughly chaste courtship. This irony-laden extract lambastes Cambridge’s spirit of what Chesterton viewed to be a nihilistic scientific skepticism (knowledge of which was likely culled from conversations with Cambridge fellow CS Lewis).

He had been sent to Cambridge with a view to a mathematical and scientific, rather than a classical or literary, career. A starless nihilism was then the philosophy of the schools; and it bred in him a war between the members and the spirit, but one in which the members were right.  While his brain accepted the black creed, his very body rebelled against it. As he put it, his right hand taught him terrible things. As the authorities of Cambridge University put it, unfortunately, it had taken the form of his right hand flourishing a loaded firearm in the very face of a distinguished don, and driving him to climb out of the window and cling to a waterspout. He had done it solely because the poor don had professed in theory a preference for non-existence. For this very unacademic type of argument he had been sent down. Vomiting as he was with revulsion, from the pessimism that had quailed under his pistol, he made himself a kind of fanatic of the joy of life.  He cut across all the associations of serious-minded men.  He was gay, but by no means careless. His practical jokes were more in earnest than verbal ones. Though not an optimist in the absurd sense of maintaining that life is all beer and skittles, he did really seem to maintain that beer and skittles are the most serious part of it. `What is more immortal,’ he would cry, `than love and war? Type of all desire and joy–beer.  Type of all battle and conquest–skittles.’

G. K. Chesterton, Manalive (1912)