A symbolic London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury (1730) in imitation of the Mausoleum, the ancient tomb of Mausolus, but guarded by a lion and a unicorn [own photo]
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton.
Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)

Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.

The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.

The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.

If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.

Trafalgar Square

Chesterton himself described The Man Who Was Thursday as ‘a new kind of novel’, a story in which ‘modern thoughts are typified by rapid symbolic incidents – an allegorical comedy’. In other words, the novel was not as it at first seems but was to be read as something else.

Chesterton had, after dabbling in the occult while at the Slade School of Art, reverted to orthodox Christianity, later converting to Catholicism in the twenties. His born-again fervour permeates this novel which, in a way, is an extended parable: more than an allegory, it is full of passing homilies couched in the dialogues Syme has with his fellow conspirators. The climax of the novel has a very Biblical flavour, tinged by references to skyscapes and colours which reflect his art education and his admiration for Symbolist painter George Frederic Watts (who had died in 1904).

George Frederic Watts: The Sower of the Systems (1902)

I can enjoy the occasional humour and wit, and what would now be called magic realism doesn’t faze me, but the overt preaching, patronising tone and pauses for reflection in what pretends to be a thriller is not an approach to novel-writing that attracts me. Moreover, most of the characters are stereotypes or ciphers. Gabriel Syme himself combines the name of the archangel and the Greek island of Syme, said to be the birthplace of the Three Graces, Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Joy) and Thalia (Grace). The poet Lucian’s name is deliberately reminiscent of Lucifer, bringer of light and renegade angel, while his sister Rosamond, ‘the girl with the gold-red hair’ who is the final figure in the novel, is meant to remind us of that Christian symbol Rosa Munda, ‘pure rose’. Insofar as they might be based on real people – Rosamond for Frances, Chesterton’s wife and Syme for Chesterton himself, for example – their function is to personify ideals.

This being one of OUP’s World’s Classics titles, there is a scholarly introduction with appended notes. They are provided here by Stephen Medcalf, by all accounts an outstanding old school academic who died in 2007, whose High Anglican loyalties lend a partisan flavour to the commentary. Included in this edition are related pieces by Chesterton: A Picture of Tuesday (a short story about painting in a School of Art not unlike the Slade), The Book of Job (a commentary on the Old Testament book) and The Diabolist, the last of the three pieces closely related to themes in The Man Who Was Thursday, where I suspect diabolism is meant as the antonym to symbolism, the overarching feature of his novel.

I read this while on a holiday in London, the scene of so much of the novel’s action, and coincidentally passed many of the places mentioned, such as Regent’s Park Zoo; this edition includes a couple of maps of Edwardian London for those who are not familiar with the capital. But remember, this is a symbolic London, neither the real London nor, horror of horrors, an impressionist one: Impressionism as an artistic movement was anathema to Chesterton, redolent of the anarchist philosophy that he opposed.

Repost of review first published 23th February 2013

34 thoughts on “A symbolic London

  1. You have given a lot to recommend the novel as a good read, but I dislike action being interrupted by irrelevant preaching, so think I will pass …
    Did you ever track down the Llewellyn sequel to the Childers book?


  2. Hmm…I’d been considering reading this, but now I’m not so sure. Even though I’m a practicing Christian, I dislike being preached at in my fiction. Though I do enjoy the Father Brown stories immensely. Chesterton’s purplish prose can be an acquired taste, however.


    1. Though I’m not a believer, Christianity is such a part of the culture that I appreciate a lot of what it stands for, its history and its lasting effects on our way of life. However, I don’t like being preached at in my fiction any more than you do.

      The Man Who Was Thursday is more than just a parable, where brevity could make its point more strongly, and has become an overlong allegory, where the religious parallels are pointed up again and again till it becomes self-indulgent on Chesterton’s part. I found little to enjoy in it, apart from the scenic descriptions, and much to deride, such as the risible plot and action.

      You’ll gather that this hasn’t encouraged me to acquire the taste for Chesterton’s prose!


  3. piotrek

    I’ve read recently, in a volume of Gaiman’s non-fiction, that he considers Chesterton to be one of his masters. I decided to finally try him and I have to say I enjoyed “The Man…” quite a bit more than you did… the mix of preaching to action was actually just to my taste 😉 It was hard to decide if I should give it 4 or 5 stars on GR, I went for 5 – one partially for being such an innovative author back then and for ageing gracefully.

    Not sure if I’ll read more of him, but that was a very nice first encounter.

    I find the Catholicism of some British writers so different to what we have in Poland, I don’t mind a bit of preaching. Well, I mostly mean Tolkien, Waugh, Greene, and, now, Chesterton, perhaps not a big enough sample 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that you (and Gaiman) saw merits in this that I didn’t, and I suspect that a second read now might make me less hypercritical than I was in this review! (I still would prefer Conrad’s The Secret Agent though… )

      Where Chesterton’s Catholicism is concerned I think that there’s a strain in High Anglicanism which favours ritual and Latin, dressing up and moral certainty, a strain which predisposed many Brits a century ago to migrate from so-called Anglo-Catholicism and convert to full-blown Roman Catholicism. Certainly a different flavour from the Irish Catholicism that I was subjected to in my youth! At some stage, though, I may give GKC’s Father Brown stories another go — after all, if Jorge Luis Borges rated them highly who am I to demur?!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        In Paolo Sorrentino’s “The New Pope”, sequel series to “The Young Pope” – and a beautiful, excellent show, even better than the preceding one – Malkovich plays John Brannox, a, well, new pope, who very much represents this tradition and even has a statue of Cardinal John Newman on the lawn of his mansion… highly recommended. And did I mention it’s beautiful? Even from purely aesthetical point of view, a great show.

        “The Secret Agent” is great, but isn’t it just a very different kind of book? Incidentally, I think about re-reading it, as I discovered audiobook library I have access to has it in its catalogue.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s by HBO, isn’t it? We only recently subscribed to Netflix so not in a hurry to plump for anything else but if it’s aired anywhere else then I’ll give it a look! Enjoyed The Two Popes certainly when that became available.

          Yes, the Conrad is very different but certainly set in roughly the same period when malcontents, agitators and revolutionaries were finding refuge in London. The openings of both novels though had (as I remember, and we all know my memory can be a little faulty) a similar opening feel to them. Thereafter, though, they diverge.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only read a couple of the Father Brown stories, Karen, but was probably not in the mood for them at the time as I found them a bit verbose and possibly ‘superior’ (if that’s the right word).

      Maybe I found the latent Catholicism a bit too much — being myself what adherents call a lapsed Catholic — but perhaps I ought to give them another go and eschew the prejudice. Occultism I find unpleasant but in some fictional contexts quite quaint!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. At an age when these two authors were still plentifully available on library shelves I was newly and happily ensconced in fantasy and science fiction, from which I since seem to have mainly made forays into 19th-century classics and non-fiction. I see some Waugh is trying to attract my attention, however, plus miscellaneous and long-neglected pile of short-story collections, so Chesterton and Wodehouse will just have to wait. Sorry!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I didn’t mind GKC’s book on Dickens which I received as a present, I thought it has interesting details which I didn’t know before. I have read Father Brown but too long ago to really remember, but I do know I didn’t find them as interesting as they were made out to be.

    Preachy books do get on my nerves too–including in children’s fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really don’t mind fiction with a moral compass — in fact, I find these novels often the most satisfying — but when the preaching is overt and the symbolism laid on thickly by the author’s trowel, that’s when the willing suspension of disbelief for me becomes impossible.

      Good parables don’t need the moral of the story spelt out, because the story is king. I remember seeing an evangelical postcard with a picture of a lion, on which was overprinted the message “Jesus is like Aslan because He gave up His life for others” — I could barely restrain myself from screaming Jesus isn’t supposed to be like Aslan! It’s the other way round — Aslan is Lewis’s metaphor for Jesus, you dimwits!

      Here is where too many religious extremists fail to convince: they mistake metaphor for reality and symbolism for actuality (except when it suits them otherwise) and, as here, they substitute memes for facts. This is what bugs me about this novel: I really can’t accept a lot of hogwash because a writer thinks something they find poetical is somehow factual.

      Sorry for the rant, Mallika! That kind of extremism is reflected in so much of what passes for political discourse these days; and when the political extremism engages in an unholy matrimony with evangelism then may the gods help us all!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can understand your frustration. I kind of meant the same thing–stories even children’s ones that overstate their message or as you say feel the need to spell it out rather than let it speak for itself are ones that annoy me as well.

        Like in so many Blyton books, nasty children get their comeuppance, but she doesn’t necessarily say it all the time.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. While I largely enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-wrinkle) there were preachy elements in it that made me a little uncomfortable. I suppose being a humanist makes me more inclined to like my fiction without allegorical overtones, though the corollary — allegory without any humanity — completely turns me off.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Alyson Woodhouse

    I didn’t realise Chesterton had been involved in practices of the Occult before converting to Catholicism. I find such practices spiritually disturbing, and any influence of them in his writing would be enough to put me off. As it happens, I am a Christian, but I don’t think literature is the right place for overt preaching, and certainly not for fanaticism. It sounds as though the symbolism was far too on the nose to be effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Alyson — and yet I’ve seen this novel praised by authors (like Neil Gaiman) whom I admire, which makes me think I may have missed the more admirable aspects present here. It’s possible I may eventually revisit this in a more positive frame of mind but just not now, or any time soon!


    1. I don’t mind magic realism in small doses, but if there is such a thing as ‘ecclesiastical realism’ this was it, and I didn’t like it! (Just in case that didn’t come across in my review…)


  6. I am so grateful to you for posting this!
    I recently read Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism where he makes reference to Chesterton as an example of nationalism in the service of ‘political Catholicism’. As I say in my review https://anzlitlovers.com/2020/07/30/notes-on-nationalism-by-george-orwell-penguin-moderns-07/ I read The Man Who Was Thursday much too long ago to remember it well, but noted that those cosy Father Brown mysteries including in their modern TV series form have the same agenda.
    So I had been toying with re-reading TMWWT but now, thanks to your comprehensive review, I no longer need to do so. Thank you!


Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.