Rebecca West, The Clarion 1913

Mr Chesterton in Hysterics
A Study in Prejudice.

Source: Clarion 14.11.1913, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In these days I am constantly meeting a certain type of self-satisfied young person who imagines that he is saved as a social and spiritual man because he drinks beer in a priggish manner and experiences feelings of sentimental distension on such occasions as sunset, and that he has solved the problem of poverty because he dislikes Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb. Such persons state that it is Mr. G.K. Chesterton who has made them what they are. I believe them. I have the greatest possible admiration for “Tremendous Trifles” and the other fairy tales – Heavens! how I can see Mr. Chesterton’s beaming face crying happily, “But that’s just it! Life is a fairy tale!” Heavens! – but I believe his view of life to be based on a misconception. To put it in a theological way, he denies that God made the brain as well as the heart. He despises wisdom. He does not know that he who lets the strong beast of his hatred rage through an uncharted world may find that it has defiled the dwelling of the Holy Ghost. As I dislike intensely the condescension with which he slaps the working man on the back I rarely read his political articles. But last week I was sent “The New Witness” of October 30 which contained an article called “I Told You So.” There is no sentiment in that article which would not be a credit to an inhabitant of heaven: in fact it makes one desire to send Mr. Chesterton thither at once. The conclusions of that article are corruptingly foolish and wicked.

The subject is that recent incident in Dublin, when the strikers’ children who were being sent over to English or Belfast homes were assaulted by priests and “Hibernians,” and prevented from leaving the city. This incident seems full of quiet beauty to Mr. Chesterton. Like all sentimentalists he is cruel: the thin wail of the hungry teaches him no truth. There is obvious picturesqueness about a priest walking in his black cassock through a little world of ritual. There is a certain Juicy Sentimentality to be extracted from the spectacle if the priest happens to be leading a little child by the hand. So that is the picture he has made for himself of the situation in Dublin. So he turns angrily on Mrs. Montefiore, the chief organiser of the scheme, scheme, for finding homes for the children of Dublin until the famine is Dublin is less bitter a thing, and tells her that she and her friends are the servants of evil because:

(A) she is a woman;

(B) she is a Jewess;

(C) she is a philanthropist of the Webb school.

I am not prepared to deny the first allegation. I object passionately to the use to which it is put. Mr. Chesterton, whose grip on public affairs is the most tenuous thing about him, has no right to treat the woman who in Australia was the boldest opponent of Conscription, and in Africa did her part in organising the Rand miners for their present battle, as a cheeky intervener in the rising of the people. Yet he airily sweeps her into the ranks of an alleged Feminist Movement which is “like an idolatrous procession cutting across and stopping the march of modern men in revolt.” I myself have never been able to find out precisely what Feminism is: I only know that people call me a Feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute. But it is obviously as imbecile to say that the Feminist Movement shows a “priggish imperviousness to the instincts of the sexes and the institution of the family” as it would be to say that it shows “priggish imperviousness” to the greenness of grass and the shrinkage of the ancestral caesura to the appendix. It is as likely that the human race should agitate for pink grass and the restoration of the caecum as that it should become impervious to the instincts of the sexes and the institution of the family. And not the very blindest fool could see any indication of any such imperviousness in the “Daily Herald” League scheme. I find it almost incredible that while Dublin is crying out to us of the black things of reality, Mr. Chesterton can be sentimentally enjoying the thought of the wickedness of parting a mother and her child. He cannot know the horror of a city Sacked by a Strike.

He surely must know that a women hates to see her children starving, even in the institution of the family. He surely must know that industrial war such as this puts many women in the horrible dilemma of choosing between stinting the born or the unborn. He surely must know that many women who are nursing their babies, are torn between their impulse to deny themselves food for the sake of the older children, and the impulse to go on nursing their babies. He surely must know that just now, when every available garment is pawned and the winter is coming on, many women feel a knife in their heart every time they look at their children. There is one point when it is permissible to break up the institution of the family: that is the point when it is changing from an institution to a mausoleum. In Dublin it had begun to change. And that is why the mothers were ready and anxious to hand over their children to the care of the Englishwomen. They had the instinct for life, which is the strongest of all the instincts of the sexes.

As for the point that Mrs. Montefiore is a Jewess, I simply do not know what to say. My first name will undoubtedly bring this portion of my article under Mr. Chesterton’s suspicion, but I swear that I am not a Jewess and that I am not a Samuel. But I loathe this anti-Semitism as I loathe the devil. I think the ferment of Celt and Saxon that makes up our British blood is so wonderful a thing that we need fear no other race alive. I have an insular pride in the fact that those who are responsible for the revival of this insane cowardice – Mr. Belloc and Mr. Chesterton – are both of French Blood.

By their howlings against aliens they prove themselves more alien from our clean hearth than any poor Polish Jew who comes to make our wealth in Scottish mines, and infinitely alien from the British heroes who, with the nervousness of uncourageous men, they love to celebrate.

And incidentally Mrs. Montefiore is not a Jewess.

Mr. Chesterton will say that that is no matter.

The mere name “Montefiore,” strangely enough, would not suggest to an Irish labourer a Celtic legend about a mountain of flowers. It would rather suggest another mountain remarkable for the quality of sharpness; one that is even sharp enough to call itself Montague. I believe Mrs. Montefiore’s generosity to be entirely genuine; and quite unconnected with the mere “philanthropy” of international financiers. But I am not talking about what I think; but about what the Dublin populace might rationally have been expected to think. And I say the mere surname of one of the great Jewish financial houses has probably done more harm than we can easily cure.

To the end of my days I shall have in my heart this exquisite picture of an Irish dock labourer restrained from handing over his starving child to a comfortable home because the organiser who took down his name bore the name of a banking firm....

Think of it. And such a banking firm: one of the least public and the most upright in its dealings.. One might as well imagine a London dock labourer blenching because a Mr. Van Raalte came to speak with Ben Tillett on Tower Hill. This is not my nasty superciliousiness: it is a correct estimate of exactly what the name “Montefiore” conveyed to the members of the Irish Transport Workers’ Union. When Miss Larkin was asked by a speaker at the Albert Hall (who had probably got the idea from this mischievous source) whether Mrs. Montefiore’s name had roused much prejudice in Dublin, it was the first time she had heard that it was Jewish. We Irish have One Kind of Sanity. Never once was this race prejudice exploited in Dublin: a “White Slaver” the priests called Mrs. Montefiore, but not a Jewess.

Now we come to the third point. According to Mr. Chesterton, the people who tore the children from the women to whom their parents had gratefully entrusted them were not driven by priests:

They were driven by a human and hearty hatred of the spirit and power of Sidney Webb: a hatred of high-minded, high-handed, conscientious, officious, efficient, insolent philanthropy...

Poor people are people with not enough money. They are not people with not enough organisation, or education, or parental responsibility, or parental leisure. What we ought to have sent, what we ought to be sending, to the poor Dublin parents is money....

If I give a man coffee, I tell him to drink coffee: if I give him threepence, I give him tea or coffee or any other beverage that can to be procured. Now the stamp and brand of Webb Sociology through all its windings is that it will not give the poor money – that is, freedom to the extent of threepence. That abominable brand burned on the forehead of the Socialist philanthropists in Dublin. They would feed the children; they would not pay the parents to feed the children.

This sounds well. It is simple. It is direct. It is from the heart. It is mischievous nonsense.

Mrs. Montefiore is – I know she will understand me – a Socialist that the Webbs would not touch with a barge-pole. She did not descend upon Dublin in her luxurious steam yacht with bags of Jewish gold, which she would not hand over to the strikers because she was afraid they would spend it on drink, but which she would disburse in railway fares to remove them to Fabian-staffed barracks. She was sent over to Dublin by The Workers of England.

Three hundred trade unionists and Socialists of England, many of them Catholics, had written to her, saying that they would take one Dublin child or more into their homes until the strike was over. I have seen those letters. They were from working people: they breathed not Webbery but brotherhood. (Why does Mr. Chesterton pretend to believe in a benevolent God and yet think He peoples the earth with nothing but Webbs and Samuels?) The majority of them plainly stated that they were not in a position to send money. “A slice off the loaf won’t make no difference.” “We can put up another cot in our kiddies’ bedroom.” “The children must be of school age, as I go out charing in morning and can’t look to them.” That was the spirit. That there were three hundred manifestations of that spirit is one of the most glorious things that has happened during this glorious time of unrest. If one has a cantankerous nature and a short memory about half-fares, one may claim that the children might have been maintained at home on the money spent on their fares. It may be my feminist “imperviousness to the instincts of sex and the institution of the family,” but I am perfectly certain that the sum of 7s. 6d. (which was all that was spent on the children who went to Liverpool) would not maintain a child for long with prices as they are today in Dublin. Nor do I think the strike will be over in a period that could be covered by a pound, which was the most that was expended. I do not Blame Mr. Chesterton for not knowing these details. I suggest that before abusing Mrs. Montefiore and the Feminist Movement he might have found them out. He makes another point, which shows us the frame of mind which permits him this kind of impertinence:

I should have thought that anyone who had so much as seen an Irish priest (even in the distance) would know what he would say in answer to Mrs. Montefiore, or another, if they promised not to violate the Catholicism of a little boy or girl. He would say: “But Mrs. Montefiore would not know when she was violating Catholicism.

“Catholicism is not a topic. It is not something one can mention on Tuesday but not on Friday. It is a way of looking at everything there is in the world.”

The priests said nothing half so pretty. They were too busy getting hold of Grace Neal by the shoulders and shaking her: too busy picking the identification labels off the children’s jerseys in order to make confusion: too busy inciting their Hibernians to strip naked a luckless father who was trying to send his child out of Murphy’s ravaged-city to a Catholic home in Belfast. But if they had, what an exposure of Catholicism! So it is not a natural flowering of the instructed spirit. It is an artificial thing that must be clamped on by bars of compulsion which have to be constantly screwed tight by priests. Well, Mr. Chesterton may have own way about that. We only ask him to remember that Rebelhood is a different thing. It is a natural flowering of the spirit as it moves among events. It is not an artificial thing that is clamped on and will stay clamped on even when one is writhing in the paroxysm of anti-Semitic or anti-Feminist hysterics. I beg him, in the face of this amazing display of distaste for research in fact, to remember that true Rebelhood is the precious product of discipline and sanity: that a rebel who is inaccurate and mad is a traitor.