Otago Witness, Issue 2881, 2 June 1909, Page 73
Mrs. G.K. Chesterton, like so many other clever wives of distinguished husbands, runs the risk, perhaps, of lacking that justice from the public which is her due. Yet, Mrs. Chesterton has several titles to distinction; she is not only a spirited and practiced debater, but she writes “occasional verse” of a most rare and delicate beauty. She is likewise keenly interested in social reform; she constantly presides at “happy evenings” for the children of the slums, and is a prominent supporter of the “Christian Socialist” ideals.
Frances Chesterton definitely runs the risk of lacking justice from the public which is her due. Over one hundred years after these words were so truthfully written, we now seek to rectify that error. The works of Frances Chesterton’s – her plays, her “occasional verse”, her essays—are for the most part unknown. Frances Chesterton’s life is unknown. In order to know more about her as a person, and as Gilbert Chesterton’s wife, we must turn to the work and the memories she left behind.
I’ve researched Frances Chesterton’s life for a few years in planning to write her biography. But as I was collecting information, I discovered that Frances not only had material published in the past, but that it was long forgotten and her works lay in obscurity. It’s time to shine a light on Frances Alice Blogg Chesterton. Before her biography was completed, I completed an edition of her works, both previously published, and those unpublished, in the hopes that these works will inspire in others an interest in the woman who was Chesterton.
If there is a common theme woven through the entire collection of her work, it is Christmas. Christmas inspired Frances, motivated Frances, and kept Frances from depression during the winter. The Infant in the Manger was her heart’s desire, and she loved to describe the tiny feet, the little hands, and the small footsteps.
Frances’s plays (included in the book How Far Is It To Bethlehem? by Nancy Carpentier Brown) were written for Christmas Eve productions which the Chestertons put on each year. They had a stage right in their house for such home entertainments they so richly enjoyed. My greatest hope is that they will be used again for such a purpose.
Frances’s essay, also included in the book mentioned above, was written before her marriage and sounds strikingly similar to Gilbert Chesterton, so much so that one wonders if he inspired her words, or if she inspired his. In either case, we can see how they thought alike.
Her poems were often written for Christmas cards. Below is her best known example.
How Far Is It To Bethlehem?
by Frances A. Chesterton
How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star?
Can we see the little Child?
Is He within?
If we lift the wooden latch
May we go in?
May we stroke the creatures there
Ox, ass, or sheep?
May we peep like them and see
If we touch His tiny hand
Will He awake?
Will He know we’ve come so far
Just for His sake?
Great kings have precious gifts
And we have naught
Little smiles and little tears
Are all we have brought.
For all weary children
Mary must weep
Here, on His bed of straw
Sleep, children, sleep.
God in His mother’s arms
Babes in the byre
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.
How Far Is It To Bethelem? is Frances Chesterton’s lasting legacy. The poem, originally written in 1917 and printed on Gilbert and Frances’s Christmas card to family and friends that year, then experienced a long and lasting life as a poem and a song, right up till today.
The poem was set to traditional English music from the 16th-18th century called “Stowey” and published by Novello & Co. in 1922. Since then, this song has experienced a never-ending string of performances, reprints, recordings, and YouTube videos in every situation from solo performance to Mormon Tabernacle Choir, in every language from English to Czechoslovakian.
When once one listens to the words though the heart of Frances, the song becomes a poignant pleading for hope in times of trouble. How far is it to Bethlehem? Frances asks herself. How far is it to nativity? How far is it to heaven? How far is it to maternity? Frances suffered from her infertility, longing for babies of her own to hold. But while the medical world could not offer a cure, she consistently saw hope in the nativity scene, in the Babe in the manger, or in His mother’s arms. How far is it to Bethlehem? Frances asks herself, and then she answers beautifully, hopefully and faithfully, “not very far.”
Frances’s life gives us hope. She fought many obstacles: faced family deaths numerous times, had her dream of a large beautiful family sadly fade away, her own writing career subsumed and nearly washed away due to the brighter light of Gilbert’s. Yet, she remained faithful, hopeful, loving. We find in her an example of steadfastness in the midst of chaos, hope in the midst of fears, a life of unselfish service in the midst of death.
Hers was indeed a life where Bethlehem was not far away. Let us too find strength, hope, and love in knowing more about the life of Frances Chesterton.
* * *
Frances Alice Blogg Chesterton spent most of her life in the shadow of her larger than life husband British author Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Subject to gossip and rumors often started by her sister-in-law, Ada Chesterton, Frances chose to keep quietly in the background, letting her husband and others take center stage. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a woman of talent and extraordinary gifts; it shows she had tremendous humility.
Her story is a love story. The love between Gilbert and Frances was romantic. She was his best fan, his most successful marketer, his biggest cheerleader. She took dictation from him; she tied his shoes. She clung to him when her life seemed out of control. She cherished the love poetry he wrote her, holding the words tenderly in her own heart, never sharing the most intimate of them with anyone. She loved him, and he loved her.
For nearly a century, Frances’ story has been hidden amongst the pages of poetry Gilbert wrote, Christmas cards sent to friends, letters to priests and friends stored in library special collections, biographies written by literary contemporaries, and in scattered periodicals and books. Rarely is it known that Frances had her own writing career. Only recently has anyone been aware that she had four books published during her lifetime.
It’s time to bring Frances out of the shadows and into the light. The story of Frances is intimately woven with the story of Gilbert. They worked as a team; they were lovers and friends, writing coaches and companions. They worked, ate, and slept together for 35 years, dependent on each other physically, emotionally and intellectually. One can hardly understand Gilbert without some understanding of Frances.
Gilbert’s story cannot be written without knowing Frances, but up till now, not enough has been known about Frances. This is the moment when that changes. Frances asked Gilbert to keep her out of his autobiography, but she isn’t here to stop us now. Frances is a woman who will come to be respected ever more, as it is discovered just who she really was, and how much she had to do with who Gilbert was.
A book containing the plays and poetry of Frances is available now! The biography is expected in 2014. Stay tuned.