Collected Works, Volume 14, Part Two
Before Gabriel Syme in The Man Who Was Thursday, before Gabriel Gale in The Poet and the Lunatics, there was Gabriel Hope in “The Wine of Cana,” a tantalizing tale described as a “sketch” found in G.K. Chesterton’s early notebooks. It is included in Part Two of Volume 14 of the Collected Works along with Chesterton’s early novel, Basil Howe (which we will consider at another time), and some short stories, complete and incomplete, written from the 1880s to the early 1890s, that reveal Chesterton’s aspirations to be a novelist. But they also reveal other aspirations, which is why the very name of the main character in “The Wine of Cana” is significant. Besides the name of the archangel, that special divine messenger, whose name Chesterton would continue to give to his fictional heroes, there is the most unsung of the cardinal virtues, the one that Chesterton himself would come to represent: hope.
There are hints of Jane Austen in the writing, as the main action is dialogue and some of the passages are wonderfully droll. But as Chesterton describes the characters, he probably provides too much analysis, which explains perhaps why Chesterton would never be a great novelist but would be a great literary critic. He is dissecting his characters even while he’s trying to bring them to life. But the main life that is being probed is his own. Gabriel Hope appears to be a self-portrait. He has a “primal moral sense.” He finds everything to be religious: food, fire, gardens, possibly even white ties. Everything reminds him of heaven. And he expounds on each of those things.
This is long before Chesterton is a Catholic, but it appears that he has already rejected Protestantism as he is attempting to work out his understanding of man’s relationship with God.
“There are two Christian virtues,” said Hope with dogmatic emphasis, “the first is unselfishness, and the other is cheerfulness. There is one diabolical quintessence of Antichrist, sulks.”
“Sulks?” said she, starting.
“Sulks,” repeated Hope with almost passionate iteration. “Sulks: whether they be of a child sitting in a corner and saying it shan’t play, or a poet stampeding Europe with his scorn of mankind. Sometimes
you hear people talking of modern inventions, as if God were nothing but an amiable President of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, instead of being, as he must be, the God of the
steam-engine as once of the war-chariot: the God of the ballot-box as once of the diadem, the God of the journalist as once of the prophet, only always the God of today.”
The “she” in this passage is Madge, who finds herself fascinated by Hope. She is not “quick or clever, being simply clear-headed and resolute, but she had one quality, a valuable quality not uncommon in bullet-headed characters like hers, a perception or rather a sensation of realities when she met them. It is the temper of which great disciples are made, the Simon Peters of history, who recognise instantly and defend stoutly views of life which are intellectually speaking far above their heads.”
And what is it that she realizes she has encountered?
“You must be very fond of reading,” she said.
“I am rather,” he said with a rather surprised smile. “But what made you think that?”
She in her turn looked at him in smiling astonishment.
“Why, of course, because of what you say.”
He looked puzzled. “We weren’t talking about reading,” he said.
“Nonsense,” she said, exasperated to run her head against this chance wall of obtusity. “I mean that you seem to express yourself so well.”
To her surprise, the red blood sprang into his face and he dropped his eyes sharply, like a girl receiving her first compliment. For the next minute the masterful young moralist looked as hot, shy and on guard
as he could.
Again Madge’s instinct grasped the situation, and it dawned upon her that the keynote of this pale, pedantic, passionate, subtle-theoried, simple-minded, long-winded idealist lay in the one plain fact that he had not a faint or far-off notion that he was in the slightest degree different from other people.
There is something autobiographical about this exchange. But there is also something very self-aware. It is as if Chesterton is giving an account of how he first reluctantly realized that he was not ordinary because people reacted to him as if he were extraordinary. Even though this did not change his opinion of himself, he still wished to be known as ordinary, or better yet, wished that everyone would simply be as ordinary as he was.
Apart from Madge, the other characters in the story do not get Hope. “He is a most offensive person,” says one. This would turn out to be the same reaction to Chesterton from those who cannot be bothered with him—or rather, those who are bothered by him. It was the same reaction to Christ, who promised a blessing for those who were not offended by him.
At the beginning of the story, Madge is described as any teenager today might be: She “seemed to renounce all interest in those around her, and indulged in a great deal of desultory reading [or web-surfing], varied by occasional and very effectual glimpses of a formidable temper, and considerable intervals of sleep.” But the end of the story she is “transfigured.” Though it is not clear that the story has actually ended. Perhaps Chesterton had another, more stunning climax in mind, but rather than finishing this tale, started another one, hoping to save the best wine for last.