Frances Alice Blogg Chesterton: G.K. Chesterton’s Remarkable Wife, by guest writer Nancy Carpentier Brown

Gilbert and Frances ca. 1904. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without permission.

Gilbert and Frances ca. 1904. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without written permission. Click image to enlarge.

From the beginning, faith was a part of the relationship of Gilbert and Frances Chesterton. As a young man Gilbert Keith Chesterton, journalist and Marion E. Wade Center author, was interested in Christianity, but never knew anyone who actually practiced it. His future wife Frances read the Bible and taught Sunday school. She attended services faithfully each weekend. Besides that, she visited the sick, took care of the elderly, and served the poor in her neighborhood. She wasn’t just paying lip service to Christianity—she was living it. This attracted the young author, and intrigued him—as she intrigues us. It is often interesting to discover more about a famous writer by getting to know their spouse. Who was this remarkable woman?

Francis Alice Blogg Chesterton

Francis Alice Blogg Chesterton. Drawing by  Alfred Priest, ca. 1906. Click image to enlarge.

Frances Alice Blogg was a shy Victorian girl, the eldest in her family. She was born June 28, 1869 and raised in London, a city girl who discovered she loved gardening and country living. Her mother believed in modern education, and sent Frances and her sisters to the very first kindergarten in London.

After Frances attended primary school, she was sent to a high school for girls that operated along academic lines to prepare the girls for higher education. This was novel in the late 1800s, and Frances’s younger sister Gertrude was one of the first of a group of students to sit for the Cambridge Examinations. While she was in high school, Frances began writing poetry.

“How far is it to Bethlehem?
Not very far.
Shall we find the stable room
Lit by a star? . . .

God in his mother’s arms,
Babes in the byre,
Sleep, as they sleep who find
Their heart’s desire.”

– First and last verses of Frances Chesterton’s poem
How Far Is It To Bethlehem

Frances took after her mother in being drawn to the educational field, and after high school she attended college to become a teacher. It was during her time at this school, St. Stephens College, run by the Anglican Clewer Sisters of St. John, that Frances became a devout Christian. The daily routines of mass and the prayer life there were congenial to Frances, and she adopted devotional practices then that would last her lifetime.

After college Frances tutored students for a few years, and then took a job in 1895 at an educational institution called the Parent’s National Educational Union (P.N.E.U.) run by Charlotte Mason. Frances became the organization’s general secretary and administrator. She planned conferences, organized a lending library, took notes at meetings, gave speeches, edited their newsletters and magazines, and kept track of expenses. Frances worked for the P.N.E.U. for five and a half years, from 1895 until she married Gilbert in 1901.

Frances and Gilbert ca. 1898-1900. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without permission.

Frances and Gilbert ca. 1898-1900. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without written permission. Click image to enlarge.

Frances’s family lived in London’s first suburb called Bedford Park. It was a bohemian neighborhood, filled with artists, poets, socialists and communists. Frances’s mother, now a widow, loved the atmosphere. The Blogg family entered fully into the life of the neighborhood, and started their own debate club, called the I.D.K. Debating Society. (When members were asked what the initials stood for, they were to shrug their shoulders and say, “I Don’t Know.”) Lucian Oldershaw heard of this club through a friend and began visiting the interesting family with the hope of courting one of the beautiful sisters he found living there.

Oldershaw, along with Gilbert Chesterton, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, and many of their other school friends had started their own debate club back at St. Paul’s when the boys attended that institution. He told Chesterton about the Blogg’s debate club, and indicated that there were three attractive sisters in the household. And so it was that Chesterton went visiting one day at the Bedford Park home and met Frances Blogg.

A short time afterwards they were engaged, and in 1901 they married. Frances became Gilbert’s secretary, as well as his marketer, organizer, and biggest fan. It was said that things Chesterton said one day, Frances repeated the next day—not because she was blindly following, but because she believed he was right. Although they were never able to have children, the Chestertons hosted numerous children at their home in Beaconsfield, were very close to their nieces and nephews, and counted over 25 godchildren.

When Gilbert first met Frances, he was just coming out of a dark chapter in his life. Raised a Unitarian, Chesterton had dabbled in Spiritualism and later sunk into despair, not knowing where he could find certainty in life. He had held on, he said, with “one thin thread of thanks;” trusting there was a God, but not much more. At that moment he met Frances. She introduced him to the Trinity, and most importantly, to the person of Jesus Christ. The author would credit her afterwards with his conversion in the dedication of his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, by saying:

“Therefore I bring these rhymes to you
Who brought the cross to me.”

Within a few years of their marriage, Frances would suffer her own crisis of faith when her brother committed suicide. In her distress and grief she sought the advice of a spiritual medium. While Frances sat with the medium, Gilbert composed a poem expressing his frustration with her choice, and reminding his wife of the faith which had been strong enough to convert him.

“I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,
And round that holy hair, round and beyond
My Frances, my inviolable, screamed
The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.”

– G.K. Chesterton, “The Crystal”

Frances repented, and never sought this kind of advice again.

And so would the remainder of their marriage go: Frances helping Gilbert out of a depression or over an illness, and then Gilbert helping Frances in the same way. They were two lovers who needed each other very much, who helped each other, wrote love poems to each other all their married life; and prayed with and for each other, sometimes with hands twined together. This was the key to their relationship: their shared faith. It was the force which kept them together for 35 years, until Chesterton’s death in 1936. This remarkable woman, Frances Chesterton, kept Gilbert grounded, and was in all ways his helpmate. He could not have written all he did without her support, encouragement, and prayers.

Gilbert and Frances, 1930. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without permission.

Gilbert and Frances, 1930. This photo is property of the Marion E. Wade Center and may not be used without written permission.

To learn more about Frances and G.K. Chesterton, visit the Reading Room and view the resources at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College.


Nancy Carpentier BrownNancy Carpentier Brown is the author of two works concerning Frances Chesterton, both books researched extensively at the Wade Center. How Far Is It To Bethlehem, the Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton (2012) contains all the known writings of Frances Chesterton, and The Woman Who Was Chesterton (2015) is the only full-length biography of Mrs. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Brown won the Kilby Research Grant for her work related to Frances Chesterton in 2011.

cover-howfarisittobethlehemThe Woman who was Chesterton

The Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship

Last November the Wade Center welcomed a new era of public programming and scholarship with the launch of the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship. The lectureship is an annual faculty lecture series named in honor of former Wheaton College Trustee Ken Hansen and his wife Jean, and endowed in their memory by Walter and Darlene Hansen. Each academic year three lectures will be presented by a Wheaton College faculty member on one or more of the Wade Center authors. The 2015-2016 lectureship series features Wheaton College President Philip G. Ryken and the topic: The Messiah Comes to Middle-earth: Images of Christ’s Threefold Office in The Lord of the Rings.

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At the inaugural lecture on November 12, 2015, Walter Hansen shared how some of the works of the Wade authors influenced the life of his family:

“While I was still in college, [my parents Ken and Jean] took an evening course on Lewis and Tolkien with Clyde Kilby. The class was limited to nine students so that they could meet in Dr. Kilby’s living room. Martha served tea and cookies. My parents were avid readers, collectors and promoters of the books of the Inklings. They hosted a book club in their living room led by Dr. Kilby to read and discuss the books of the Inklings. When they moved to Santa Barbara in 1977, they named their home Rivendell. … Our family treasures memories of our times at Rivendell, highlighted by storytelling. Our conversations were often laced with images and quotes from the stories of the Inklings. … The purpose of the Hansen Lectureship is to enjoy the great literature of the Seven so that we can escape from the prison of our self-centeredness, see with other eyes, feel with other hearts, and be equipped for practical and heroic deeds in real life.”

Walter & Darlene Hansen with Dr. Jennifer McNutt (faculty respondent) and President Philip G. Ryken on the night of the second Hansen lecture, February 4, 2016.

Walter & Darlene Hansen with Dr. Jennifer McNutt (faculty respondent) and President Philip G. Ryken on the night of the second Hansen lecture, February 4, 2016.

It is the hope of the Wade Center as well that these lectures will serve as a new way to connect others with the works of our seven authors. For those unable to attend in person, lecture content is available on the Wade Center’s YouTube channel, and each series will also be published in book form.

President Ryken’s three talks for the 2015-2016 lecture series are:

Through each lecture Ryken examines how the personhood and nature of Christ’s three offices (prophet, priest, and king) are manifested in the characters and storyline of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He commented on this approach in his second lecture:

281A8664“To see images of the Messiah in Middle-earth is one way to see the significance of The Lord of the Rings, and we can do this without mistakenly treating the novel as an allegory. … If Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn remind us in various ways of Jesus Christ, it is not because the novelist had this explicitly in mind. It is rather because the biblical worldview so thoroughly penetrated his imagination that inevitably it pervaded his literary art. So when, for example, Tolkien had a character bear a heavy burden for the sake of a kingdom, it was only natural for him to have that burden shared by a fellowship of love that reminds us of the priesthood of all believers.”

A look over the crowd at the February 4, 2016 lecture.

A look over the crowd at the February 4, 2016 lecture.

Following each lecture, a Wheaton College faculty respondent shares a brief reflection on the lecture and then, along with Dr. Ryken, facilitates a question and answer session with the audience. The faculty respondents for the first lecture series are:

Dr. Sandra Richter, President Ryken, and Walter Hansen following the November 12, 2015 Hansen Lecture.

Dr. Sandra Richter, President Ryken, and Walter Hansen following the November 12, 2015 Hansen Lecture.

These responses provide an opportunity for a conversational approach to the lecture material, often from a different field of expertise, and allow for additional points of dialogue and perspective. The first two lectures and faculty respondents have provided enjoyable and stimulating evenings with the Bakke Auditorium full of attenders; between 130 and 150 people were in attendance at each talk.

In the next few years, we look forward to the following Hansen lecture series with Wheaton College faculty:

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Dr. Timothy Larsen will present three lectures on George MacDonald for the 2016-2017 Hansen Lectureship.

If you would like to be notified of upcoming Hansen lectures, and other Wade Center events, you may sign up for email announcements on our contact page.

We hope you will join us for our last Hansen lecture by President Ryken on March 31 at 7pm: “The Coronation of Aragorn Son of Arathorn” with faculty respondent Dr. William Struthers, Professor of Psychology, Wheaton College.


Photos used in this post are courtesy of Maas Photography.

Memories from the Wade Center’s 50th Anniversary

Wade Center's 50th Anniversary Program

The program for the 50th Anniversary of the Marion E. Wade Center and dedication of the Bakke Auditorium, October 29, 2015.

Last year marked an important milestone as the Marion E. Wade Center celebrated its 50th anniversary and completed construction of the Bakke Auditorium. 2015 provided a unique opportunity to look back on memories from the past 50 years, celebrate current achievements, and look ahead to future goals as we continue the Wade Center’s legacy of promoting engagement with the works of our seven authors.

As the 50th anniversary itself now becomes part of the Wade Center’s history, we wanted to share some memories made during that time as friends both old and new came to celebrate the event with us.  Our 50th anniversary website has been updated to include videos and documents from the October 29th program, and we are also pleased to share on our website a selection of photos taken during the event. Photos are courtesy of Maas Photography.

Program participants

Program participants (l to r): G. Walter Hansen, Philip G. Ryken, Lisa Welchert, Lyle W. Dorsett, Marjorie Lamp Mead, Jerry Root, Luci Shaw, Jeannette Bakke, Carolyn Hart, Stan Bakke, William Phemister.

Leading up to the October 29th event the Wade Center sent out a request for shared  memories and reflections of our past 50 years and the influence of our authors. The responses received were numerous, and came from around the world. We have, with the gracious consent of the contributors, posted selections from these tributes on our website to serve as testament to the lives touched already, and as an encouragement as we anticipate the future stories yet untold.

We are thankful for all those who have joined us along the way, and look forward to  continuing the journey with you.

Wade Center front door

The Wade Center on the evening of the 50th Anniversary program, October 29, 2015.

Drama at the BBC: Dorothy L. Sayers and The Man Born to be King, by guest writer Katherine Graber

In honor of the Advent season, Katherine Graber writes on The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L. Sayers, a twelve-play cycle on the life of Christ .


British 1st edition of THE MAN BORN TO BE KING published by Victor Gollancz, 1943.

British 1st edition of THE MAN BORN TO BE KING published by Victor Gollancz, 1943.

Although she is most commonly known today for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, her theological writings, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers also holds the distinction of creating one of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s most celebrated (and controversial) radio dramas, The Man Born to be King. For many twenty-first century listeners, this children’s radio series sounds innocuous enough, but its original ten month run on the BBC’s Children’s Hour program prompted a hailstorm of both indignation and adulation from the British public, ranging from Ulster housewives to the House of Commons.

Today, visitors to the Wade Center can not only listen to the original radio drama from 1942 but also leaf through the published edition of the radio scripts (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943), with a foreword by the series’ producer J.W. (James) Welch describing the radio drama’s controversy. Even more unique, The Man Born to be King archive contains hundreds of letters written from listeners to Dorothy L. Sayers, revealing a wide range of responses to the original broadcasts. This listener correspondence provides a glimpse into why a BBC radio drama for children generated such diverse and heated reaction from war-time Britain.

The Man Born to be King’s beginnings were auspicious enough. In February 1940, James Welch, the BBC’s Director of Religious Broadcasting, commissioned Dorothy L. Sayers to write a twelve-part series depicting the life of Christ; an enterprise riding on the success of her 1938 Nativity radio drama, He That Should Come. An Anglican clergyman, Welch felt a particular concern for the religious education of children and believed the current programming on the Children’s Hour failed both to capture listener interest and convey solid teaching. Welch’s concern was only heightened by the London Blitz, which prompted mass evacuations of children to the countryside, far from their home churches and habitual worship. As Welch envisioned it, this new series could reach unevangelized children as well as provide better spiritual instruction for the five million children who already tuned into the Children’s Hour on Sunday nights. Sayers enthusiastically signed on to Welch’s vision for the program, but added several conditions to her participation. She insisted that this new series would employ the same sort of dramatic realism used in He That Should Come and that she would depict Christ as a character in the drama (a practice not condoned in 1940 by the Lord Chamberlain, who regulated theatre censorship and forbade the depiction of deity on the stage).

Most radically, Sayers decided to adapt the Gospel stories into vernacular idiom, jettisoning familiar biblical language. Rather than lifting passages straight from the long-cherished and familiar Authorised Version Bible, Sayers determined that her first-century characters would speak twentieth-century English vernacular. As Sayers saw it, spiritual malaise was often the result of over-saturation in Scripture, especially the old-fashioned Authorised Version. She later wrote to a listener, “[I]t is heard so often that it becomes merely a task or a boredom, or merely produces no impression attall (sic).” (Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Mrs. V. Ackland. n.d. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 19. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.)

Sayers’s decision to replace the exalted and beautiful language of the Authorised Version with every day English was something of a revolutionary choice in war-time Britain, but Welch wholeheartedly agreed that her conditions were necessary. In the foreword to the published version of The Man Born to be King he later wrote, “[T]he language of religion has lost most, and for some people all, of its meaning. Especially was this true of the Authorised Version.” (Welch, J.W. Foreword. The Man Born to be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. By Dorothy L. Sayers (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943), 11.)

BBC microphoneTen days before the first episode of The Man Born to be King aired on December 21, 1941, Sayers read an excerpt from the series at a BBC press conference, which ignited a storm of controversy. Sayers’s reading included dialogue between Matthew the tax collector in which he scolds the disciple Philip in a distinct cockney accent for being cheated out of six drachmas: “Fact is, Philip my boy, you’ve been had for a sucker.” (Ibid., 117)

When the press reported on Sayers’s reading the next morning, the radio drama made headline news. Welch recalled that “Almost all of the journalists who had attended the conference wrote fairly and sympathetically about the new venture; but a few used the occasion for sensational reporting.” (Ibid., 9) In particular, the Daily Herald’s headline proclaimed, “Gangsterisms in Bible Play,” and the Daily Mail described the series as “BBC ‘Life of Christ’ in Slang.” Public outcry against the yet unheard radio drama followed close behind the press release. James Welch himself received a note from the Director General of the BBC describing the controversy: “Two shocks broke on us this past week: Pearl Harbor and The Man Born to be King.” (Kenneth Wolfe, The Churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation, 1922-1956: The Politics of Broadcast Religion, (London: SCM Press, 1984), 226.) The extent and volume of the criticism came as a surprise to Welch, who dispiritedly recalled, “It was not an encouraging reception for a great evangelistic enterprise.” (Welch, Foreword, 10)

Despite shrill protests, The Man Born to be King was released on schedule, airing in twelve installments between December 1941 and October 1942. The series proved so popular that it was rebroadcast during Lent in 1943 and published in book format that same year. In addition to the innumerable children who tuned into the broadcast on Sunday nights, nearly 10% of the British adult population listened as well. (Wolfe, 235) The BBC continued to air the drama series regularly over the next several decades.

The range of responses, both appreciative and outraged, to The Man Born to be King are preserved in the fan mail Sayers received from listeners across the nation. Surprisingly, the majority of the letters are from adult listeners, not children. While Sayers certainly received letters expressing concern or indignation over the radio drama, most listeners expressed enthusiasm. Over and over again, listeners wrote to thank Sayers for making the gospel stories and the figure of Christ “real” to them. Many individuals credited The Man Born to be King for rekindling their interest in the Bible and Christianity. One listener from Leeds wrote to Sayers, “Your new translation enabled light to be shed on many obscure passages, and the ‘really real’ Lord.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers, May 24, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 24.) Some fans of the series admitted losing interest in Christianity as children, citing the Authorised Version Bible and compulsory religious education in school as deterrents to spiritual curiosity. Even the production engineer for The Man Born to be King told Sayers that his own interest in the Scriptures had “wilted with familiarity,” but her vernacular paraphrase had given him new appreciation. (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from David Godfrey, October 20, 1942. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 24.) One self-professed unbeliever confided to Sayers, “[T]he well-known passages are a familiar echo to me, but I don’t know my Bible …. The main character [Christ] you showed most beautifully and washed clear from my mind those dreadful illustrations I remember as a child.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from L.R.E. Wingfield Digby, August 15, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.)

In his foreword to the published scripts, James Welch also recorded listeners’ reactions to hearing the gospel stories in vernacular English, many reinforcing his concern that the Authorised Version Bible could be a spiritual blockade to adults and children alike. “I have long felt that the archaic though beautiful English of the Bible and the Church services constitutes a barrier to their understanding” one woman observed. (Welch, Foreword, 13) Another listener wrote to Sayers, requesting that she write a modern translation of the entire Bible after the success of The Man Born to be King: “I believe you could present the Gospel in a way that would make it live for many people for whom the Authorised Version is a beautiful curtain.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from Katharine M. Darroch, June 12, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.)

In the weeks following the initial press reaction, Dorothy L. Sayers attributed the controversy surrounding her radio drama to “religious maniacs,” who displayed “a most alarming amount of fetish worship of the Authorised Version.” (Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Dr. William Paton, January 30, 1942. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.) Although Welch’s “great evangelistic enterprise” was intended to target biblically uninformed children, Sayers’s fan mail reveals that many of those who were so affected by the series were often adults, long acquainted with the Bible. While attachment to the familiar words of the Authorised Version was at the heart of the protest against radio drama, it was also central to its success. For many adult listeners, the antiquated language of the Authorised Version had contributed to their apathy toward Scripture. This familiarity with the Authorised Version, however, also served to rekindle interest in the person of Christ, as he was depicted in Sayers’s fresh rendering.  As a result, the “fetish worship of the Authorised Version” Sayers found so alarming was in reality a significant factor in The Man Born to be King’s efficacy, a feat of irony that even a detective novelist would have no choice but to appreciate.


Katherine GraberKatherine Graber is Reference Archivist at the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College and former Wade Center graduate student worker. She holds a B.A. in English literature from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a M.A. in History of Christianity from Wheaton College. Katherine is currently pursuing an M.S. in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

 

50th Anniversary Celebration Videos

We are pleased to share these two videos, the event program, and a commemorative poem from the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Marion E. Wade Center, and the dedication of the Bakke Auditorium, which took place on October 29, 2015. We enjoyed marking this milestone event with many friends of the Wade Center, and are glad we can provide these items here to all who were not able to join us in person for the program – or those who would like to see them again. Enjoy.

Program with Speaker Biographies

“The Space Inside” original poem by Luci Shaw

Video of the event:

 

Commemorative video shown during the event:

The 50th Anniversary of the Marion E. Wade Center

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Today is a special day. The Marion E. Wade Center celebrates its 50th anniversary (1965-2015), and the dedication of the Bakke Auditorium. You can watch the event live at 7pm Central Time via WETN (online or via mobile device). If you are in the Wheaton area, the local cable stations below will also be broadcasting the event:

  • Wheaton channel 72
  • West Chicago channel 10
  • Warrenville and Winfield channel 17
  • Channel 4.1 on Wheaton College campus televisions

We hope you can join us! A recording of the presentation will be made available online as soon as possible following the event.

And please also sign the Wade Center’s 50th Anniversary Guestbook. We would love to hear from you, and this is a great way to celebrate with us.  Thank you to all who have supported the work of the Wade Center over our past 50 years. We are very grateful for you.

Featured Artifact: Owen Barfield’s Chess Set, by Owen A. Barfield

Owen A. Barfield, the grandson of Owen Barfield, joins “Off the Shelf” for this post featuring his grandfather’s chess set, currently displayed in the Wade Center’s Museum. The Wade Center is grateful to Mr. Barfield for sharing his memories with us and our readers.


Owen Barfield's chess set and pipe, displayed in the Wade Center's Museum area.

Owen Barfield’s chess set and pipe in the Wade Center’s Museum.

Chess was a much loved game in Grandfather’s family, played at home and in tea shops in the City of London, where the family firm was located. In fact, my great-grandfather, Arthur Edward Barfield (Owen’s father), preferred a more complex variant of the game played over two boards. This enthusiasm was fostered by his own father, John, creator of the first Congolese-English dictionary in 1883.

Owen Barfield as a young man playing chess, ca. 1914. Photo courtesy of Owen A. Barfield.

I’m not entirely sure how Grandfather came by this set, but I’ve always been under the impression that it was given to him by his father. In any case, the set remained with Grandfather all his life; and he was always glad to have the opportunity of a game.

Unusually, the pieces are coloured red and white. There is evidence to suggest that some of the very earliest chess pieces were coloured so, as opposed to the modern black and white. I’m thinking here of the Lewis Chessmen, of which Grandfather had two large museum reproduction pieces. These fascinating medieval chess pieces, discovered on a remote Hebridean island in 1831, were carved from walrus ivory or whale teeth. Some were stained red, suggesting that the original colour combination of the pieces was red and white.

"Polarity" oil painting by Owen A. Barfield.

“Polarity” oil painting by Owen A. Barfield, 2014. See http://www.owenbarfield.org/oil-paintings/ for more details.

I can see why this appealed to Grandfather: Red and white are the polarity colours in nature – as seen in the white spring blossom and red autumnal berries of the hawthorn tree. And polarity is the theme that so fully occupied much of Grandfather’s thought and that of his guide, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I enjoyed playing many games with Grandfather on this very chess set over the years. Our conversations on such occasions were limited (on my side, anyway, and mainly by the need to concentrate on the game), but wide-ranging. For instance, we might cover questions about the Eucharist (is the sacramental bread “really” the body of Christ?), before veering off to discuss the benefits of computer chess – I think Jeffrey [Jeffrey Barfield, son of Owen Barfield] had recently set up a programme for him, hooked up to his old portable, black and white, television screen.

Unsurprisingly, Grandfather never really took to computer games, and I assumed that the technology was simply too alien and too great a barrier. However, I’ve recently wondered if that was, in fact, the reason behind his lack of interest. After all, Grandfather was never one to be put off by intellectual challenges – he relished them, and would interrogate me on the workings of computers to a degree far beyond my level of competence!

Detail of the pieces from the chess set belonging to Owen Barfield.

Detail of the pieces from the chess set belonging to Owen Barfield.

No, perhaps the reason why Grandfather stuck to his old chess set lies in his response to my other question that day regarding communion bread. Typically, his answer was both simple and complex, and I should confess that I didn’t fully understand it at the time. Fortunately for me, he expanded on his reply in a letter, dated 29 November 1983 (a copy of which is in the Wade). In it, he relates the subject matter to words and meanings (which he described as the ‘insides’ of words). Like words, everything in nature has an inside and an outside: trees, flowers, bread, human beings – and the incarnated body of Christ:

“… the body of Christ also had an inside and the first few verses of St John’s Gospel point out that that Inside was not just like yours or mine. It was at the same time the Inside of the whole world, or the whole of Nature.”

As mere humans, we don’t contain the whole world or all of Nature within ourselves, but when we come together over a chess board to share something of the insides of ourselves with each other, we more closely approximate the divine. It is that sharing or communion that I think Grandfather missed when playing against a computer. And this is essentially why this particular set is special to me: Having been the physical conduit through and over which so much creative and imaginative play took place between connected souls, I believe it retains something of Grandfather, of myself, and of all the many friends with whom Grandfather ever shared a game.


Owen A. Barfield, Virginia coast, August 2014

Owen A. Barfield, August 2014

Owen A. Barfield is the Trustee of the Owen Barfield Literary Estate, and grandson of author and philosopher Owen Barfield. He is also an artist, and has overseen the publication of many of his grandfather’s books in a series of modern editions.