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?
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’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.
Nancy 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.