The University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway Program hosted a ceremony Oct. 27 honoring the acquisition of the G.K. Chesterton Collection.
The collection, the only surviving individual connected to the Chesterton family circle and curated by Chesterton expert Aidan Mackey, contains an assemblage of writings and personal artifacts belonging to the esteemed English Catholic author.
Gilbert Keith Chesterton, born in London in 1874, was a renowned journalist, poet, artist and writer of fiction. His writings explored an array of topics, such as philosophy, theology, Catholic social teaching, literary criticism, history and more. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote 80 books, several hundred poems, 200 short stories, 4,000 essays and several plays. He is also well-known for his mystery novels starring Catholic priest and detective Father Brown.
Upon Chesterton’s death in 1936, Chesterton’s possessions were left to his wife Frances and Dorothy Collins, his secretary who became like a daughter to him. Collins donated the material to the British Library, and this collection was later acquired by Mackey.
Sometime after Chesterton’s death, Mackey said he got a call from the British Library stating they had Chesterton memorabilia in their possession, and they would like to give it to him.
“I’ve still not recovered from this great richness of stuff,” Mackey said in an interview with Notre Dame London Global Gateway. “I’ve known people who’ve been involved with the British Library, and they too share my astonishment that this should happen just as casually as that. I’m not even sure that I signed for anything.”
Since his initial acquisition of the collection, Mackey said it has grown bit by bit, over many decades. The collection, he said, is home to primarily Chesterton memorabilia, not just his writings.
The collection includes items such as Collins’ typewriter, used by Collins as Chesterton would dictate his thoughts to her, Chesterton’s hat, all the volumes of “G.K. Weekly,” a publication run by Chesterton beginning in 1925 until his death in 1936, his toy theaters and his drawings. These include drawings from when he was as young as 6-years-old, to doodles in his books that cover entire pages.
“I’m sorry to criticize him, but he was a vandal with books,” Mackey said. “His cigars and his books at school and at home, wherever he was, covered page after page with extravagant doodles and so on, not just in the margins but right across the text.”
Other personal items that are part of the collection, Mackey said, include the academic gown made at Edinburgh University, Chesterton’s favorite pen, some dolls and puppets collected by his wife, and the things that were in his pockets and at his bedside table when he died. This includes his spectacles, his rosary and a paperback copy of one of Ernest Bramah’s “Kai Lung” novels.
Chesterton, as Mackey said, “had the gift of appealing to people with widely different views,” and the University hopes the collection draws interest not only from Chesterton fans but from individuals who may resonate with one of the many aspects of his work.
“There is a universality in the appeal of this collection,” Ronan Doheny, the G.K. Chesterton archivist at London Global Gateway, said. “The collection will appeal to fans of Chesterton, to our students, to historians, to Catholics, to students of theater, and this collection just shows how extraordinary and universal of a man he was.”
The Notre Dame London Global Gateway’s acquisition of the Chesterton Collection holds great significance to the University because of Chesterton’s special connection to the school. In 1930, Chesterton was named a visiting professor at the University’s main campus and was granted an honorary degree.
David Fagerberg, professor of theology, said Chesterton gave 36 lectures in Washington Hall during his 6-week stint as a professor, and about 500 students attended each lecture. Before his departure, Fagerberg said, Chesterton wrote a poem about Notre Dame entitled “The Arena” after attending the first football game in the new Notre Dame stadium against Navy.