The friendship of a Catholic and an atheist: G. K. Chesterton and H. G. Wells

I just finished a great biography of G. K. Chesterton.  You can read my summary here.  One of the things that I didn’t know was both his literary sparring and deep friendship with George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells.  They had a lot to disagree with.  Shaw was a committed socialist, and Wells was, if not an atheist, a religious none and scientific politic advocate (in the pattern of our own modern Bill Nye the science guy.  But topics of the day included eugenics.  He’s more well-known for his books “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” these days).

While Chesterton, Wells, and Shaw argued in the papers, they could still sit down as friends at a cafe and chat.  They argued, but never quarrelled.  I do believe we need to infuse more of our political climate with the generosity and civility shown by these two.  I wanted to share an exchange of letter between Chesterton and Wells that illustrate their committed friendship even amongst differences of opinion.  Wells was writing to Chesterton to thank him for his praise in the papers:

 

Dear Old GKC,

An Illustrated  London News Xmas cutting comes like the season’s greetings.  If after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of GKC’s.  Bless you.

 

Chesterton responded:

My Dear HG,

I do hope my secretary let you know that at the moment when I got your most welcome note I was temporarily laid out in bed and able to appreciate it, but not to acknowledge it.  As to the fine point of theology you raise– I am content to answer (with the subtle and exquisite irony of the Yanks) I should worry.  If I turn out to be right, you will triumph, not by being a friend of mine, but by being a friend of Man, by having done a thousand things for men like me in every way from imagination to criticism.  The though of the vast variety of work, and how it ranges from towering visions to tiny pricks of humour, overwhelmed me suddenly in retrospect: and I felt we had none of us ever said enough.  Also your words, apart from their generosity, please me as the first words I have heard for a long time of the old Agnosticism of my boyhood when my brother Cecil and my friend Bentley almost worshipped old Huxley like a god.  I think I had nothing to complain except the fact that the other side often forgot that we began as free-thinkers as much as they did: and there was no earthly power but thinking to drive us on the way we went.  Thanking you again a thousand times for your letter… and everything else.

 

Wells replied:

My Dear Chesterton:

You write wonderful praise and it leaves me all aquiver.  My warmest thanks for it.  But indeed that wonderful fairness of mind is very largely a kind of funk in me– I know the creature from the inside– funk and something worse, a kind of deep, complex cunning.  Well anyhow you take the superficial merit with infinite charity– and it has inflated me and just for a time I am an air balloon over the heads of my fellow creatures.

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