Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K.Chesterton

"The work of a philosophical policemen," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of an ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr Wilks (a smart young man) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Thus is Gabriel Syme introduced to the investigations of the Secret Police Service into the Central Council of Anarchists, an organisation he infiltrates to become The Man Who Was Thursday. Led by its vast and terrifying President, Sunday, the Council of Seven Days plans an atrocity, and despatches one of its members to Paris with a bomb. Syme must avoid exposure as a spy while in pursuit. But all is not as it seems and, amid contradiction and confusion Syme must learn to distinguish what is real. Are other members of the Council friend or foe? And, most urgent of all, who and what is Sunday?

Throughout this absorbing fantasy, Chesterton turns expectation on its head. One of the ways in which he achieves this is by a subtle reversal of normality: if I were to ask you what is a hornbill, you would probably answer "a bird with an enormous bill". Thus Chesterton: "he remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it." The reader's viewpoint is that of Syme, and such strange reversals confuse and obfuscate so that reality is impossible to pin down and safety looks a forlorn hope.

The book reminds me both of The Magic Flute, with its theme of trial by ordeal, and of the writings some twenty-five years later of Charles Williams, which share similar elements of a peculiarly English kind of mysticism. Yet Chesterton denied the revelatory interpretation, drawing attention to the book's subtitle "A Nightmare". In an article published the day before he died in 1936 he says,

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

Reading The Man Who Was Thursday 100 years on, in a world of equally characterised by wild doubt and despair I, for one, find the "gleam of hope" quite comforting and was happy to interpret the ending as revelatory and mystical. The book is also a classic, witty and elegant while remaining a fantastical adventure, and deserves prompt reinstatement as part of the canon.

Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors.


  1. I first came across Chesterton nearly forty years ago through his poetry which I loved them and still love today and I keep meaning to read his fiction. I even have a copy of the complete Father Brown Stories in the book shelf down stairs. This has jogged my memory about him and I must go and dig that out. Thank you.

  2. I think of Chesterton somehow as good winter reading - good stories, well written, with something to digest, and you know it's going to be morally sound, a sort of steak-and-kidney pudding book. I've never really read his poetry properly - shall do so.

  3. I haven't read Chesterton for a good while either, but this sounds well worth seeking out.

  4. Very much so, Stephen - I read it years ago, but was surprised how much I enjoyed it this time round. One of the best books I've read this year, I think.