Among the works that Ker rates as of lasting value and significance are Chesterton's Dickens, "one of the classics of English literary criticism, and a book that is widely considered the best criticism of Dickens ever written"; his defence of Christianity in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man; and a later book on St Thomas Aquinas which the Thomist philosopher, Etienne Gilson, regarded as "the best book ever written on St Thomas". This came after Chesterton's conversion to Catholicism; but many of his most forceful defences of Christianity such as Orthodoxy were written before.
Chesterton was a popular and effective public speaker, a "vagabond" lecturer at the invitation of groups such as the Peckham Ethical Fellowship. With no Question Time on television, or Moral Maze or even The Brains Trust on the radio (Chesterton began broadcasting only late in his life), public lectures attracted large crowds. Chesterton, dressed in a cape and carrying a sword-stick, became a celebrity. He spoke in favour of distributism, the political theory he developed with Belloc-a third way between socialism and capitalism, which harked back to the Middle Ages: it is now seen by some as the precursor of Phillip Blond's and David Cameron's Big Society.
Chesterton also championed Catholicism and the Catholic concept of society against the assault of the utilitarian scientific atheism of writers such as H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw. Shaw often shared a platform with Chesterton, and it was Shaw who invented the pantomime elephant, the "Chesterbelloc". He believed that in this hybrid "Chesterton has to make all the intellectual sacrifices that are demanded by Belloc." The mutual esteem between Shaw and Chesterton is one of the pleasant surprises to emerge from Ian Ker's biography.
Chesterton's views on "the Jewish question" seem offensive today. They became particularly acerbic after the Marconi scandal — a case of insider trading by mostly Jewish ministers and businessmen — which led to a conviction of criminal libel for his brother Cecil. Chesterton denied that he was anti-Semitic but, like Belloc, he regarded Jews as "foreigners; only foreigners that were not called foreigners". He was an enthusiastic Zionist. He believed that "because Jews were Jews...not Russians or Rumanians or Italians or Frenchmen or Englishmen" they should "in some fashion and as far as possible...be represented by Jews and ruled by Jews'. He saw more clearly than most the evil of Nazism and the inevitability of a second World War. "When Hitlerism came", wrote the American Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, "he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit."
Ker's biography is long, comprehensive and absorbing. It has persuaded me that I have been wrong to neglect the work of such an exceptional and colourful man.