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Thursday, 05 March 2009 02:00

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

By  Helen Moffett
The subtitle of this 1908 classic by G.K. Chesterton gives away too much, which is why the publishers – both Chesterton's original publishers and Atlantic Books, in this revamped Crime Classics edition – left it off the cover. However, the author himself, in responding to the storm of questions his book triggered, rather plaintively said that all was explained by his subtitle – A Nightmare.

Classic or not, this was my first reading of The Man Who Was Thursday. I specialised in Victorian literature at university, but Queen Victoria reigned for almost 60 years, and saw many writers and schools of writing come and go, from the nostalgic dreams of the PreRaphaelite poets to the decadence of the fin de siècle fantasists. Her era encompassed the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Lewis Carroll, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, as well as a host of writers popular in their day but now lost to the modern era – Jean Ingelow, Felicia Hemans, Dora Greenwell and more. Chesterton came at the back of the august train, more Edwardian than Victorian, but even so, reading this book plunged me back into a London familiar to me from my studies: an intimate, smoky city of hansom cabs and pea-soup fogs, in which villains row stealthily down the Thames and servants stand by chafing dishes of kippers at breakfast-time.

Straightforward critique goes out the window when reviewing a classic by a long-dead author – phrases like "we look forward to seeing more of the same" certainly do not apply. The question is: why should we read a book first published exactly one hundred years ago?

The plot, which describes the efforts of a brave man to infiltrate an anarchist group plotting murder and assassination, is breathtaking, with danger around every corner, and one twist after another – more than this cannot be revealed, but it is easy to see why thriller writers throughout the twentieth century have used Chesterton's best-known book as a model.

Nevertheless, this is not just a thrilling account of danger and heroism – Chesterton, a popular journalist and a devout Catholic, had several agendas, and wasn't subtle about any of them. The result is a book that has been described as variously as political satire, fantastical farce and Christian allegory – and it can indeed be read as any of these. (The author himself, just before his death in 1936, referred to it as "a very melodramatic sort of moonshine".)

But most compelling for 21st-century readers is the uncanny echo of our own times. At first, it would appear that Chesterton caricatures, even demonises men that would be known in present times as terrorists. In one chilling conversation, plotters discuss why bombs are more effective than guns – quite simply, they kill more people. But as the novel progresses, and the stakes grow higher, it becomes clear that anarchists ("terrorists") are not always what they seem. I was particularly struck by Chesterton's emphasis on how a single physical characteristic, mannerism or cultural trait can become associated, often unjustly, with evil in the eyes of the beholder – food for thought in an age when some may feel reluctance to board a transatlantic flight along with a group of bearded men in Middle Eastern robes.

At the same time, the sense of urgency, of imminent danger, is hauntingly contemporary. As the accompanying Case Notes tell us, only a few years after this book was published, a young anarchist (very much like one portrayed in this book) shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary) and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo – and plunged Europe into the bloodiest war yet known to humankind. Chesterton's portrayal of the forces of chaos, barely restrained by decency and a counterbalancing desire for peace, could just as easily represent the current global moment.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the other aspect of this novel that remains fresh is the humour – I laughed out loud several times. Yet even this becomes ominous towards the end, in the grand stand-off between the forces of good and evil. This scene turns into farce only a hair's breadth from tragedy – as both sides realise, almost too late, that each has entirely misunderstood the other's motives and intentions.

For those who would like to know more about Chesterton, his era, and the reception of The Man Who Was Thursday when it was first published, Robert Giddings writes a fluent and fascinating set of Case Notes, in which erudition mixes easily with an almost conversational style. These Notes are an excellent accompaniment to a classic that bears revisiting in an anxious new century.
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