The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Beware the agent provocateur….

The Man Who was Thursday sat on my shelf for years, and then I recently read about the doings of the Hairies and the infiltration of an anti-fascist organisation by an undercover policeman who subsequently lost his moral bearings. Well it all reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel. So I pulled my copy from the shelf deciding that it was high time I read it.

For those who have not yet heard of the Hairies, this is a term given to the  Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) members of Special Branch who go undercover as operatives. Known as Hairies because they no longer meet police regulations about their hair, these operatives assume different identities and lives for years, and then they report back on the inner workings on the group or groups they are spying on.

But I digress…back to G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday begins on a London evening with a red-haired poet called Lucian Gregory delivering a lecture on anarchism. He’s challenged by another poet named Gabriel Syme. A battle of words commences and results in Gregory declaring that he will show Syme just how serious his beliefs are. Swearing the rival poet to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme into a cleverly hidden underground passage and from there to a meeting of the Central Anarchist Council. The council is composed of seven men–each one named after a day of the week. But the death of one of the council members has led to a vacancy, and Gregory fully expects to be the next Thursday. His speech, all prepared for the occasion, starts off well:

“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and nowhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists.”

And that’s a very sensible observation. Unfortunately, Gregory’s speech goes downhill from there and rapidly devolves into bizarre comparisons between anarchists and catholics. This sort of talk is hardly going to endear Gregory to a No Gods, No Masters crowd, but it’s Gregory’s assertion that anarchists are “meek” which seals his failed candidacy. What is so surprising is that Syme, who’s revealed himself to Gregory as an undercover police detective, makes a stirring speech to the anarchist council and is promptly elected as the next Thursday.

Oh the irony…But then again how appropos. Here’s Syme to Gregory after revealing that he’s really an undercover policeman–a quote that should give the novel’s sense of absurdity:

“Don’t you see that we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policeman; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come: wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”

The Man Who Was Thursday, according to Kingsley Amis in his introduction is  “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” I don’t know what I expected.  A mystery perhaps, but Chesterton’s novel, published in 1908, grows increasingly more absurd and is actually very funny in spots. I can see why Kingsley Amis claimed it as one of his all-time favourite novels, but it’s a strange hodge-podge which even includes strains of the occult. Chesterton, apparently, had to address questions regarding the novel’s religious symbolism (which he argued against), and while the religious symbolism is rife throughout the novel, this adds to the absurdity.

The book’s full title is The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and that seems a fairly apt description. No one is who they seem, everyone is lying and as the story continues it does take on a nightmarish almost phantasmagorical element. There seems to be a monstrous plot afoot to take over… exactly nothing. But whose devilish brain is at the core of the plot? Who is providing the dynamite? Who are the good guys? And who are the baddies?

Interestingly Chesterton does not seem to be, in theory at least, opposed to anarchism. Rather the novel seems to imply that anarchism and anarchists are elusive by their very nature and perhaps those who scream their beliefs from the rooftops are …well… nothing but Hairies (or Annas). The Anarchist Council is portrayed as an extremely ineffective, comic bunch and yet there remains a sinister undercurrent. The source of that undercurrent is the heart of this novel.

“But this absurd!” cried the policeman, clasping his hands with an excitement uncommon in persons of his figure and costume, “but this is intolerable! I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re wasting your life. You must, you shall, join our special army against anarchy. Their armies are on our frontiers. Their bolt is ready to fall. A moment more, and you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world.”

“It is a chance not to be missed, certainly,” assented Syme, “but still I do not quite understand. I know as well as anybody that the modern world is full of lawless little men and mad little movements. But, beastly as they are, they generally have the one merit of disagreeing with each other. How can you talk of their leading one army or hurling one bolt. What is this anarchy?” 

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

  1. It certainly sounds comic. An anarchist’s council after all, and lines like “that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy”.

    I’ll probably pass for the time being even so, it’s one I might enjoy but not so pressingly as to move up the list.

    Have you read Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands on a more serious note? I’ve no idea why I was reminded (there’s nothing in common) but I was so I thought I’d ask.

  2. It’s funny that you should have picked that line from the quotes. I had to reread that several times, and that’s why I selected that particular quote to illustrate the absurdities of the novel.

    Apparently, Chesterton was a sort of master of these strangely inverted arguements. I found some articles that delved into this aspect of his work, but I’m not that interested in pursuing it.

    No I haven’t read The Riddle of The Sands, but I have heard of it (long ago, distantly). Will check it out. Is it good?

  3. leroyhunter

    I read this many, many years ago, and I don’t remember much about it but I do remember I liked it – and that it was pretty funny. I also read his novel The Club of Queer Trades which treads similar ground, but is like a prototype of Fincher’s movie The Game from a while back: the main character partakes of a series of bizarre & dangerous adventures which it transpires are all machinations put in train by the eponymous club.

    I have his Napoleon of Notting Hill on the shelf, saw it a while back in a nice edition by an imprint I’d never heard of – Capuchin Classics. The good impression Chesterton made on me long ago was sufficiently strong for me to pick it up.

  4. This is my first Chesterton, and I can’t remember exactly when I bought it. I liked it but wasn’t crazy about it. I suppose, when the chips are down, I prefer to get into characters.

  5. I enjoyed Sands. It’s a bit of an oddity, but it certainly has its moments. Possibly best for its evocations of yachting rather than the spying.

    Worth reading I think.

  6. I went looking for the Riddle of the Sands on Amazon and came across two books: one the one you mentioned and the other looked like some sort of bodice ripper.

    Anyway, I found Childers’ memoirs from the time he served in the Boer War FREE for the kindle, so I got it. I’m interested to see how someone morphed from being an upholder of the British Empire to a rebel shot by a firing squad.

  7. leroyhunter

    Childers was a funny bird alright.
    Riddle of the Sands influenced Buchan, I believe, and there was a fairly decent film made of it.

  8. I haven’t seen the film version–heard of it. I wonder if it’s a bit dated.

  9. leroyhunter

    Could be, Guy, but it’s a bit of a romp anyway so I wonder if that matters.

    Back to Chesterton: he’s probably most famous for the Father Brown stories but I’ve never read (nor been tempted to read) a single one of them. I’ve never found the idea of endless rounds of murders in vicarages, boarding schools, stately homes etc particularly interesting. I bracket the Fr Brown stories with Christie in that regard, which may be totally unfair.

  10. My impression was that the Father Brown stories were considered “cosies” to get for a moment into sub-genre terms, along with the Christies. Not having read them though I could well be wrong.

    There’s a thriving market in crime novels set in 1920s settings now of course, which rather misses the point that for Christie et al they weren’t historical pastiches – they were contemporary fiction.

  11. leroyhunter

    Not a term I’ve heard before Max, but seems apt: does it mean cosy settings? A cosy read ie familiar, formulaic? Both seem to apply to Brown & Poirot.

    I read 2 of Gilbert Adair’s Christie spoofs, which I think aspire to a bit more then pastiche; they were OK but over-praised I thought.

  12. I haven’t read any of the Father Brown mysteries, and I think that there are a couple of film versions out there. I just haven’t been that interested. Went through a whole Christie phase and then more recently discovered Ngaio Marsh.

    Max will probably address the cosy question, but they seem to be very popular these days–both the books and the endless film versions.

    I’ll have the occasional yearning for a cosy but not in large doses. It’s toxic.

  13. I love that book – its one of my favourites that I read again every few years. Its hilarious isn’t it. I’m not keen on the Father Brown stories, but enjoy his other satirical novels such as the Napoleon of Notting Hill. Sorry to start recommending more books, but have you read Conrad’s The Secret Agent – its also about anarchists in Victorian London and is rather good

  14. Never apologise for recommending more books. Yes, I’ve read that one and enjoyed it immensely. Under Western Eyes is another great favourite.

    Ever since I read your post this morning (The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Slim), I’ve been trying to decide what to read next. Here I have 100s of choices and I can’t settle on one. Something character-driven…

  15. I’m not an expert here. In fact, on checking it seems I’ve tended to overapply the term.

    Golden age detective fiction is the Christie-type stuff. Cosy fiction is basically fiction that emulates the traits of the golden age stuff. I was confusing the original works with the works that follow them, something which annoys me when others do it for hardboiled so mea culpa there.

    So, we’re talking villages or otherwise pleasant locales, a puzzle potentially capable of solution by the observant reader, a detective who is not affiliated with the police, clues in plain view (though attention need not be drawn to them), generally a pleasant and reassuring sort of fiction at the end of which the murderer is caught and order is restored.

    Wikipedia turns out not to be bad here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Age_of_Detective_Fiction), even giving a nod to that Scuderi novel as the first detective fiction.

    For me, the key issue is that the cosy reassures. I prefer crime which makes us question ourselves and our society, the cosy is however fundamentally conservative (with a small c). It’s primary aim is entertainment, diversion, it’s been compared (positively and negatively) to a crossword puzzle.

    It’s also bloody popular actually.

  16. leroyhunter

    Nice description / distinction Max. It sounds about like what I had in mind. And yes, clearly it’s popular stuff. Although I don’t see the attraction myself, I wonder sometimes why that is: I love Wodehouse, for example, who many of the qualities you describe could equally be applied to.

  17. Wodehouse is funny.

    Also, Wodehouse is an extraordinary talent. That level of talent surpasses little things like setting or genre.

    But yes, I don’t like the cosies but I love Wodehouse too. How could one not?

  18. I haven’t read any Chesterton yet but I think religion, anarchism, the occult, and police infiltration makes for a wonderful combination. The way you put it here makes this Chesterton novel a very attractive read for me. This should make it the next book I’ll pick up in the university library. Thanks! Anyhow, a friend of mine who teaches philosophy loves Chesterton’s Father Brown, I haven’t asked him why. Maybe I should. :)

  19. If you do ask your friend about the attractions of Father Brown, I’d be interested.

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