The essay transcribed below comes from our Holiday collection and was originally published in the Parents’ Review. In her intro to the collection, Kerri Forney writes, “I read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton many years before I was introduced to Miss Mason and quickly named him a “friend” as I could tell his insights were profound, even though I wasn’t always capable of grasping exactly what they were then or now! It was a great delight to discover some years later that the first secretary of the Parents’ National Educational Union (P.N.E.U), the organization founded to spread Mason’s philosophy, was none other than Frances Blogg who became Mrs. G. K. Chesterton upon her resignation five years after taking the position. Both Chestertons appear to have contributed regularly to the lively discussions in the P.N.E.U. The Parents’ Review published their occasional poems or sketches and also mentions that the Chestertons chaired discussions, gave lectures, and the like. This collection contains several of their Christmas poems, a short play, an essay, and brief reminiscence from Frances about her first impression of Miss Mason when applying for the position as secretary. In her reflections on the Chestertons (also included in the collection), Clare Nicholl suggests that Mr. Chesterton found his inspiration for his famous Father Brown Stories during a holiday with his wife and Miss Mason in Yorkshire. How delightful to find that these different “friends” of mine were actually friends in real life!” Enjoy this little fable on education by G. K. Chesterton, and read the full collection to peruse the others!
A FABLE IN BRICKS AND MORTAR*
Once upon a time there were four brothers. They lived in the misty morning of the earth, and as they speared their mammoths or piled their rude huts, they discussed the modern spirit in science and education. One of them was a Professor—he professed some branch of physical science which I have forgotten. The second of these rude heroes painted in water-colours, and would make the old cavern ring, and startle the flapping eagles with his barbaric yell of “Art for Art’s sake!” The third was a Politician, and had a vote all to himself—the others taking no interest in the phenomenon. But the fourth had a curious professions which I really find it impossible to describe. It was, so to speak, something between a shepherd and a literary agent, with a sort of touch of the hotel proprietor. He was not exactly a surveyor, and yet one could not say that he was altogether a clergyman. He was a very vague person, generally speaking, and took a long time to do anything, and a still longer time not to do it. And when the Professor, with his scientific method, and the Artist, with his quick eye, and the Politician, with his efficiency, complained of his vagueness, he would say: “Vagueness is the touch of the infinite upon the edges of the soul”; and he would add: “Thus we see that Doubt is the most striking of all the arguments for Faith.” And they changed the subject.
But, as I say, they argued for the most part about education, and how they would bring up children. And one night they drank so much brown mead, round the fire, that they quarrelled—taunting each other with inexperience. And they became so angry that they all married next morning. And when it came to pass that they had children of their own, they reminded each other of the educational theories. And they agreed that each should build a magnificent house, constructed solely with a view to education—a vast and splendid nursery. “This house,” said the man of science, “must be a microcosm. It must present to the children within it a kind of summary, or picture, of the universe outside, in which they will have to live. It is, as it were, a camera obscura.” “I should say, rather,” said the Artist, “like an impressionist sketch, which leaves out by instinct that which is unimportant.” “Well, I only know,” said the Politician, “that when you did an impressionist sketch of me, you left out the back of my head.”
They had a month to build their houses in, and the Professor had finished his first. It had beautiful, artistic wall papers, covered with magnified animalculæ (which are really very decorative); and the kind old Professor would amuse their meals by explaining which animals were present in which form of sustenance. On some points, however, he was strict. No child was allowed to refer to “sunrise” or “sunset,” especially in the presence of his little sisters. The motto of the house was: “All facts are valuable.” This was written over the front door, in letters of gold, and elsewhere about the palatial building; facts worth absorbing were inscribed in some rich marbles or many-coloured mosaics, as “Frogs have no hair,” or “There is a Milk Shop in Praed Street,” or “No Camel can work miracles.”
The Politician’s house was completed next, and was in working order long before the rest. The order was, indeed, alarmingly working. Everything was done by machinery, as if it were a factory for making children, instead of a home for training them. The division of labour was everywhere; there were specialists for everything. There were Bread Nurses to cut the bread, and Jam Nurses to spread the jam, and Soap Nurses (with certificates) to wash the children’s hands, and Pocket Handkerchief Nurses (with letters after their names) to wipe the children’s noses. So that when the Artist’s house was finished it was something of a relief. His house I will not describe, for it was really beautiful, and it is harder to describe beautiful things even than to make them.
And now these three, having finished their work, looked about them and began to get anxious about the fourth brother, who was still pottering about with bricks and mortar on the first story, or else more frequently standing in the middle of the road, with his legs wide apart, looking up at it with the face of a seraph. One could not say altogether that he was lazy, nor that he was busy: but he always seemed very much interested in his house, and house never seemed to get any further. Weeks passed, and then months, and then years; and the scaffolding was still up and the boards still bare, and the owner still superintending matters with the air of Napoleon at Austerlitz. He smoked his pipe resolutely in the road, and consumed milk, ale, and sandwiches hurriedly in the garden, but the house did not grow. His children did grow. In one naked room they played with tin soldiers all over the floor; in another they drew chalk pictures all over the walls. They slung a hammock from the window to the apple tree. They made a nest in the hornbeam, and all meals of their lives were picnics. And day and night they fought each other with pillows, or wooden swords, about what the house ought to look like when it was finished.
And at the end of the fourth year the other three brothers came to see him in a body, with lowering faces. After a stern silence, the Professor said, wagging his finger: “Simeon” (I think his name was Simeon, or else James, or something akin to both of them) “Simeon, you are a fraud. You are an idle and irresponsible fraud. Because you are too lazy and too fond of ale and tobacco to finish your house, you let your children grow up like brutes.”
Then Simeon’s eyes flamed suddenly like two swords drawn in an instant. “Brutes!” he cried. “You say my children are brutes! One answer would be to fling you out of the door; a better one is to ask you to look at them. They are better to look at than the others. They are more graceful; they are more generous; they can sing and tell stories. They love birds and beasts, and heroic memories; and they have hope in their eyes. What are the others? The dull children of knowledge; the morbid children of beauty; the cowardly children of government. If mine are brutes, shall we say yours are vegetables? Why are we happier and stronger and more in love with life? Because our house is not finished. Why can we play better and dance better? Because our house is not finished. You say the house must be a microcosm—a picture of the world. This is what the real world is: an unfinished house, a thing incomplete, chaotic, uncomfortable, promising, gloriously habitable. We are living the ancient life of men. And it is life in an unfinished house; not death in a finished one.”
He asked them to stop to tea, but as it was to be served on a somewhat insecure part of the roof, they made a few thoughtful remarks about rain and went on their way.
*By permission of the Editor of The Daily News, from a brochure issued “for raising a fund to provide Christmas festivities for the children of the London slums.”
Chesterton, G.K. (1904). A Fable in Bricks and Mortar. Parents’ Review, 15. Issue 3. 178-180. London: Parents’ National Education Union.