Chesterton’s “Manalive”: “Friends” a Century Earlier
The entertainment world fluttered a year ago because of the big HBO 30th anniversary show celebrating the NBC sitcom “Friends.” Most of the interest had to do with hearing that David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston, who played Ross and Rachel in the series, really did have crushes on each other at one point. That and commenting, in the kind of cruel idol-smashing way humans have, on how Matthew Perry, who played Chandler, looked a decade older than the others and slurred his words. Humans do get a vicious charge out of seeing the glitterati have problems like ours.
I was never a fan of the show, though I occasionally joined friends who would gather each week for the next new episode. Good-looking people living it up in their twenties and into their thirties, doing crazy things and breaking all the rules. What was not to love? Alas, when I did watch the show, my laughs were somewhat guilty since much of the humor was in the vicious mode identified by old Screwtape: it was designed to make us laugh at the idea of virtue, especially virtue in the realm of sex. Though latter-day wokescolds now accuse it of fictitious sins such as transphobia and homophobia, the goal of the show was not actually breaking any rules other than the old moral ones; it was aimed at normalizing promiscuity, same-sex relationships, and even the burgeoning notion of “gender identity,” although the writers, having some humanity left, made jokes about such things since comedy was still about making people laugh two decades ago and even those who approve or allow our modern madnesses can, when honest, see some of their absurdities.
The worst part of the show was its making the kind of selfish, pointless, pleasure-seeking lives lived by the characters a beautiful ideal for young people. That the show ended up with two of the men married to two of the women might make the show seem rather traditional in the long run—so think the wokescolds. One could credit the show’s producers for that at least. But in the end the show simply exacerbated our culture’s trend toward loving garish weddings but paying no attention to what marriage was about. “Friends” wanted happy endings without embracing the means to happiness.
If there was a truth conveyed by the show, it was simply that modern life in the absence of a vision of life’s meaning beyond eating, drinking, and the pleasuring of intimate bits can be maintained for some time when one is young and money is plentiful. But that such a life leads to loneliness and misery rather than communion was not communicated and even denied. You can live this life and still be “friends.”
Want a real happy ending for twenty-and-thirty-somethings? G. K. Chesterton’s 1912 novel, Manalive, is a tale about young, bourgeois people living in the modern world. It is also a tale about what is necessary for such people to come alive and enjoy real friendship and communion.
Chesterton’s tale begins at Beacon House, a boarding establishment on top of a high London hill run by a woman named Mrs. Duke. The inhabitants, whom we meet are: romantic and melancholy Irish lawyer Michael Moon, neurotic and mousey man-of-science Arthur Inglewood, heiress Rosamund Hunt, and Mrs. Duke’s strong-willed niece and Beacon House property manager Diana. Newly-arrived Mary Gray serves as a companion to Rosamund. While the group are on speaking terms, all the unfulfilled longings and past attempts at romance of Michael and Rosamund for each other, as well as Arthur and Diana for each other, hang like an unspoken pall between them. These “friends” have been wasting youth in each other’s presence without actually being companions. They have the money and resources to live a comfortable life but seemingly little life to be enjoyed. Enter Innocent Smith.
Before we know about these characters, Chesterton’s opening lines tell us that whoever dwells in the pages is about to experience something new:
A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow. In the inmost chambers of intricate and embowered houses it woke like a domestic explosion, littering the floor with some professor’s papers till they seemed as precious as fugitive, or blowing out the candle by which a boy read Treasure Island and wrapping him in roaring dark. But everywhere it bore drama into undramatic lives, and carried the trump of crisis across the world.
The wind has always been a potent symbol of change, but for the Christian Chesterton we can see this wind as Pentecostal in nature. Coming with it is not simply the Holy Spirit but a kind of holy fool and saint, wearing a green suit and chasing his hat into the garden of Beacon House.[*]
The man, almost recognized by Arthur Inglewood as his old school friend, turns out to be Innocent Smith. He immediately turns the world of the dull “friends” upside down by doing things they had never thought to do—climbing trees, going out onto the roof of Beacon House and opening up its denizens to the vision of a night sky that they can almost imagine contains the old gods, even listening to old Mrs. Duke. With the “wild authority of the harlequin,” Smith “filled everyone with his half-lunatic life” and took this collective of individuals who barely spoke to each other into a fully functioning community that was fit to declare sovereignty over their half-acre.
Think CHAZ, but without the violence, drugs, or hatred.
Indeed, Smith turns the hobbies of the inhabitants into institutions themselves, and the wall-flower Inglewood “almost struggled against his growing importance.” He teaches them the importance of Swiss Family Robinson, namely that “When you’re really shipwrecked, you do really find what you want.” If they only stayed together in Beacon House, he tells them, “we’d be the better for reading scores of books in that bookcase that we don’t even know are there; we’d have talks with each other; good, terrible talks, that we shall go to the grave without guessing; we’d find materials for everything: christening, marriage or funeral—yes, even for a Coronation, if we didn’t decide to be a republic.”
Innocent teaches them how to see. “All is gold that glitters.” And, “Leave off buying and selling, and start looking! Open your eyes; and you’ll wake up in the New Jerusalem.” These used-to-be friends soak up his lessons and when they discover that Smith and Mary Gray are eloping, Michael Moon and Arthur Inglewood suddenly wake up to what they need to do. Unlike Ross and Rachel and Chandler and Monica, they don’t simply go to bed with the women and get around to marriage eventually; instead, they propose to Rosamund Hunt and Diana Duke on the spot.
The first half of Manalive ends with the accusation by Dr. Herbert Warner, a friend of the Beacon House inhabitants, of many tremendous crimes by Innocent Smith: Murder! Burglary! Desertion! Polygamy! This sets off the second half of the book, which is a trial held by the Sovereign House of Beacon of this man Innocent Smith. Is he a criminal lunatic or is he truly innocent?
I do not think it is a spoiler to let you know that Innocent is innocent. The mystery in the book is not a whodunit but the mystery of goodness pursued in a world in which all men and women—including Smith—are prone to sloth, or acedia, the vice that causes us to not see the New Jerusalem in front of us and pursue it. Innocent’s innocence is not the sunny foolishness of Dr. Pangloss, but the knowledge of a man who must go on pilgrimage around the world to find his own house again. “It was not the house that grew dull,” Innocent has told a Russian stationmaster wondering about his wandering, “but that I grew dull in it. My wife was better than all women, and yet I could not feel it.”
The inhabitants of Beacon House have been changed into true friends at the end of the story. They know the secret of happiness in friendship and marriage taught them by Innocent Smith. It is a lesson that Ross, Rachel, and the “Friends” gang always had backwards. “Break the conventions, keep the commandments.”
[*] I’ve written about Manalive as a tale renewing and invigorating the tradition of holy fools in “Two Visions of the Holy Fool,” in Literature and Catholicism in the 19th and 20th Centuries, ed. David Torevell. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021.
This article first appeared at The Imaginative Conservative on June 23, 2021. Optiv Theology Podcast thanks them for their permission.
David Deavel is an Assistant Professor in Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Deavel also edits a journal called LOGOS: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-directs The Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy and hosts a podcast called Deep Down Things.