Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros20.22. Revisiting the Periodical Essa...“Such Common Objects” – The Polit...

2. Revisiting the Periodical Essay (1860-1940)

“Such Common Objects” – The Politics of Everyday Life in G. K. Chesterton’s and Rose Macaulay’s Thing-Essays



Dans cet article, je soutiens que les essais dits « légers » sur des objets apparemment insignifiants, tels qu'ils ont été publiés dans des périodiques du début du XXe siècle, utilisent les spécificités du genre de l'essai pour dévoiler des dimensions de la vie quotidienne qui sont souvent considérées comme allant de soi et donc négligées. Je me concentrerai sur deux « thing-essays » – « Lamp-Posts" » (1920) de G. K. Chesterton et « Arm-Chair » (1935) de Rose Macaulay – et je soutiendrai que ces essais aident une masse émergente de lecteurs et de consommateurs à établir une cohérence sémantique entre eux-mêmes et les objets qui prolifèrent autour d'eux. En utilisant la distinction objet/chose de Martin Heidegger et de Bill Brown, je soutiendrai également que ces essais soulignent la pertinence de la vie quotidienne et des questions politiques qui peuvent se manifester dans les objets de tous les jours. En particulier, les « thing-essays » de Chesterton et de Macaulay utilisent la flexibilité sémantique des choses pour illustrer et défendre leurs opinions politiques, religieuses et intellectuelles, en abordant des domaines tels que le distributisme, le catholicisme et ce que l’on appelle la « battle of the brows ».

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Many thanks go to Johanna Jank and Amy Podszus for their help in compiling the material for this article.

1.Thing-essays and miraculous everyday life

1After similar waves in the early 18th century (with publications like The Tatler and The Spectator) and the early 19th century (with periodicals like The Times, the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review or Blackwood’s Magazine), the first decades of the 20th century marked another heyday in the proliferation of periodical essays. Following the newspaper revolution of the 1890s and the foundation of, for instance, the Daily Express and the New Statesman, another “vogue of the familiar essay emerged […] at the turn of the century, with the development of mass-market periodicals” (Pollentier 120). What these essays have in common is, firstly, a certain “conversational tone”, in which they take “the standpoint of the ordinary man” (Pollentier 119), with the result that they were sometimes labelled familiar and personal essays like their precursors and sometimes simply referred to as “light essays” (cf. Pollentier 119). Secondly, they share their thematic openness (cf. Taylor 86-87), which led to a frequent occurrence of essays on material everyday items like old suitcases, hats, umbrellas or cheese. Seeking to cater to a new mass readership that was eager for easily accessible but also uplifting texts (cf. Taylor 87), essayists stood under pressure to produce relatable texts at a vertiginous frequency and developed new approaches to their essay-writing. As J. B. Priestley humorously explains, the weekly constraints of periodical writing forced the essayist of his time “to focus his attention upon the little passing things he might have disdained were he not writing for the next week’s paper” (qtd. in Pollentier 130). The strain to be productive thus turned the attention of essayists towards items that they might otherwise have discarded as too banal for literary exploration. Yet, as we will see, these explorations often led to politically and socially significant reflections and thus show how closely everyday life is connected to such issues.

  • 1 Cf. Daniel Schneider. The British and Anglo-Irish Thing-Essay from 1701 until 2021: Of Broomsticks (...)

2In analogy to the established subgenres it-narrative, thing-poem and thing theatre, I have introduced the term “thing-essays” for literary essays about the relationships that people have fostered with everyday objects throughout time.1 Especially in British and Anglo-Irish literature, we find a large and very heterogenous corpus of texts that can be categorised as thing-essays, starting with Jonathan Swift’s “Meditation upon a Broomstick” (1701) and continuing with, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Philosophy of Umbrellas” (1871), Elizabeth Bowen’s “Tea-Kettle” (1963) and Lucy Ellmann’s “Things are Against Us” (2021). These essays draw broader conclusions from the contemplation of a material object of everyday life and, by turning this contemplation into a literary end in itself, provide posterity with a window on how people perceived everyday objects at different time periods.

3What distinguishes thing-essays from these related subgenres is the essay’s subjective and anti-systematic stance, which can capture even the most idiosyncratic and fragmentary experiences in the contemplation of objects. Essays never purport to exhaust the truth of their topic but openly acknowledge that they present a worldview that comes from a particular and subjective perspective at a particular time and place. This tentative character is often also mirrored in the anti-systematic form of essays, for instance when they appear fragmented or lacunary. In his seminal text on the genre, Theodor W. Adorno summarised this consciously provisional approach to essays in the following formula: such essays proceed, he wrote, “methodically unmethodically” (161).

4Due to this authenticity of the essay genre, as lauded for instance by David Shields in his manifesto Reality Hunger (cf. 202), we get from thing-essays particularly valuable insights into how writers and other people have perceived the objects around them – and, by extension, materiality in general. In thing-essays, materiality and the essay bring out each other’s most pertinent qualities: while the essay can capture human relationships with objects in all their idiosyncrasy, the multidimensional and often erratic associations that people connect with things let the essay shine in its “methodically unmethodical[..]” nature.

5While reliable quantifications or databanks of thing-essays are still a desideratum, there seems to exist a general correlation between the heydays of thing-essays and of periodical essays. Departing from there, my hypothesis is that so far, never have there been produced as many thing-essays in Anglophone literature as in the first three or four decades of the 20th century, with writers like Max Beerbohm, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Alfred George Gardiner (alias “Alpha of the Plough”), E. V. Lucas, Robert Lynd, Rose Macaulay or J. B. Priestley being their main exponents. This surge resulted not only from the high circulations of periodical magazines but also from the proliferation of mass-produced objects that followed the extension of consumer society in early 20th-century-Britain, especially after the victory of the Liberal Party in 1906. Epitomised by Selfridge’s department store, which had opened in 1909 with the “democratic claim to offer ‘London’s Lowest Prices’” (Wild 3), an increasing amount of people from different social strata integrated more and more material items in their life. This trend to make consumer goods available for more people continued in the 1920s, with the result that this “period of relative economic stability after the First World War and before the Great Depression [… witnessed] an increase in the number of people identifiable as consumers” (Oulanne 10).

6While these new consumers welcomed the extension of the material sphere in their private homes, they also needed to fill the sudden plethora of commodities in their lives with meaning and to establish new semantic coherence with their material surroundings. This made the ubiquity of these items – clothes, furniture, household items and so on – an even more welcome starting point for essayists. In this way, early 20th-century thing-essayists made a virtue out of necessity. In a productive spiral, the popularity of these light essays increased the demand for them, which enhanced their thematic broadness and thus benefited the popularity of these essays even more, as it gave them the air of dealing with life in its totality. For many essay readers, toys, hats and other apparently trivial items of everyday life certainly were more vivid and picturesque starting points than the abstract ideas that had governed many Victorian essays by writers like Thomas Carlyle, Walter Pater, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, which Douglas Hesse (1997, 109) therefore calls “essay[s] of ideas”. The relatability of these newer periodical essays made them a welcome read for a new audience, which often had neither the educational background nor the time or interest to immerse themselves into contemplations on Sandro Botticelli, Heinrich Heine or principles of architecture.

7Yet, both the contemporary and the posterior critical reception of these thing-essays has often been far from favourable. In her essay collection The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf argues that the strains of periodical publishing reduced the quality of “The Modern Essay” – as she refers to light periodical essays (cf. Woolf 303). Woolf mainly deplores that they lack the marked subjectivity in the tradition of Michel de Montaigne that she regards as essential for the genre (cf. Woolf 300):

[T]he habitual essayist […] must masquerade. He cannot afford the time either to be himself or to be other people. He must skim the surface of thought and dilute the strength of personality. He must give us a worn weekly halfpenny instead of a solid sovereign once a year. […] Mr. Belloc and Mr. Lucas and Mr. Lynd and Mr. Squire are not fiercely attached to anything in itself. They share the contemporary dilemma – that lack of an obstinate conviction which lifts ephemeral sounds through the misty sphere of anybody’s language to the land where there is a perpetual marriage, a perpetual union. (Woolf 304, 307)

8For Woolf, the need to write for a broad audience on a frequent basis renders contemporary essays random, as they do not display the intensity that is created when writers discuss topics they have been pondering over for longer time periods. The only exception to this predicament that Woolf allows is Max Beerbohm (cf. Woolf 300-301).

9Many critics have followed this view: D. J. Taylor (87) questions if this type of light essay “was an art to begin with” and claims that “[o]n strictly literary grounds, when set against some of the best periodical writing of the 1920s and 1930s, these reflections on the wisdom of cats, or the contents of men’s pockets […] can look horribly threadbare” (Taylor 94). And Peter Hinchcliffe (818) probably has such essays in mind, too, when he postulates a “vogue for sentimental whimsy that marked British and American literary taste at the turn of the century”, until “[i]n the 1920s and 1930s taste changed”.

  • 2 In fact, Chesterton himself was hesitant to even refer to his own texts as essays, rather describin (...)

10Obviously, many of the essays that were published during these years had indeed come and gone with the spur of the moment. Yet, this fact was openly acknowledged when it came to the anthologisation of essays in book form (cf. Pollentier 122): G. K. Chesterton only had about 700 out of the 4,000 essays he had published between 1896 and 1936 anthologised in some two dozen essay volumes.2 By contrast, the interest in the 35 literary essays on cooking and entertaining that Agnes Jekyll published in 1921 and 1922 in The Times was so huge that Jekyll republished them as a book called Kitchen Essays: With Recipes and Their Occasions in 1922. Other essays like Rose Macaulay’s “Arm-Chair” – to be discussed later in this article – were written specifically for the book form without prior print in a periodical.

11Nevertheless, there exists an overall tendency to underestimate and undervalue many of these essays, which correlates with the undervaluation of the domestic and quotidian sphere that many of these essays are concerned with. In her seminal article on “Invisible Work” from 1987, Arlene Kaplan Daniels (403) argues that household work usually “disappears from our observations and reckonings”. Analogously, the sphere of the domestic and quotidian has often been excluded from what is deemed worthy of literary exploration. Thing-essays oppose this view and bring everyday life to the centre of literature.

12These thing-essays also oppose an anti-materialist view that had emerged in the first decades of the 20th century and that almost reflexively equated material items with a meaningless, unfulfilling superabundance of commodities. This is expressed, for instance, in Prufrock’s lament that he “measured out [his] life with coffee spoons” (Eliot l. 51). Mass production thus had enhanced a “modernist intellectual tendency to regard things as superficial and morally suspect phenomena” (Freedgood 140) and to place all material items in a “modern tension between commodities and authentic objects” (Oulanne 10), where, in case of doubt, they “seem to be commodities” (Freedgood 140). This response also betrays a certain elitism, or at least privilege, that disparages commodities because they have become – in every sense of the word – all too common.

13And indeed, although even the most quotidian objects around us carry within them many layers of meaning that must be explored and rendered conscious if one wishes to maintain a meaningful relationship with the world, it is easy to overlook the semantic thickness of everyday life. Quoting Maurice Blanchot’s formula “Le quotidien échappe, c’est sa définition”, Michael Sheringham (88) sees in everyday life a “heterogeneous contingency that makes it so hard to pin down”. Indeed, the quotidian neither has the logic of systematic philosophy nor – or at least hardly ever – the emotional intensity that would qualify it for fiction or drama. As a consequence, philosophy and literature have often banned it from their realm.

14This is where the essay genre comes in, which is particularly fit for descriptions of everyday life. While narrative tends to focus on the extraordinary in order “to comprehend that which has stepped out of line” (Mitchell, and Snyder 227), Sheringham (94) recognises in “the everyday the unseen, […] that opaqueness that Adorno sees the essay as wishing to ‘blow open’”. Thus, the essay’s propensity for the fragmented can capture precisely the meaningfulness that lies scattered within the ordinariness of everyday life but has become almost invisible due to its somewhat sporadic occurrences.

15Thing-essays use the essay’s anti-systematic drive to look for such meaning around quotidian objects. Oftentimes, they extol the usefulness of these objects that are frequently taken for granted. By thus striving to “make the transitory eternal” (Adorno 159), these essays seek to render everyday life less ephemeral.

16My description of how thing-essays make things seen will operate with Martin Heidegger’s and Bill Brown’s distinction between objects and things. Following insights from Heidegger’s tool analysis in Being and Time, from Heidegger’s later essay “The Thing” as well as from the elaborations thereupon in Bill Brown’s thing-theory, material items – and most notably those produced by human beings – can be divided into objects and things. However, these two terms do not describe different types of items but rather different ways of looking at them.

17Objecthood is defined through a clearly circumscribed functionality. Heidegger (Being and Time 64) calls this their “structure of ‘in order to’”. Objects are put to use by subjects in a more or less clearly defined relationship, for instance in a quotidian context: the broomstick is moved to and fro by the house cleaner in order to sweep the floor, the lamp-post is lit in order to light the street and the arm-chair exists in order to provide comfortable seating accommodation.

18Thingness, by contrast, is more opaque and diffuse. As Brown (“Thing-Theory” 4-5) points out, it tends “to index a certain limit or liminality, to hover over the threshold between the nameable and unnameable, the figurable and unfigurable, the identifiable and unidentifiable”. Things are items whose objecthood remains unidentified or is (temporarily) left behind, for instance because the object is defunct (as with Heidegger’s famous broken hammer) or because it is regarded detached from its customary function. When objects become things, they are regarded from a perspective that they are usually not granted, for instance with regard to the personal memories or associations they might trigger. Heidegger (“The Thing” 177) uses the neologism “to thing” (German: ‘dingen’) to label the process through which such – often idiosyncratic – meaning is associated with a material object, writing that “[t]he thing things”, i.e. inevitably gathers additional meaning around its objecthood.

19The ontological states of objecthood and thingness cannot always be neatly separated, however. What starts off as thingness might soon become embedded in the routine of objecthood, such as when a watch comes to be contemplated only as a reminder of a deceased loved one and is no longer used in its original function as a chronometer. While this status as a keepsake might once have been attached as thingness to the original object function of the watch – i.e. telling the time – it would then have superseded it as the item’s new objecthood. Vice versa, an item’s objecthood can enter its thingness, for instance when it is magnified and intensified through such close scrutiny that the object seems to fall out of its accustomed “structure of ‘in order to’” while, paradoxically, remaining perfectly latched on to it. Bill Brown’s concept of the “dialectical object” describes this “irresolvable and contradictory, doubleness of a single object, [… which] oscillate[s] between the poles of object and thing” (Other Things 371).

20Such ambivalence can also be observed in G. K. Chesterton’s and Rose Macaulay’s thing-essays “Lamp-Posts” and “Arm-Chair”. In the following, I will show why their contemplations should not be dismissed as devoid of “obstinate conviction”, to pick up Woolf’s critique. Instead, their praise of the functionality of everyday objects sharpens their readers’ gaze on many details and achievements of everyday life. In doing so, they also reveal the political dimension of everyday things.

2.“The slaying of a dragon”: G. K. Chesterton’s “Lamp-Posts”

21Throughout large parts of his œuvre, Gilbert Keith Chesterton displays a thorough preoccupation with material items, be it in “Father Brown”-stories like “The Blue Cross” or “The Purple Wig”, in his novel The Man Who Was Thursday or in thing-essays such as “The Thing in My Pocket” or “A Piece of Chalk”. The titles of some of his essay collections like All Things Considered or Tremendous Trifles further testify to this predilection.

22Chesterton’s fascination with things can be seen as an expression of his Catholic faith, which made him aspire to a “redemption of earthly life from a meaningless and one-dimensional materialism” in order to see “the sanctity of worldly things, their magic and mystery, the divinity of all living things” (Clipper 36). Chesterton discarded the pragmatist focus on the functional side of modern objects and preferred to regard them with a marvelling stance that could endow them with more poetic meaning. Yet, as his thing-essay “Lamp-Posts” shows, this did not impair his fascination with the workability of such items.

23After having originally been published in the Illustrated London News, “Lamp-Posts” was anthologised in Chesterton’s 1920 essay collection The Uses of Diversity. The text starts with a general observation about the social underappreciation of everyday objects “such as an omnibus or a lamp-post” (“Lamp-Posts” 7):

In contemplating some common object of the modern street, […] it is sometimes well worthwhile to stop and think about why such common objects are regarded as commonplace. It is well worth while to try to grasp what is […] the quality in modernity which makes them so often seem not so much significant as insignificant. […] It is certainly not the things themselves, the idea and upshot of them, that are remote from poetry or even mysticism. (“Lamp-Posts” 7)

24Chesterton thus redirects the reader’s gaze at common objects of the modern street that usually go unnoticed because we only interact with them as objects and rely on their pure functionality within the established “structure[s] of ‘in order to’” (Being and Time 64) of everyday life. Therefore, we tend to overlook the “poetry or even mysticism” (“Lamp-Posts” 7) of their thingness.

25Chesterton’s essay then unearths some cultural reasons for this indifference towards functioning everyday objects, which at first might appear as a natural human reaction. The remark that “[i]f you stop the omnibus while you stop to think about it, you will be unpopular” (“Lamp-Posts” 7) points at one of them. Instead of paying attention to “the sanctity of worldly things, their magic and mystery” (Clipper 36), modern society with its capitalist hyperfocus on productivity is too mechanised and disenchanted in the sense of Thomas Carlyle and Max Weber to care for anything other than the undisturbed embedment of objects in their customary “structure[s] of ‘in order to’”.

26Here, “Lamp-Posts” makes use of the essay’s capacity to “expos[e] the cultural beneath the falsely natural” (Sheringham 96). When Adorno (158) writes that the essay acknowledges the “historically produced”, Chesterton’s thing-essay reveals the banality that is often ascribed to everyday objects as such a “historically produced” perspective, which can thus be altered when certain parameters of perception are changed. According to Chesterton, one only has to look at objects with the right mindset: “[T]he things themselves are not repulsively prosaic; it was their associations that made them so” (“Lamp-Posts” 11). This contextuality of banality becomes especially clear when Chesterton compares the English indifference to lamp-posts to the French association of lamp-posts with their 18th-century revolution. Having used lamp-posts as “the guillotine of the mob” and “hanged aristocrats upon it” (“Lamp-Posts” 10), the French can still use La Lanterne as the name for politically progressive newspapers. English lamp-posts, by contrast, “have become commonplace because there has been so long lacking in them a certain savour of sacrifice and peril”. As a result, an English newspaper called Lamp-Post is only conceivable “as a paper for children” (“Lamp-Posts” 11).

27Chesterton therefore asks whether items need to have a certain “romance of war” (“Lamp-Posts” 11) about them in order to be poetic, which brings him to the triumph of civilisation over nature that modern objects epitomise:

The new wonder that has changed the world before our eyes is that all this crude and vulgar modern clockwork is most truly being used for a heroic end. It is most emphatically being used for the slaying of a dragon. It is being used, much more unquestionably than the lantern of Paris, to make an end of a tyrant. (“Lamp-Posts” 11)

28The “tyrant” Chesterton refers to here is not aristocracy but the unruly power in which nature can present itself to human beings. In his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” (57), Chesterton similarly describes civilisation as “the most romantic of rebellions”, which “mak[es] war with a chaotic world”. The human ardour of discovery has conquered the laws of nature, with the result that human beings are no longer fully at nature’s mercy but can actively shape their life in the world. The functionality of allegedly “common objects” points to this miracle. The fact that current ecocritical perspectives justifiably see the Anthropocene more critically (cf. Vermeulen) therefore should not obfuscate its original successfulness – especially since a healthy ecosystem and the designs of homo faber can be brought into a workable balance.

29Interestingly, Chesterton thus locates thingness precisely within the “structure of ‘in order to’” (Being and Time 64) of objects and not in its transcendence. It is the smooth working of objects that endows them with the layers of poetic thingness whose appreciation Chesterton calls for. As opposed to Heidegger, for Chesterton not the broken but rather the working hammer is mysterious and miraculous. In Chesterton’s Weltanschauung, the poetry of objects and things thus overlap to the point where they become indistinguishable. This renders them dialectical objects in the sense of Bill Brown par excellence.

30Chesterton further makes it clear that the poetical view of objects that he calls for can fall back on archetypal forms of thingness: “As for the idea of the lamp-post, the idea of the fixed beacon of the branching thoroughfares, the terrestrial star of the terrestrial traveller, it not only could be, but actually is, the subject of countless songs” (“Lamp-Posts” 7-8). The aspired poeticisation of modern objects thus does not need to be created through entirely new associations. Instead, it can be shaped from the thingness that lies gathered around older items, which can especially be transferred to the modern world where there is such a clear analogy in function as between the terrestrial star and the lamp-post. By creating such an analogy, Chesterton makes it clear that these newer items should be allowed to gather the same thingness as their precursor objects. The continuity that his essay seeks to draw thus points to a need for thingness that is deeply rooted in humans. After it got lost only comparatively recently through processes of secularisation, mechanisation and the proliferation of objects that resulted from these, thingness needs to be retrieved and maintained in the everyday life of modernity as well.

31While thus lauding science’s success on the one hand, Chesterton on the other hand complains about science’s objectifying reduction of the world to numbers and statistics, which he juxtaposes with the subjectivity that lies in a child’s sense of wonder:

[A] child, looking out of the nursery window, regards the lamp-post as part of a fairy-tale of which the lamplighter is the fairy. That lamp-post can be to a baby all that the moon could possibly be to a lover or a poet. [… T]here is nowadays a spirit of cheap information which imagines that it shoots beyond this shining point, when it merely tells us that there are nine hundred lamp-posts in the town, all exactly alike. [… T]here is nothing really commonplace except the mind of the calculator. The baby is much more right about the flaming lamp than the statistician who counts the posts in the street […]. Here the part is certainly greater than the whole, for it is much better to be tied to one wonderful thing than to allow a mere catalogue of wonderful things to deprive you of the capacity to wonder. (“Lamp-Posts” 9-10)

32In Chesterton’s view, individual associations that build on the practical value of lamp-posts convey much more truth about them than assessments of lamp-posts through mathematical data (even though the first could not be produced without the groundwork of the latter).

33The aesthetics of everyday life that Chesterton calls for thus builds on an essayistic thinking – and particularly on an essayistic attraction to a type of observation that is dilettantish in the word’s original positive meaning, deriving from the Latin ‘delectare’ (i.e. to rejoice in something). In its capturing of idiosyncratic thoughts and experiences, the essay gives “[t]he particular […] priority over the general” (Good 6) and “make[s] the transitory eternal” (Adorno 159). While in science, “[e]ach acceptable contribution has to take account of previous contributions on the topic, especially recent ones” (Good 5), the essay always aspires to be “a ‘first account’ of its object, since it does not borrow its first principles from outside its particular situation” (Good 22). Hence, the essay is driven not so much by learning as by the essayist’s enthusiasm about a certain question. As Cynthia Ozick remarks, every essay is “heir to nothing, and sets out with empty pockets from scratch” (qtd. in Fakundiny 5). Chesterton’s endorsement of poeticised individual musings is essayistic in exactly this sense: It is much more interested in spontaneous, fragmented ideas than in scientific endeavours that try to be systematic or exhaustive.

34In their indeterminacy and general invisibility, objects of everyday life provide ample space for such musings and projections. In the sense of Sheringham’s (87) postulation that “everyday things matter […] in an approach to knowledge that refuses to bracket out concrete, embodied experience”, Chesterton shows how lamp-posts enable a direct experience of the world and of oneself as part of that world. When humans attach personal meaning to objects, they do not only make sense of objects but also make sure that from there on, objects will help them to make sense of themselves and their own lives.

35For Chesterton, the higher truth that an individual mind begets when it places the poetic truth of the thing above the purely scientific truth of the object therefore is ultimately a religious truth. The thorough rationalisation and mechanisation of the modern world, accompanied by a Weberian disenchantment, runs counter to Chesterton’s religious sensibilities. “Lamp-Posts” was written two years before Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism, and we can already see in his plea that even “such common objects” as lamp-posts are a poeticised expression of his Catholic longing for spiritual coherence in the world. Opposing the growing profanation of the world with its “emptying of meaning from signs or tokens of spiritual value” (Lamb 45), Chesterton understood even the smallest parts of quotidian life as the manifestation of a divine presence in the world, which also resides in each and every object’s thingness. The usefulness of objects thus mirrors a divine sense of purpose, which can be complemented by daydreaming and the gathering of individual types of thingness around objects with the result of a sense of belonging and religious harmony.

36Chesterton does not, however, provide a subjective reflection on a lamp-post of his own. In contrast to some of his more personal essays like “Why I am a Catholic” or “A Piece of Chalk”, in “Lamp-Posts” Chesterton remains on a more detached level of observation. At the same time, Chesterton’s essay presents a general call for a return to more subjectivity, dilettantism and daydreaming. Instead of providing the single musings of one educated writer, Chesterton’s generalist tone and his usage of an inclusive “we” pursues the democratic goal of sharpening the sensitivity of all of his readers towards material items. Here, the political impetus of “Lamp-Posts” and its call for more poetics comes to the fore. It complements the democratisation of the material world that the extension of consumer society brought with a democratisation of poetic worldviews. The essay genre’s “unsystematic treatment of a variety of moral and social topics” is no longer the prerogative of “the cultivated gentleman” (Scodel 213), as in its early modern beginnings, but reflective of a dreamy perspective on life that all human beings should have.

  • 3 Chesterton illustrates this in his short story “The Invisible Man”, whose title refers to a postman (...)

37Accordingly, the essay’s praise of lamp-posts as an example for the heroic human battle against the chaotic energies of nature should not be understood as praise for scientists and engineers only. Albeit only implicitly, Chesterton’s focus on everyday objects also brings to light the labour of workers who maintain this triumph. Streetworkers, cleaners, clerks and other employees likewise contribute to the functioning of the “modern clockwork” (“Lamp-Posts” 11), even when their work is oftentimes rendered invisible in its own way.3 Especially in his younger years, Chesterton sympathised with left-wing political views and was a member of the Fabian Society. Although he turned more conservative as he grew older, his essays of the 1920s and 30s are still “devoted to the cause of distributism” (Hunt 61-62). Distributism, an economic philosophy closely tied to Catholicism and held by Chesterton as well as by his friend Hilaire Belloc, advocates that capital and production means should be distributed as evenly as possible among the members of a population (cf. Solari 108) instead of being concentrated in the hands of very few individuals, as in capitalism, or being in state possession, as in socialism. Chesterton’s “Lamp-Posts” also seeks to redistribute the poetry of subjectivity more evenly in society.

3.“The commodious depths of the easy chair”: Rose Macaulay’s “Arm-Chair”

38Rose Macaulay’s thing-essay “Arm-Chair” was published in her 1935 anthology Personal Pleasures, together with many periodical essays previously released in different magazines. Oscillating between the personal and the general, the essay also reflects on Macaulay’s mediating position in what Virginia Woolf called the “battle of the brows” – a quarrel between advocates of an intellectualist high-brow approach to literature and proponents of a more popular and more easily accessible middlebrow literature. Melissa Sullivan describes how Macaulay catered to both sides in these cultural fights of the 1920s and 30s “over culture hierarchies, disparagement of popular writers by more elite authors and critics, and challenges to the cultural dominance of intellectual or highbrow authors by more popular authors and the mainstream reading public” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 168). On the one hand, Macaulay was the daughter of a Cambridge don, Oxford-educated herself and, after a period of mutual suspicion, became close friends with Virginia Woolf and published some rather intellectual texts such as Catchwords and Claptrap (1926) with the Hogarth Press (cf. “The Middlebrows of the Hogarth Press” 60-61). On the other hand, financial needs but also a certain scepticism towards modernist literature led her to mainly write novels for a broader readership (cf. “The Middlebrows of the Hogarth Press” 59-60). Through this “successful positioning of herself” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 168) in between and on both sides of the dichotomy, Macaulay’s œuvre calls for “a synthesis of the work of high- and middlebrow writers in a manner that highlights the cultural variability of British literature” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 173) and contributed to “a significant shift in attitudes towards the middlebrow in Britain at this time” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 168).

39In Macaulay’s thing-essay “Arm-chair”, the battle of the brows features in the thingness of the eponymous object, which holds all these positions together. After all, “Macaulay’s multiple roles” as “a diverse novelist, essayist, journalist, BBC commentator, and public intellectual” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 177) are all fulfilled from this very same spot. The arm-chair is right away connected to political, economic and intellectual battles. By alluding to the cliché of armchair philosophy as the complacent expression of opinions from a standpoint that lacks a proper foundation and is rather “intuition-driven” (Mortensen and Nagel 53), Macaulay acknowledges that a life of intellectual labour is prone to many attacks. She argues, however, that “the sneerers at the arm-chair (and they are many, in these days)” (Macaulay 39) are mainly driven by “envy” (Macaulay 39) about not having the same material comfort at their disposal as the targets of their attacks (cf. Macaulay 39). This envy is thus directed at the physical comfort of wealthy people, who on top of not having to accomplish physical or monotonous work to earn a living can treat themselves to conveniences like highly comfortable furniture. Macaulay ties this envy to a further frustration among “civil servants and those who have to sit at office tables to do their stuff” (Macaulay 40) that public discourse is dominated by the elite and “that criticisms and suggestions about life and the world should be emitted by the comfortable” (Macaulay 40). These attacks point to the question of the representation of the working classes in a public discourse that tends to be dominated by the privileged members of society.

40Moving on from these observations, Macaulay uses the subjective and “methodically unmethodical” procedure of the essay genre (Adorno 161) to transition to a more personal tone. Using the pronoun ‘we’ to include herself among such arm-chair intellectuals who often get attacked, she concedes that it is “[n]o wonder that we who thus loll and twire rouse the wrath of those who must twire without lolling, those who have to do the work, and are peppered with the lazy fire from our arm-chair pea-shooters” (Macaulay 40). She remains in the ‘we’-form until, towards the end of the essay, she uses the I-perspective to describe the idiosyncratic stream of associations that arm-chairs trigger for her:

[M]usic visits us, belling and stroking the ambient air […]. While I am hearing the same sounds […], reclined at ease in a warm and book-lined room, able to turn a switch and dismiss the whole affair when it no longer pleases. Does a soprano break out, shrilly tearing the air to tatters with a trilling scream? I turn the switch; […] she troubles me no more than for one anguished second; peace and my arm-chair lap me about once more, like cloth of fine velvet of Turkey.
[…] One may have company […]. Conversation flows; what witty things we say; what creeds we demolish and erect, […] what hot battles fight, what conceits and fantastications fangle! (Macaulay 41-42)

41In this reverie, Macaulay fully admits to her own Personal Pleasures in arm-chairs and ties this piece of furniture not only to physical comfort but also to the intellectual adventures that one can embark on when conveniently seated. Even though in the foreword to Personal Pleasures, Macaulay makes it clear that most of the pleasures described in this essay volume are actually her own (cf. Macaulay 23), the piecemeal introduction of this subjectivity into the essay is symptomatic of the reticent subjectivity in essays in the first decades of the 20th century that Virginia Woolf deplored.

42In this context, Macaulay’s female gender is relevant. Macaulay held very progressive gender notions for her time: The sex of the two protagonists of her best-known novel The Towers of Trebizond (1956) is only revealed at the end of the book, for instance, which points to Macaulay’s conviction “that women were mentally and morally indistinguishable from men” (Mortimer 13). Nevertheless, Macaulay relativises the possibility of a generalised ‘we’ that can encompass female and male intellectuals alike: “I speak as a female: for I am aware that gentlemen do not coil, but rather lie extended” (Macaulay 40). Macaulay’s hesitant employment of the essay’s potential for subjectivity thus not only epitomises the general eschewal of subjectivity in many essays of the time. It also reminds us that the expression of individual world views that is typical for essays has for a long time detained women from writing in this genre – after all, expressing a world view was precisely what a patriarchal society did not want them to do (cf. del Mar Gallego Durán, and Navarro Domínguez 9). The fact that readers would have construed the voice in “Arm-Chair” as a female perspective thus seems to add further potential for the sociopolitical controversy surrounding the subjectivity of this text.

43The attacks brought forth against people in arm-chairs can also be seen as denunciations of the essay form itself – and especially of periodical light essays in the vein of Chesterton and Macaulay. It might not be entirely coincidental that arm-chairs also feature in Graham Good’s (vii) description of the cliché of the essay form:

[It] conjures up the image of a middle-aged man in a worn tweed jacket in an armchair smoking a pipe by a fire in his private library in a country house somewhere in southern England, in about 1910, maundering on about the delights of idleness, country walks, tobacco, old wine, and old books, blissfully unaware that he and his entire culture are about to be swept away by the Great War and Modern Art.

44Here again, items of everyday life, such as a tweed jacket or an arm-chair, are inextricably linked to larger political issues. Good’s employment of the arm-chair as a metonymy for a complacent intellectual life style that is oblivious to the social realities outside of its comfort zone ties in with the question raised in Macaulay’s essay about whether discourse should be dominated by the comfortable and privileged.

45Yet, one of the main goals of Macaulay’s thing-essay is to overcome precisely such a dichotomy between a vita contemplativa and a vita activa as is suggested by the cliché that Good describes. For Macaulay, sitting comfortably in an arm-chair does not equal apolitical idleness but can conduce highly alert political criticism:

But we, calm and reposeful sedilians, do not resent such abuse or such envious contempt. We know […] that the most intelligent, as well as the easiest and most agreeable, criticism is emitted from the commodious depths of the easy chair wherein, tranquillo animo, we lie coiled in peace. (Macaulay 40)

46One can accomplish hard work and get an overall picture of society whilst sitting comfortably in an arm-chair, as “[b]ooks can pile the floor around the chair; dictionaries, histories, works of divinity, philosophy and literature in all languages, can stand in the shelves within easy reach; pen and paper can lie on a table at hand” (Macaulay 41).

47The integrative potential of Macaulay’s essay thus makes room for both the necessity of hard work – which can also be hard intellectual work – and for the human predilection for physical comfort. In the first regard, Macaulay’s essay clearly sides with proponents of highbrow literature. By quoting Richard Steele in saying that “[m]any of us […] ‘fell into that way at the University […]’”, Macaulay (41) indeed excludes from the group of arm-chair-sitters not only manual and physical labourers but also the less educated but often more popular writers that she complains about in Catchwords and Claptrap (cf. “The Middlebrows of the Hogarth Press” 61). The wide-reaching intertextuality of Macaulay’s essay further flaunts her erudition: Next to Cook and Steele, she cites from the letters between John Evelyn and Abraham Cowley (cf. Macaulay 40) and references Greek mythology (cf. Macaulay 41).

48On a different level, however, its praise of comfort makes Macaulay’s thing-essay accessible to all readers, as in one way or another they would all be able to sympathise with this predilection. Despite its reticent usage, the subjectivity of the essay thus makes “Arm-Chair” relatable in the sense of Montaigne’s (108) dictum that “[e]very Man bears the whole Form of the human condition”. As Macaulay’s declaration of love to the arm-chair’s comfort appeals to a universal human wish for convenience, it transcends divisions between different social or literary groups.

49By being praised through personal reveries, the usefulness of the arm-chair’s objecthood infiltrates its thingness and supersedes the negative connotations that the essay started off with. Like Chesterton in “Lamp-Posts”, Macaulay celebrates the objecthood of the item of everyday life she is dealing with and thus points to a human pleasure in overcoming the adversarial forces of nature in order to make oneself at home in the world. Her arm-chair thus also becomes a dialectical object that “oscillate[s] between the poles of object and thing” (Other Things 371).

50From this stance, Macaulay’s (39) description of the “denigrators” of arm-chairs, who also comprise “smart, modern men, whose chairs have arms of steel” can be read as an allusion to, for instance, Bauhaus arm-chairs and thus, by extension, to modernists who prefer the challenges of avant-gardism to the comforts of more conventional literature. In this reading, it is not the uneducated and those who cannot afford more comfortable chairs who are targeted but, in a paradoxical twist, modernists, most of whom were sufficiently well-off to reflect on the fragmentation of modern life, the relativism of all beliefs or values and other rather intellectualised ‘uncomfortable’ ideas. In addition to being a metonymy for struggles between different social classes, the question of whether or not one is seated in a comfortable arm-chair then also becomes a metaphor for the more abstract question of whether or not one can still indulge oneself – especially as an educated person in the 1930s – in the comfortable coherence of stable beliefs and easily accessible books.

51In light of these different approaches that Macaulay’s thing-essay allows for, “the commodious depths of the easy chair” (Macaulay 40) that she extols do not only refer to the way one can let oneself sink into the chair physically. They also point to a vast thingness that even in the 1930s invites deep mental immersion and allows for manifold paradoxes, which can, at least for a few pages, transcend battles between classes and literary convictions. It is the essay’s propensity for the unseen (cf. Sheringham 94) that enables Macaulay to discover all these political, economic and intellectual layers of meaning in such an everyday object as an arm-chair, and through its anti-systematic stance, she can accommodate these complexities in the limited space of a few pages.

52In a tragic twist of irony for a thing-essayist, Macaulay would lose “her flat and all of her worldly possessions, including generations’ worth of books” (“A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 172) in the London Blitz. This, however, did not stop her from continuing to – more or less voluntarily (cf. “A Middlebrow Dame Commander” 168) – fulfil her mediating position between different understandings of literature up until her death in 1958. We will thus assume that a new arm-chair enabled her to continue to be comfortably caught between two stools.


53Both G. K. Chesterton’s and Rose Macaulay’s thing-essays use the essay’s subjective and anti-systematic stance to unearth overlooked dimensions of their respective everyday objects – “Lamp-Posts” and “Arm-Chair[s]”. Both praise the objecthood of these items and transform their usefulness into parts of their thingness, which renders both objects dialectical objects in the sense of Bill Brown. In this way, both essays create a sensibility for the meaningfulness of things that can help an emerging mass reader- and consumership in their ascription of meaning to everyday objects.

54It is this impetus as well that makes both thing-essays political, as their affirmation of everyday life can be connected to Chesterton’s Catholic and distributionist convictions and to Macaulay’s mediation between middlebrow and highbrow literature and their proponents from different social backgrounds. For Chesterton, “such common objects” like lamp-posts are deeply poetic, as they point to the human success in overcoming adversarial forces of nature, and therefore should be valued much more in everyday life. As these objects are accessible to all human beings, regardless of their social or educational background, Chesterton’s thing-essay simultaneously offers a highly democratic culture of essayism and aesthetics.

55Rose Macaulay uses her everyday object to overcome social conflicts as well as conflicts between modernist and anti-modernist approaches to literature. While the arm-chair initially represents the comfort of an intellectual elite, Macaulay widens this conception through metonymy and metaphor. She first highlights that arm-chairs cater to a universal human wish for physical comfort and defends it as a place from which hard intellectual work can be accomplished. In a second step, the arm-chair can be read as a metaphor for the comfort of stable beliefs and easily accessible fiction. In this way, Macaulay’s thing-essay appeases both sides in the so-called “battle of the brows” – modernists and anti-modernists.

56In all of this, Chesterton’s and Macaulay’s thing-essays look for the singular and politically significant within such apparently common occurrences as everyday objects. When Virginia Woolf postulates the lack of subjectivity in “The Modern Essay”, one can therefore reply that these thing-essays in fact seek to form a stronger sense of subjectivity for the entirety of the British population. When G. K. Chesterton writes of common objects and Virginia Woolf of common readers, the “commodious depths” of the essay genre show how significant all of these are.

Haut de page


Adorno, Theodor W. “The Essay as Form.” Translated by Bob Hullot-Kenter and Frederic Will, New German Critique, 32, 1984, pp. 151-171.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-22.

Chesterton, G.K. The Defendant: Essays. New York, Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., 2015.

Chesterton, G.K. The Uses of Diversity: A Book of Essays. London, Methuen & Co, 1920.

Clipper, Lawrence J. G. K. Chesterton. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1974.

Del Mar Gallego Durán, María and Eloy Navarro Domínguez. Razón de Mujer: Género y Discurso en el Ensayo Femenino. Sevilla, Ediciones Alfar, 2003.

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. Edited by Frank Kermode, London, Penguin, 2003.

Fakundiny, Lydia, editor. The Art of the Essay. Boston et al., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

Freedgood, Elaine. The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Good, Graham. The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay. London/ New York, Routledge, 1988.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. A Translation of Sein und Zeit. Translated by Joan Stambaugh, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996.

Hesse, Douglas. “British Essay.” Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier, London/ Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997, pp. 103-113.

Hinchcliffe, Peter. “Stevenson, Robert Louis” Encyclopedia of the Essay, edited by Tracy Chevalier, London/ Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997, pp. 817-819.

Hunt, Peter. “J. B. Priestley.” Modern British Essayists, First Series, edited by Robert Beum, Detroit/ New York/ London, Gale Research Inc., 1990, pp. 53-68.

Kaplan Daniels, Arlene. “Invisible Work.” Social Problems, vol. 34, no. 5, 1987, pp. 403-415.

Lamb, Jonathan. “The Rape of the Lock as Still Life.” The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England, edited by Mark Blackwell, Lewisburg, Bucknell University Press, 2014, pp. 43-62.

Macaulay, Rose. Personal Pleasures. With an Introduction by Raymond Mortimer. London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1968.

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. “Narrative Prosthesis.” The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard Davis, London/ New York, Routledge, 2013, pp. 222-235.

Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Translated and edited with an Introduction and Notes by M.A. Screech. London, Penguin, 1991.

Mortensen, Kaija and Jennifer Nagel. “Armchair-Friendly Experimental Philosophy.” A Companion to Experimental Philosophy, edited by Justin Sytsma and Wesley Buckwalter, Chichester, Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp. 53-70.

Mortimer, Raymond. “Introduction: Rose Macaulay.” Personal Pleasures. With an Introduction by Raymond Mortimer, by Rose Macaulay, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1968, pp. 13-19.

Oulanne, Laura. Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction: Lived Things. New York/ London, Routledge, 2021.

Pollentier, Caroline. “‘Everybody’s Essayist’: On Middles and Middlebrows.” The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880-1950: What Mr. Miniver Read, edited by Kate MacDonald, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 119-134.

Scodel, Joshua. “The Early English Essay.” A Companion to British Literature, edited by Robert DeMaria Jr, Heesok Chang and Samantha Zacher, Oxford, John Wiley, 2014, pp. 213-230.

Sheringham, Michael. “The Essay and the Everyday: Reading Perec with Adorno.” The Modern Essay in French: Movement, Instability, Performance, edited by Charles Forsdick and Andrew Stafford, Oxford et al., Peter Lang, 2005, pp. 87-99.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Solari, Stefano. “The Corporative Third Way in Social Catholicism (1830 to 1918).” Euro. J. History of Economic Thought, vol. 17, no. 1, 2010, pp. 87-113.

Sullivan, Melissa. “A Middlebrow Dame Commander: Rose Macaulay, the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’, and The Towers of Trebizond.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Literature of the 1950s and 1960s, vol. 42, 2012, pp. 168-185.

Sullivan, Melissa. “The Middlebrows of the Hogarth Press: Rose Macaulay, E. M. Delafield and Cultural Hierarchies in Interwar Britain.” Leonard and Virginia Woolf, The Hogarth Press and the Networks of Modernism, edited by Helen Southworth, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010, pp. 52-73.

Taylor, D. J. The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918. London, Chatto & Windus, 2016.

Vermeulen, Pieter. “The Anthropocene.” The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism, edited by Mads Rosendahl Thomsen and Jacob Wamberg, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, pp. 59-70.

Wild, Jonathan. Literature of the 1900s: The Great Edwardian Emporium. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.

Haut de page


1 Cf. Daniel Schneider. The British and Anglo-Irish Thing-Essay from 1701 until 2021: Of Broomsticks and Doughnuts. New York and London, Routledge (forthcoming). In this book, I also discuss Chesterton’s and Macaulay’s thing-essays.

2 In fact, Chesterton himself was hesitant to even refer to his own texts as essays, rather describing them as “articles” (cf. Hunt 57).

3 Chesterton illustrates this in his short story “The Invisible Man”, whose title refers to a postman whom nobody notices (I thank Gero Guttzeit, who pointed me to this story).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Daniel SCHNEIDER, « “Such Common Objects” – The Politics of Everyday Life in G. K. Chesterton’s and Rose Macaulay’s Thing-Essays »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page



Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich
Daniel Schneider is lecturer of English literature at Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich and a freelance writer. He holds a PhD on the British and Anglo-Irish thing-essay. His articles on literary representations of materiality and the literary essay have beenpublished in several international edited volumes and journals.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search