I didn’t really intend to re-read The Man Who Was Thursday, which I last read in the mid-90s. But I’ve spent the last week or so moving books around in one of those nightmarish shelving reorganizations, the kind which I think most bookish people dread but secretly find useful, and I happened on my paperbound copy. And started reading. And the next thing that I knew…well, here we are.
Chesterton’s tale is one that is very much of its time, yet is surprisingly modern and has a familiar feeling to a 21st century reader (which, having double-checked the calendar, I find that I must grudgingly accept includes me). The villains of the piece, namely anarchists, were something of a social and political force a century ago. In their place, the 21st century now has terrorists. Reading The Man Who Was Thursday, one almost comes away with a sense of inevitability, as though, well, someone has to be actively threatening social order, throwing bombs, murdering innocents, and being generally unpleasant (having just finished The President and the Assassin, it felt odd to revisit the topic again so soon). Chesterton’s 1908 novel is filled with a sense of the times, times which were shortly to change, however, with the advent of the First World War a mere six years later. There are a few interesting adaptations of the book; although it has never been made into a film, it has been adapted for radio, including its earliest version, undertaken by Orson Wells’s Mercury Theatre of the Air on 5 September 1938, less than two months before the famous broadcast of another adaptation, that of The War of the Worlds (a link to this production is at the end of this review).
Although the story of The Man Who Was Thursday at first seems as though it is to be a straightforward proto-thriller, it quickly becomes apparent that Chesterton has a trick or two up his sleeve. The book’s subtitle, “A Nightmare,” may give alert readers some clue as to the eventual outcome of the story, but seeing the way in which the plot unfolds, with its almost madcap pursuits and curious revelations, is an unexpected pleasure.
The story begins with Gabriel Syme, who meets the anarchist poet Lucien Gregory – and his charming sister, Rosamund – at a party. Gregory, having been goaded by Syme that he is not a real anarchist, takes Syme to a meeting of which he is a member. The meeting is of a chapter of anarchists, and is holding elections to choose the representatives of an elite council of seven hard-bitten anarchists, named for days of the week. In a twist, Syme reveals to Gregory that he is a detective with Scotland Yard, but, owing to having given his word to the poet, he cannot reveal his identity. When Syme is accidentally elected to the seven-member council, he finds himself sent to join them, including the fearful leader, the dreaded Sunday. In order to maintain a disguise, the seven men meet in public, in a restaurant, and talk loudly about their anarchistic designs. By hiding in plain sight, they avoid detection, but they also present Syme with a problem: how does he bring the anarchistic cabal of which he has inadvertently become a part to justice?
This trial, however, is not the whole of the story of The Man Who Was Thursday. It is instead the beginning of a farce of startling proportions, and this is where the tricks that Chesterton has planned emerge. Syme is pursued by an elderly member of the cabal, who disconcertingly appears to move across London faster than Syme himself can move to escape. So begins a series of pursuits and revelations which will find Syme and a rapidly growing cadre of followers facing down Sunday himself. There will be pursuits by horse, car, and foot, duels, and insults in cafés, although not necessarily in that order.
Yet in the midst of this madness and chaos, Chesterton takes a moment of quiet reflection with his characters:
“He felt a strange and vivd value in all the earth around him, in the grass under his feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. He could almost fancy that he heard the grass growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers were springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow– flowers blood-red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring. And whenever his eyes strayed for a flash from the calm, staring, hypnotic eyes of the Marquis, they saw the little tuft of almond tree against the sky-line. He had the feeling that if by some miracle he escaped he would be ready to sit for ever before that almond tree, desiring nothing else in the world.”
— The Man Who Was Thursday, p. 118-9
It is that sort of writing, those little flashes of brilliance, which give this book its edge, even through to an ending which promises to either delight or frustrate the reader, or to possibly do both in equal measure.
Book reviewed 29 November 2015.
If you are interested in hearing the Mercury Theatre on the Air version of The Man Who Was Thursday, it can be found at Archive.org (direct link to the 1938 season).
If you have an e-Reader, it is easy to find and download the out-of-copyright text of The Man Who Was Thursday at Project Gutenberg.
Find your print copy of The Man Who Was Thursday , available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).