A dear Chestertonian friend and scholar Denis J. Conlon died of Coronavirus on May 7, 2020. He was 88 years old and had been living in a nursing home for the past year.
Denis was one of the world’s most distinguished Chesterton scholars—the Dean of all Chesterton scholars. He was also a Catholic gentleman and husband. His knowledge of Gilbert and Frances was extensive, his research thorough, and his kindness in sharing his knowledge brought others joy.
He is mainly known for having edited many Chesterton works, including Chesterton: The Critical Judgements (1900 -1937), Chesterton: A Half-Century of Views and Collected Works – Volumes VI (Novels), X (Poetry), XI (Plays), and XIV (Stories) of The Ignatius Press Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton.
His last book was a new biography of G.K.C., called G.K. Chesterton: A Reappraisal, which came out in 2015 to critical acclaim. In this excellent biography Denis Conlon portrays Chesterton as the giant that he was, literally and metaphorically. It includes some previously unpublished photographs and illustrations and the diary of Gilbert and Frances Chesterton’s trip to Palestine and the Holy Land.
The book is a worthy addition to the genre. One might wonder at yet another biography of Chesterton. But Chesterton has a unique problem: he’s a 21-stone man who continues to fall through the cracks.
Perhaps Conlon’s best discovery was when he was visiting the attic of the home of Chesterton’s former secretary, Dorothy Collins, shortly after her death. It was while going through an old trunk that he happened upon some writing of Chesterton’s.
One thing he found was a notebook containing an unpublished early novel. The only thing missing was the title page. Denis dubbed it Basil Howe after the main character. Written in 1893 or ‘94 when Chesterton was about 19 years old, and only published in 2001, Conlon believed the story was about one of Chesterton’s first romantic relationships, with a young woman named Violet Vivian (named Gertrude Gray in the novel). Basil Howe: A Story of Young Love and the biography G.K. Chesterton: A Reappraisal are unfortunately both out of print.
Dr. Conlon taught in England, Singapore, Newfoundland and Belgium where he was Professor of English Literature & Culture at the University of Antwerp. He served in the Royal Air Force as a young man. He was a long-standing member of the [UK] Chesterton Society, serving as its chairman from 1996 until 2008.
Denis Conlon was a recipient of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Maureen, and separated from his second wife, Hendrika.
Conlon presented a paper at the Chesterton Conference in Beaconsfield in 2004 titled The Laughing Giant in Chesterton’s Poetry. Additionally, he edited many editions of mediaeval texts, modern plays and short stories in both English and French.
Anyone who has read any of the Collected Works volumes Conlon edited for Ignatius Press has benefited from his helpful and insightful footnotes. He added interest and historical background and helped the reader to better understand the writings of G.K. Chesterton.
This Chestertonian gentleman will be greatly missed.
Nancy Brown has assembled a list of Denis Conlon’s works on Chesterton (including his BBC interview about the character of Father Brown), which are available on request from the editor of The Defendant (firstname.lastname@example.org).