Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

[bel-uhk, -ok]
Belloc, Hilaire (Joseph Hilaire Pierre Belloc), 1870-1953, English author, b. France. He became a British subject in 1902, and from 1906 to 1910 was a Liberal member of Parliament for South Salford. Poet, essayist, satirist, and historian, he wrote from the Roman Catholic viewpoint. Among his works are The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896), The Path to Rome (1902), Marie Antoinette (1910), The Jews (1922), The Cruise of the Nona (1925), and Napoleon (1922). He was a close friend of G. K. Chesterton and with him founded the New Witness, a weekly political newspaper. Christened "the Chesterbelloc" by G. B. Shaw, the two were the inventors and propagators of distributism, a medieval, anticapitalist, and anti-Fabian socialist philosophy.

(born July 27, 1870, La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France—died July 16, 1953, Guildford, Surrey, Eng.) French-born British poet, historian, Catholic apologist, and essayist. A highly versatile writer, he is best remembered for his light verse, particularly for children, and for his lucid and graceful essays. His works include Verses and Sonnets (1895), The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896), The Modern Traveller (1898), Mr. Burden (1904), and Cautionary Tales (1907). He also wrote several historical works, including a four-volume History of England (1925–31).

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Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (27 July 1870 – 16 July 1953) was a French-born writer who became a naturalised British subject in 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century.

Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce.

Early life

Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France (next to Versailles and near Paris) to a French father and English mother, and grew up in England. Much of his boyhood was spent in West Sussex, for which he often felt homesick in later life. This is evidenced in poems such as, "West Sussex Drinking Song", "The South Country", and even the more melancholy, "Ha'nacker Hill".

His mother Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) was also a writer, and a great-granddaughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. In 1867 she married attorney Louis Belloc, son of the French painter Jean-Hilaire Belloc. In 1872, five years after they wed, Louis died, but not before being wiped out financially in a stock market crash. The young widow then brought her son Hilaire, along with his sister, Marie, back to England where he remained, except for his voluntary enlistment as a young man in the French artillery.

After being educated at John Henry Newman's Oratory School Belloc served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. He was powerfully built, with great stamina, and walked extensively in Britain and Europe. While courting his future wife Elodie, whom he first met in 1890, the impecunious Belloc walked a good part of the way from the midwest of the United States to her home in northern California, paying for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry.

After his military service, Belloc proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as a History scholar. He went on to obtain first class honours in History, and never lost his love for Balliol, as is illustrated by his verse, "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me/ Whatever I had she gave me again".

Hobbies

When later he could afford it he was a well known yachtsman as well as writer. He won many races and was in the French sailing team. In the early 1930s, he was given an old Jersey pilot cutter called 'Jersey'. He sailed this for some years around the coasts of England, with the help of younger men. One of whom, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about his time on the water with Belloc, called Sailing with Mr Belloc (published 1986).

Politics

An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, being President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. He went into politics after he became a naturalised British citizen. A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford. This failure may have been caused in part by his producing a small statue of the Virgin and placing it before him on the table during the interview for the fellowship.

From 1906 to 1910 he was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Salford South, but swiftly became disillusioned with party politics. During one campaign speech he was asked by a heckler if he was a "papist." Retrieving his rosary from his pocket he responded, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.

Professional writer

Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, from warfare to poetry and many topics current in his day. He was closely associated with G. K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.

His only period of steady employment was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress of the war. Otherwise he lived by his pen, and often felt short of money.

Family

He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. In 1896, he married Elodie Hogan, an American. They had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. His son Louis was killed in in World War I. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home in Guildford, England, until his death on 16 July 1953. At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."

Old Thunder

His style during later life complemented the nickname he received in childhood, Old Thunder. Belloc's friend, Lord Sheffield, described his provocative personality in a preface to The Cruise of the Nona.

In Belloc's novel of travel, The Four Men, the title characters supposedly represent different facets of the author's personality. One of the four improvises a playful song at Christmastime, which includes the verse:

'May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me,
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
May all my enemies go to hell!
Noel! Noel!'
It should be noted that the other characters regard the verse as fairly gauche and ill-conceived, so while part of Belloc may have agreed with this somewhat offensive song, it is not necessarily representative of Belloc's personality as a whole.

In controversy and debate

Belloc first came to public attention shortly after arriving at Balliol College, Oxford as a recent French army veteran. Attending his first debate of the Oxford Union Debating Society, he saw that the affirmative position was wretchedly and half-heartedly defended. As the debate drew to its conclusion and the division of the house was called, he rose from his seat in the audience, and delivered a vigorous, impromptu defense of the proposition. Belloc won that debate from the audience, as the division of the house then showed, and his reputation as a debater was established. He was later elected president of the Union. He held his own in debates there with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend.

He was at his most effective in the 1920s, on the attack against H. G. Wells's Outline of History, in which he criticized Wells' secular bias and his belief in evolution by means of natural selection, a theory that Belloc asserted had been completely discredited. Wells remarked that "Debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm". Belloc's review of Outline of History famously observed that Wells' book was a powerful and well-written volume, "up until the appearance of Man, that is, somewhere around page seven." Wells responded with a small book, Mr. Belloc Objects. Not to be outdone, Belloc followed with, "Mr. Belloc Still Objects."

G. G. Coulton, a keen and persistent academic opponent, wrote on Mr. Belloc on Medieval History in a 1920 article. After a long simmering feud, Belloc replied with a booklet, The Case of Dr. Coulton, in 1938.

Belloc has been called one of the Big Four of Edwardian Letters, along with Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and G. K. Chesterton. These writers all engaged in controversy, and debated with one another, until the 1930s. (On another definition of the Big Four, though, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett must replace Belloc and Chesterton.)

Writing

Asked once why he wrote so much, he responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." Belloc observed that "The first job of letters is to get a canon," that is, to identify those works which a writer looks upon as exemplary of the best of prose and verse. For his own prose style, he claimed to aspire to be as clear and concise as "Mary had a little lamb."

Essays and travel writing

His best travel writing has secured a permanent following. The Path to Rome (1902), an account of a walking pilgrimage he made from central France across the Alps and down to Rome, has remained continuously in print. More than a mere travelogue, "The Path to Rome" contains descriptions of the people and places he encountered, his drawings in pencil and in ink of the route, humor, poesy, and the reflections of a large mind turned to the events of his time as he marches along his solitary way. At every turn, Belloc shows himself to be profoundly in love with Europe and with the Faith that he claims has produced it.

As an essayist he was one of a small, admired and dominant group (with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd) of popular writers. In the large he sometimes came across as too opinionated, and too dedicated a Catholic controversialist.

There is a passage in The Cruise of the Nona where Belloc, sitting alone at the helm of his boat under the stars, shows profoundly his mind in the matter of Catholicism and mankind; he writes of "That golden Light cast over the earth by the beating of the Wings of the Faith."

Poetry

His "cautionary tales", humorous poems with an implausible moral, beautifully illustrated by Lord Basil Blackwood and later by Edward Gorey, are the most widely known of his writings. Supposedly for children, they, like Lewis Carroll's works, are more to adult and satirical tastes: Henry King, Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies. A similar poem tells the story of Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.

The tale of Matilda (who told lies and was burnt to death) was adapted into the play "Matilda Liar!" by Debbie Isitt. Quentin Blake, the illustrator, described Belloc as at one and the same time the overbearing adult and mischievous child. Roald Dahl is a follower. But Belloc has broader if sourer scope:

It happened to Lord Lundy then
as happens to so many men
about the age of 26
they shoved him into politics...

leading up to

we had intended you to be
the next Prime Minister but three...

Of more weight are Belloc's Sonnets and Verses, a volume that deploys the same singing and rhyming techniques of his children's verses. Belloc's poetry is often religious, often romantic; throughout The Path to Rome he writes in spontaneous song.

History, politics, economics

Three of his best known non-fiction works are The Servile State (1912), Europe and Faith (1920) and The Jews (1922).

From an early age Belloc knew Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, who was responsible for the conversion of his mother to Roman Catholicism. Manning's involvement in the 1889 London Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc and his view of politics, according to biographer Robert Speaight. Belloc described this retrospectively in The Cruise of the Nona (1925); he became a trenchant critic both of unbridled capitalism, and of many aspects of socialism.

With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had envisioned the socioeconomic system of distributism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to end, and other works, he criticized the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. Belloc made the historical argument that distributism was not a fresh perspective or program of economics but rather a proposed return to the economics that prevailed in Europe for the thousand years when it was Catholic. He called for the dissolution of Parliament and its replacement with committees of representatives for the various sectors of society, an idea popular among Fascists under the name of corporatism. Original corporatism, sometimes called "paleo-corporatism", was a system that predates capitalism and fascism. Paleo-corporatism was based around the guilds of the Middle Ages and served to appoint legislators. Neo-corporatism is a fascist system that merges the state with the capitalistic corporations. Belloc's views fit medieval paleo-corporatism rather than neo-corporatist fascism.

With these linked themes in the background, he wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon. They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.

Outside academe, Belloc was impatient with what he considered to be axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history." Joseph Pearce notes also Belloc's attack on the secularism of H.G. Wells's popular Outline of History:

Belloc objected to his adversary's tacitly anti-Christian stance, epitomized by the fact that Wells had devoted more space in his "history" to the Persian campaign against the Greeks than he had given to the figure of Christ.

He wrote also substantial amounts of military history. In alternative history, he contributed to the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.

Reprints

Ignatius Press of California and IHS Press of Virginia have been reissuing Belloc. TAN Books of Illinois publish a number of Belloc's works, particularly his historical writings.

Religion

One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; this sums up his strongly-held, orthodox Roman Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them. Those views were expressed at length in many of his works from the period 1920–1940. These are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics. They have also been criticised, for instance by comparison with the work of Christopher Dawson during the same period.

As a young man, Belloc lost his faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, and which returned him to and confirmed him in his Catholicism for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a passage in The Cruise of the Nona.

Belloc's Roman Catholicism was uncompromising. He believed that the Roman Catholic Church provided hearth and home for the human spirit . He had a disparaging view of the Church of England, and used uncharitable words to describe "heretics", such as, "Heretics all, whoever you be/.......You never shall have good words from me/ Caritas non conturbat me". Indeed, in his "Song of the Pelagian Heresy" he becomes quite strident, describing how the Bishop of Auxerre, "with his stout Episcopal staff/ So thoroughly thwacked and banged/ The heretics all, both short and tall/ They rather had been hanged".

On Islam

Belloc's 1937 book The Crusades: the World's Debate made no pretence at being impartial. Despite being concerned with events more than eight centuries old, it took sides very vehemently, from the first page on. In his view, had the Crusaders captured Damascus, the Islamic World would have been cut in two and "bled to death of the wound" - which as Belloc explicitly stated, would have been a highly desirable and positive outcome.

Since the Crusaders missed that chance, Islam survived and eventually overwhelmed the Crusader bridgehead in the Middle East. For Belloc this was not a matter of old history: Islam continued to pose a dangerous threat. In The Great Heresies, Belloc argues that, although, "That [Mohammedan] culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it -- whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it.

At the time of his writing, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. Belloc, however, considered that Islam was permanently intent on destroying the Church, as well as the West, which Christendom had built. In The Great Heresies (1938) Belloc grouped the Protestant Reformation together with Islam as one of the major heresies threatening the "Church Universal."

Belloc in that book cited the many beliefs and theological principles which Islam shares with Catholicism - and exactly which, in Belloc's view, identify it as a heresy. Where (in his view) Islam decisively diverges from Catholicism (and Christianity in general) is the "denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it" - with Islam regarding Jesus as a human being, though honouring him as a Prophet.

Accusations of anti-Semitism

For fuller discussion, see section in G. K.'s Weekly

In The Cruise of the Nona, Belloc reflected equivocally on the Dreyfus Affair after thirty years. Belloc has been charged with anti-Semitism, and the issue of his attitude to Jews is still raised. For example, Norman Rose's book The Cliveden Set (2000) poses the question of whether Nancy Astor , a friend of Belloc's in the 1930s until they broke over religious matters, was influenced by him against Jews in general. He was repeatedly critical, from his days in politics onwards, of the influence some Jewish people had on society and the world of finance.

There are a number of grounds on which Belloc has been deemed by some to be anti-Semitic and not concerned to conceal his views.

On the other hand, Canadian broadcaster Michael Coren wrote:

Belloc's polemics did periodically drift into the realms of bigotry, but he was invariably a tenacious opponent of philosophical anti-Semitism, ostracized friends who made attacks upon individual Jews, and was an inexorable enemy of fascism and all its works, speaking out against German anti-Semitism before the National Socialists came to power.

Robert Speaight cited a letter by Belloc in which he pilloried Nesta Webster because of her accusations against "the Jews". In February 1924, Belloc wrote to an American Jewish friend regarding an allegedly anti-Semitic book by Webster. Webster had rejected Christianity, studied Eastern religions, accepted the Hindu concept of the equality of all religions and was fascinated by theories of reincarnation and ancestral memory. Belloc expressed his views very clearly:

"In my opinion it is a lunatic book. She is one of those people who have got one cause on the brain. It is the good old 'Jewish revolutionary' bogey. But there is a type of unstable mind which cannot rest without morbid imaginings, and the conception of a single cause simplifies thought. With this good woman it is the Jews, with some people it is the Jesuits, with others Freemasons and so on. The world is more complex than that."

Speaight also points out that when faced with anti-Semitism in practice — as at elitist country clubs in America before World War II — he voiced his disapproval. Belloc condemned Nazi anti-Semitism in The Catholic and the War (1940). Dennis Barton has defended Belloc at length. He notes that Belloc condemned wild accusations against the Jews, in his own book, The Jews.

In the media

Trivia

  • Hilaire Belloc's name featured in a 1970s television sketch by The Two Ronnies: Ronnie Barker read the "Nows" from a script written on a typewriter that printed "o" instead of "e".
  • His name was also mentioned in the 2nd episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, during the "Mice and Men" sketch. After leading viewers through a series of historical figures--Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte among them--suspected of being mice in private life, announcer Michael Palin concludes, "And, of course, Hilaire Belloc."
  • Referenced in a sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie wherein Stephen Fry, playing an obsequious and oddly loquacious shop clerk, tells a character played by Hugh Laurie, "But sir didn't come into this shop to trade insults with me on the state of the morning unless I'm more mistaken than a man who thinks Hilaire Belloc is still alive."
  • His poem, entitled "Matilda", is referenced in the film Atonement (2007). The main character, Briony Tallis, tells a horrible lie and as she watches its concequences, a figure of Saint Matilda can be seen through the window in stained glass. "Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes" is one of the first lines of the poem. By the end of the poem, Matilda has burned to death, having called wolf one time too many.

See also

Notes

References

External links

Online editions of his works

Other sites

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