Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953), the subject of a recent biography by A.N. Wilson, was probably best known in the first decades of this century as a polemicist and debater. He and G.K. Chesterton, the believers, would take on Shaw and Wells, the doubters, on public platforms and in the press. These encounters were high-spirited and often highly entertaining. But Belloc had many other careers: he was a novelist, a verse-writer, a journalist, and a self-appointed public defender of the Catholic faith. His early books on the French Revolution were taken seriously by historians, he was elected twice to Parliament, he helped launch many journals of opinion and edited some of them, he had a leading part in the political movement known as Distributism, and his travel books and occasional essays once had a very wide audience. Yet long before his death most of his more than 150 books were ignored or forgotten. He is mainly remembered today by those wise parents and fortunate children who have kept his marvelous comic verses—in books like The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts—in print for nearly ninety years.
Belloc’s life is a long record of failures and disappointments. His French father died when Belloc was two years old, and though he lived with his English mother he spent much of his childhood shuttling between two cultures. Most of his schooling was English, but that too was of an unusual kind, at the ex-Anglican Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School. At seventeen he attended for a few months the aristocratic and militarist Collège Stanislas in Paris, then a center of Catholic reaction and anti-Semitism. Belloc stayed one term, came back to England, and, finding the family fortunes largely lost through careless investment, started to look for work. He tried farming and a job as a draftsman (he was always a gifted sketcher) and took a first step into Fleet Street. Then at twenty-one he returned to France for a year’s service militaire as an enlisted man in the Artillery. In 1891 he made an impulsive journey to America, hoping to marry the girl from California he had fallen in love with, and to settle there. When she refused him, he made his way back to England and at the age of twenty-two he decided to enter Oxford.
His complicated background served him well as an undergraduate. He had read widely in the classics and in history and, unlike most English students, he had a fund of general ideas that he could deploy with great fluency in debate. Habitually aggressive, but also quickminded and witty, he triumphed at the Oxford Union, and he also impressed most of his professors. Having won a good first class degree in history, he was therefore confident of a fellowship at All Souls’ or at least at Balliol. But the “remote and ineffectual” dons did not elect him.
In Wilson’s view Belloc was turned down neither because of his already strident anti-Semitism (he would …