Hilaire Belloc
Hilaire Belloc; drawing by David Levine

Every good name dropper has a vested interest in how his names are doing, their current exchange value, and the likely quotation when memoir time comes around. My own best coins, Chesterton and Belloc, have, alas, devalued steadily. Strictly speaking, I didn’t see that much of either of them in the flesh—Chesterton just once at my christening when I disappeared into his lap (sorry to sound like an English lady diarist, but that’s the way I heard it)—but they filled my childhood like Mardi gras balloons. I dimly remember Belloc advancing for Sunday dinner, behind a barrage of telegrams: “Belloc five miles away,” “Belloc getting closer”; finally turning up with a ham under one arm and a lettuce under the other, his diet of the moment; lustily polishing off both and eating the meal we were serving as well; all the while rolling his r’s ferociously, like a stage Frenchman. I’m told I later chased him around the garden with the branch of a chestnut tree, and I can almost believe it: he provoked that kind of response in many people.

My meetings with Chesterton were more spectral. My mother was working on his biography from roughly my seventh to thirteenth years, a strange way to encounter someone. I knew his letters and unpublished drawings before I exactly knew who he was: a bit like knowing a man’s galoshes and the smell of his pipe tobacco, but never quite seeing his face. Chesterton, I understood, was simply what the word genius meant: a spirit so huge and fertile that it could grow poetry, novels, detective stories, turnips and mimosa all at once. I’ll swear I grew up thinking that physical fatness had something to do with it.

At fifteen or so, I waded through his books on my own and found to my surprise that the estimate held up pretty well. It seemed to me that any writer combining imagination and good sense at that level of intensity could accomplish anything he wanted. So, when Lionel Trilling placed Chesterton’s social criticism on a line between Cobbett and Orwell, I agreed; when Jacques Maritain, the Thomist, called G. K. a better natural metaphysician than himself, I only wondered at the understatement. I even thought that a short essay of his on dreams knocked Jung out of the ballpark.

Larger than life, I suppose. No one is that good. Taking the lowest possible consensus, Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist, who wasted too much time cutting up other journalists and journalistic ideas, and an inspired dabbler in other forms; Hilaire Belloc was a grand master of language, so willfully cranky in its use that he seemed to demand a minor place in letters. Still, they towered over the hedge at our place; and to write about them now, with all the fake judiciousness that follows, seems dizzily unreal, as well as something of a betrayal.

Chesterbelloc was, I believe, a word coined by Bernard Shaw, in order to have a bigger and clumsier target to his right. If so, the old stage manager was being his usual shrewd self, because the two reputations have long since sunk of their combined dead weight, where either might have survived on its own. Potential Chesterton fans were always put off by having Belloc move in with them, while Belloc’s particular delicacies were lost in the noise that seemed to be coming from the pair of them.

Modest, independent salvage work has recently been attempted: W. H. Auden’s G. K. Chesterton, A Selection from His Non-fictional Prose1 and Herbert van Thal’s Belloc, a Biographical Anthology.2 But both will need much more than one book. Chesterton resists collection maddeningly since he seldom wrote anything hopeless and he never wrote anything perfect. Mr. Auden’s collection is pretty good, although leaning a bit heavily on Chesterton’s later wheezing period, when I gather he was so bored with writing that he dictated everything and rarely bothered to proofread. His famous word-play was mechanical and compulsive by then, an old music hall turn. Yet even limiting oneself to his very best years (say, 1900-14) one finds Chesterton’s virtues so prolix and slovenly, and so enmeshed in his vices, that there is no way of squeezing them into a single book. (On the same principle, his wife allegedly despaired of getting him into his clothes, and wound up buying him a cloak.)

Belloc contrariwise was extremely even in quality, so that a reader who supposes he’s getting the best might be disappointed, but a reader who knows he’s only getting the average might be more impressed. Mr. van Thal’s recent collection of Belloc conveys nothing more powerfully than Belloc’s eerie equilibrium: his 1891 style barely distinguishable from his 1936 style, either in prose or verse; and both so classically pure and stiffly graceful that they are almost outside time altogether—an effect more French than English. Where Chesterton was like a workman who wouldn’t clean up, but served you plaster, drop cloths, and all, Belloc was neat as a pin.


A matter of very different backgrounds, household gods, self-images: Belloc was halfway into the English upper class, but also just French enough to want to be more so. His father, a French painter, died when Hilaire was a child, and his boyhood was largely spent in England: hence he was able to study “Frenchness” in platonic abstraction, and become more French than de Gaulle. This meant things like lucidity, straight roads, military discipline. Chesterton was a middle-class Londoner at a time when Dickensian “character” was much in vogue, with its burdens of eccentricity, vagueness, improvisation. “The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road,” he wrote. That these two writers, straight and rolling, could be mistaken for one suggests how much play-acting went into both of them, and perhaps how much of the other each contained.

The toughest chain binding the dead men is undoubtedly their combined reputation for anti-Semitism, and this might be a good place to start separating them. Auden himself was put off by it, but finally blames the whole thing on Belloc and on Chesterton’s brother Cecil. There is some historic verification for this. Belloc and brother Cecil staked their good names, or at least that of their magazine, The New Witness, on exposing the Isaacs brothers in the famous Marconi scandal of 1913.3 In the eventual trial, Cecil floundered badly on the witness stand (Belloc having vanished to France). Gilbert underwent some kind of nervous crack-up in November, 1914, brought on, so his wife believed, by the strain of the trial and the onset of the war, leaving his stormy brain catatonic for some months. In 1918, Cecil died in a British Army hospital and a week later, Gilbert wrote an open letter to Rufus Isaacs—“Daniel, son of Isaac, go in peace—but go,” an act of feverish vengeance for his dead brother.

Rufus Isaacs had gone with Lloyd George to Versailles, “the chief Marconi Minister as our Chief Foreign Minister”: presumably to sell out the cause Cecil had died for. The anti-Semitism—and there really isn’t that much of it—all seems to date from that period. One chapter of The New Jerusalem, 1920, and a couple of cracks in The Superstition of Divorce, also 1920, are about the sum of it. Somehow the issues had become briefly jumbled in G. K.’s mind—his patriotic brother humiliated, the wily Jews running England: and, of course, Belloc with his theories.

Yet an explanation that blames it all on someone else bothers in its own way. Chesterton was in other respects a thinker of visibly painful independence, an arguing machine, who dearly wanted to agree with everyone he wrote about, but just couldn’t. Why did he swallow the Belloc line, even under stress? On the purely personal side, and particularly with his own stage sets around him, Belloc is reputed to have been a hypnotic personality, in strange parts formidable and reassuring: “There entered [the room] with him the smell of danger,” wrote Chesterton—a smell to which he had dubious title in any literal sense, but what a creation!

Belloc was also a virtuoso at playing the wise older man. His brief training in the French artillery (according to his biographer Robert Speaight, eight lonely, wretched months) had made him an expert on military affairs. He later won a seat in Parliament which taught him who ran England and how. His performance in these respects was a work of art compared with, say, Hemingway’s, and it gulled a better type of friend—no Leonard Lyonses or Gary Coopers in his set. “There is great psychological value in a strong affirmation,” he once said; and Chesterton for his part later claimed that he himself joined the Catholic Church for the sake of “Authority”—the exact thing Belloc seemed to offer so abundantly.

Soulmates, then, up to a point. This was the seamy side of their partnership. Chesterton had apparently doted on his younger brother and his brother had always been the real Chester in the Chesterbelloc. With Cecil gone, along with some of his own incredible vitality, he fastened on certain Bellocian positions out of simple loyalty, and with less of his early skepticism (he had always feared that his hairshirt itch to question everything might lead to madness; Belloc’s affirmations were an antidote). It could be that anti-Semitism was a small part of the package: although small to vanishing as his mind regained its strength.

Yet even this is misleading. Chesterton probably trusted Belloc as much out of laziness as anything else (he was always happy to have someone else go to the library); but he would have picked Belloc’s general philosophy to pieces in five minutes if it hadn’t paralleled some thought-out position of his own. Although his anti-Semitism (which he preferred to call Zionism—i.e., get them out of here) differed from Belloc’s in quality and stress, both were based on a doctrine of place: in Chesterton’s case a real place, the London of his childhood, in Belloc’s, a memory and a yearning.


Chesterton’s ruling political passion was always for local control—a passion which used to be considered reactionary once upon a time. His prophecy novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, 1904, foretold that London would eventually (1984 by one reckoning) break down into separate kingdoms: a medieval notion which Mayor Mailer later tried to bring to pass in New York under a more-or-less radical banner. Local control, whether from left or right, often tends to anti-Semitism—as though the one thing that keeps a community from being itself is its Jews, a wildly unhistoric notion; it sometimes also tends (the Chesterbelloc might have considered this a different type of question) to anti-Catholicism, when the frenzy for self-definition gets out of hand. Anyway, Chesterton’s quarrel with the Jews was of this fuzzy kind, a distrust of their alleged universalism as Belloc gave him to understand it: that is, with a people who maintained their own identity at heavy cost, but seemed bent on persuading other people to blend theirs.

“It is strange that the Jews should be so anxious for international agreements. For one of the few really international agreements is a suspicion of the Jews.” That chapter in The New Jerusalem is pretty rough stuff. It is also the only place I know of where Chesterton talks of “my friends and I”—as if he were writing one last editorial for his brother’s magazine. In fact it is almost written in his brother’s voice, which had a brutal swagger to it. “If England had sunk in the Atlantic, Disraeli would not have sunk with her, but easily floated over to America to stand for the presidency.” I.e., a Jew cannot be a loyal Englishman or a loyal anything else; if they insist on running other peoples’ countries, let them wear Arab robes, to remind us of their inexpungible Oriental origins.

He never, to my knowledge, used this voice again, or these opinions. But one thing remained constant. The Jewish problem was that the Jews lacked their own land; they must be given a real nation and, if necessary, cantons in other nations. They must become farmers as well as lawyers. No word comes off a Chesterton page with a heavier sneer on it than the word “cosmopolitan.”

Hence his quarrel was never solely with the Jews. He also took on the British Empire, Prussia, and American business. And, as we know, local control can cut in small cruel directions as well. (After all, Populism and States’ Rights gave us the K. K. K.)

In an early untypical essay, Chesterton talks of Chinese workers descending on England, and being laughed at for their yellow skins—correctly, he says, because color is a more human criterion than economics. To choose local option is to accept its tastes. Elsewhere he attacked the idea of race vigorously (“an attempt to explain the things we are sure of, France, Scotland, Rome, Japan, by things we are not sure of at all, prehistoric conjectures, Celts, Mongols, Iberians”) but he did talk of a nation as a club of friends, and you know who keeps trying to get into clubs. This was a predilection for Belloc to play on later. But it began as an unexceptionable concern for small communities and their integrity. He actually demonstrated in the streets against English intrusion in the Boer War, getting into what must have been the funniest looking fist fight of all time with a passing Jingoist. He had, to a metaphysical degree, an Englishman’s passion for “home,” and thought it caddish to blunder into other people’s.

It was a hard dream to cling to in the years 1915-1936, and it gave this kindest of writers some bitter moments: not only imagining in his fever that Rothschilds were manipulating the Great War from both sides, but that Oriental quacks were blurring the lines between individual souls (if he had a truly peculiar dislike, it was for Islam), and that Americans with their parched, empty souls were bent on flattening the countryside and making the motorcar king. And he kept looking for faces behind the Change, rejecting like the Devil words such as “progress” and “evolution,” which suggested there were none. For that brief, crazy moment the faces may have been Jewish, but much more often they were masks of boredom: the faces of rich, restless people, tinkering with customs and beliefs as if they were lawn furniture. Change for its own sake was fatigue, and a rejection of life. Boredom was the sin against the Holy Ghost.

“One must choose sides,” were Chesterton’s last words, and they speak for a violent side of him, which was usually, but not always, alchemized into humor. It was not just the fat, jolly man turning liverish—though there was some of that—but a gaudy, slashing cast of mind that shows especially in his drawings. His obsession with swordplay, and with the word “sword” itself, which had seemed part of his famous innocence, could turn to something a little uglier when his mind darkened. “Of myself and those I know best I can answer for the vision that made surrender in WWI impossible. It was the vision of the German Emperor’s face as he rode into Paris…. I am quite content to call it hatred.” I am more inclined to call it the calculated effect of wartime propaganda.

But this violence had always been implicit in his carefully chosen parochialism. Boundaries must be cut and ideas must be died for (incidentally, he once wrote an essay about “insufficient martyrdom” which might apply nicely to cases of insufficient police brutality). Even a romantic fantasy like The Napoleon of Notting Hill had to end with killing: the sorrows of life would sometimes make it real blood. Yet his addiction to paradox permitted him to love his enemies, as Belloc could not. In the novel The Man Who Was Thursday his dreaded international spy ring turns out to consist entirely of good men spying on each other. He loved the idea of masks—even being Chinese was a mask, even being an enemy might be a mask.

In this he differed decisively from Belloc. For Belloc the spy ring would have been a real conspiracy, and the police would have been another, the whole combine to be run by Satan himself, in sardonic comic guise. “May all my enemies go to hell, Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel” was his Christmas message one year. Chesterton might play at this with him, but Belloc really meant it.

To his last days, and after several strokes had smashed his mind into brilliant fragments, Belloc talked incessantly about how the fellows of Balliol “had decided I should not eat,” because they had denied him a fellowship in 1896. The value of the fellowship was about £300 a year. Noel, Noel.

And these were not the only enemies. As a boy at the fashionable Catholic school, the Oratory, he is said to have stood on the railway platform, with tears in his eyes, as his classmates piled into the first-class carriages. Family gossip also has it that he was turned down by an aristocratic girl, before finally marrying, of all things, an American. His lifelong obsession with money (“My children are howling for pearls and caviar”) bespeaks the agony of upperclass connections without an upperclass income. Later, he got even with the rich in some splendid poems and broadsides (some not so splendid, just dull with hate). And he got even, too, with the “official historians” who sneered at his research; and at the parliamentarians who didn’t welcome him into their club; and he was even heard to say in the very last days of all that Sir Duff Cooper was a far greater man than Chesterton. Noel, with a vengeance.

This was the man who undertook to instruct the likes of Chesterton about the Jews. And the surprising thing is how reasonable and in some strange way compassionate his book The Jews is—much more so at least than anything he wrote about the English rich. He explains their persecutions, with unconscious irony, as he might his own: Jews are unassimilable outsiders, and the outsider will always be persecuted. Belloc, a Frenchman in England, an Englishman virtually unknown to the French; also a Catholic with one foot in a Wasp establishment, sneering from the doorway at Parliament and the Academy—he understood these things very well. Chesterton, who reputedly felt at home everywhere, must have just taken his word for it. (Incidentally, H. G. Wells claimed to have once surprised Belloc with the question “Are you one-quarter Jewish or one-eighth?”; to which Belloc answered, “One-eighth.” But that may just be a story about H. G. Wells.)

Belloc’s second case against the Jews is, not surprisingly, that they are natural conspirators who change their names even when they don’t have to. He says that no one dares discuss the Jewish Question frankly for fear of reprisal (being rejected by Balliol? Now mind you, I’m not saying it’s so, just that it’s possible—a typical Belloc proposition). He admits that they, unlike the English rich, have been driven to secrecy by their history. Therefore, like G. K., he champions Zionism and wishes it well. In short, he is begging one of his conspiracies at least to come out in the open.

The Jews is an interesting footnote to the history of anti-Semitism. It conjures a period when brutal remarks were made, absent-minded as belches, at overblown dinner parties, and when red faces reddened slightly further at the thought that so-and-so might “be one.”

Belloc, with his many identities, seems to be asking the Jews to declare themselves, and spare themselves this humiliation; and yet, to be among the jeerers. He urges Jews to stop changing their names and hiding their identities; rather quaint advice today. In theory, I suppose he would be delighted by the present openness of Jews, particularly in America, and with their public exploration of their tradition; yet I’m not sure he would be. He would, though, have grasped the joke that the Wasp oligarchy conforms much closer to his detested kind of secret society than the Jews ever have; and that his accursed bankers exclude Jews like the plague.

I believe this is about the worst that can be said for either man on this score. These were games Edwardians felt they could safely play, even when the Edwardian age was done. For both, the Jew was primarily an agent of change: both, I’m convinced, would have been horrified to find these agents of change being liquidated in Prussian gas chambers; both, in fact, hated Germany, and only distrusted Jews. The irony almost hurts one’s tongue: they thought (with Rothschilds on the brain) that the Jews might some day sell England out to relatives in Prussia. Otherwise: Chesterton was a cartoonist both in words and pictures, and race was one of his occasional comic properties. I have seen an unpublished drawing of his that might, in these tenser times, seem to be jeering at the Blacks. Cartooning is the most extreme form of cruelty allowed in civilized countries. But his basic gag, as for any cartoonist, was humanity itself; and to look for consistent prejudice in his work is like looking for it in David Levine’s.

As to Belloc, his attitude toward the Jews is mainly interesting as a gateway to other corners of his soul. Partly, it was just one unassimilated man sticking out his tongue at another—with a special taste for exposing Jews who had gone further in government and journalism than he had. But partly, it was one of those fixed positions on which his amazing equilibrium depended. His peace of mind seemed to require certain reiterations. For instance, in his fine word-paintings of French revolutionary figures written in the 1890s and reprinted by Mr. van Thal, we are told in litanous refrain how each subject felt about the Catholic Church, even where this is of no apparent relevance; and again, in his study of Oliver Cromwell, written thirty years later, we are plunged straight into Cromwell’s feelings about Rome—relevant this time, but not that relevant. It begins to seem like an author’s tic, and we dismiss it more sweepingly than we sometimes should.

Belloc felt that he had a mission to defend the Faith at all times. He once explained to my father that his line “nor even in my rightful garden lingered” did not refer to his choice of England over France, but to his choice of prose over verse—because he could defend the Faith better in prose. Yet it is a funny kind of defense. These nagging Catholic intrusions could only serve to make the Church tiresome—like a crank handing out pamphlets at a football game. Belloc loved verbal fighting, but it looks as if he did it principally to annoy people. At least his method of persuasion is peculiar: it comes down to exaggerating repeatedly the size of his army and telling the enemy to come out, they’re surrounded. Very few enemies believed him.

It is sometimes argued that Belloc’s real motive was to strengthen the confidence of English Catholics, after centuries of second-class citizenship, and perhaps it was: some were strengthened to a pouter pigeon arrogance, like the late Evelyn Waugh; some were embarrassed and wound up trying to hide Belloc under the rug (a Catholic history student at Oxbridge usually denied all knowledge of Belloc—a mistake in some ways); some no doubt advanced under the Master’s smokescreen, as moderate Negroes advance under Panther rhetoric. But finally, nobody got as much confidence from Belloc as Belloc did himself.

For some reason, buried deep among his social and geographical dislocations, Belloc simply had to see the world his way: and not just the past, but the present and future as well. This meant somehow shuffling things so that he was at the center and the others were outsiders. It also involved taking a Sleeping Beauty view of Christendom, i.e., maintaining that there was still a Catholic Europe as alive as ever, kept in thrall by mischievous gnomes, shufflers and cads, bankers, publicists, and Oxford dons.

Thus, between the wars, he could maintain (and with him the good-natured Chesterton) that a strong Poland was the key to Europe. The secular jackals had succeeded in dismantling. Austria at Versailles—Austria, which had been falling apart like an old wedding dress all their lives—but there was still Poland, and the sturdy French peasantry, and the silent majority of Englishmen (“who have not spoken yet”—Chesterton), all as strangely untouched by time as Belloc was.

For relative unreality, it does not compare so hopelessly with Shaw and Wells on Hitler and Mussolini (as to Adolf, the Chesterbelloc at least knew a bounder when it saw one). It was hard for the prewar sages, who had lived by their wits and what they read in the papers, to cope with postwar change. During the Thirties Belloc became profoundly melancholy, even by his standards, believing that the next war would truly be the death of Christendom: but perhaps also understanding from events that it was already dead, that his myth just wasn’t working.

The collapse of France was by far the worst of it. The old artillery man had invested more of himself in this than in his other stories, and his old age and final loss of equilibrium came a year and a half after the fall of Paris, and just after the United States had taken over the defense of Christendom. He had always seen the French Revolution, Napoleon, republicanism as all somehow confirming and redirecting Christendom, not weakening and derailing it. The French Army would defend it yet, like Roland against the Moors—unless the French Army were betrayed from within, by a shuffler or cad.

The Dreyfus case occurred just at the time when this romance raged highest in Belloc. And worse still, it directly concerned his precious French artillery: Dreyfus was trading the very cannon that was going to defy the Prussian infidels. Belloc always remained shifty about the facts of this case, maintaining that there was doubt on both sides (one would have to have been in court and familiar with “the most technical terms in gunnery” to form a judgment). But on its impact, he had no doubts at all. “It is to the Dreyfus case that we owe four years of war, 1914-18: for it destroyed the French Intelligence Bureau and so permitted the German surprise on Mons and Charleroi.” This is Belloc at his gargantuan worst, from the Dean Rusk apologetics (gunnery terms indeed) to the incredible explanation of World War I. It also says the final word on his anti-Semitism: he got it from the French Army Officer Corps, the one group whose contribution to his unhappiness he had mysteriously forgiven.

Belloc’s hatred of change gave him a sad old age. After his wife died in 1914, he refused to have anything in the house changed, and to the end there was no electricity or telephone, and the low beams menaced anyone over five foot six or so (his own height). He even gave up shaving and changing his clothes, but sat in his old black suit, by now gray and stiff with candle drippings, “contemplating my own vileness.”

Yet even then, as I found him in 1950 dozing and scowling by the fire, he would suddenly tell a joke or sing a song reminding one of what sweet art had once come from this melancholy. His love of Europe was not just a neurotic evasion, but a genuine vision, of a kind glimpsed only by artists, and that briefly. His masterpieces, The Path to Rome and The Four Men, convey a version of Europe too good to be true perhaps, but too vivid and robust to be called exactly fantasy. He had seen it somewhere, sometime, and he kept it steadily before his eye: inns, songs, an open road so scrupulously guarded that, at an age when the Kerouacs have long gone muttering off to their corners, he could write a book called The Cruise of the Nona expressing all a young man’s passion for movement and surprise.

An artist knows what he has to do. Defending the Church and the Europe that went with it was one way of paying his dues on his vision. Writers have done worse things for trashier muses. As to his politics—probably any time a writer calls on these to protect his world, the result can be grotesque. Belloc’s never-never land seems comparatively harmless, compared with, say, Ezra Pound’s—at worst gallantly futile, at best, surprisingly sharp, as when, in The Servile State, he sees some ultimate government-business combine as a more likely tyrant than World Socialism.4 Belloc’s temperament was in an odd way less physically belligerent than Chesterton’s: much more bluster than bloodshed. When he wasn’t beating off his enemies with his tongue, his mood was often eerily gentle; and it is easy to forget how funny he usually was about it, even on the attack. Humor was actually the strongest link between him and Chesterton, not any kind of prejudice, and an account that leaves that out reminds one, for earnest foolishness, of the new revisionism on the Algonquin wits.

Oddly enough, no one ever talks about the influence of Chesterton on Belloc. It could be that the latter simply would not submit to influence; but there may have been some anyway, of a subtle, personal kind—G.K. raising his friend’s heavy spirits, sharpening his comic gifts, maintaining a schoolboy atmosphere in which a middle-aged man could still enjoy writing light verse. The influence the other way is superficially obvious. Chesterton’s political instinct dozed, and this great quintessential cockney even wound up joining an unassimilated international organization, the Catholic Church. He defended Belloc in his fight with Wells over evolution, and even backtracked slightly on the Dreyfus case.

Yet Chesterton’s own philosophical trajectory remained true enough. As a journalist, he had to keep all his horns blaring at once, and he was probably tempted to leave some of it to Hilaire. His main line of interest in the last years was the religious experience of mankind, and the paradoxical nature of Being itself, and on this his thinking proceeded vigorously on its own way, even when one feels he was too written-out to get it down right or scrape off the fat.

The Everlasting Man, 1925, marks a spurt of energy and contains some religio-historical insights of genius. After some playful journalistic slaps at Wells and the pop evolutionists (unlike Belloc, he didn’t really care a fig about pre-human evolution, or whether “creation came about quickly or slowly”), he gets to such questions as why one society worshipped the Sun and another one (old money-mad Carthage) sacrificed babies; and in each case what it felt like to be a character in Fraser’s Golden Bough. But his kind of writing required constant energy, with every sentence a fresh battle, and after how many million words, he probably felt he’d had enough. If at this point he seemed to echo Belloc—well, somebody had to man the trench, and Belloc hadn’t aged a day.

The main part of his story, though, can be told without reference to Belloc. The range of Chesterton’s talent was almost alarming, like a glandular growth, and the area he shared with Belloc was comparatively small. And I think he shared it because he wanted company. His wife had removed him from London (one always blames somebody else for Chesterton—perhaps his one great flaw) to get him away from his drinking friends; so he had to assert his solidarity in print.

Also, he must have been one of the rare geniuses with absolutely no taste for the part, no wish to be unique. Artistic perfectionism was too pushy for him, wisdom too pretentious. The spillover of his thinking leaves us (if anyone can find it) a body of aphorisms universal enough to belong to literature—Shaw looks like an old newspaper in comparison—yet he did not set up as a sage. His cockney soul wanted, even intellectually, to be one of the boys, a comrade in battle line and pub. And as if to prove it, he accepted equal billing, and a few ideas, from a man of lesser intelligence and dramatically lesser wisdom, Hilaire Belloc: as he had once accepted ideas from his loutish young brother, Cecil, whose death was such a brutal turning point in his life.

Copyright © 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed.

This Issue

September 2, 1971