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 cow undergraduates with his borrowings from Edouard Drumont and his violently anti-Semitic paper, La Libre Parole) nor because of his aggressive French-style Catholicism (he placed a statue of the Virgin Mary on his desk during his examination for the All Souls’ Prize Fellowship). According to Wilson, Belloc failed because the dons simply didn’t like him. At dinner in All Souls’ he had hectored them and, Wilson comments, “if he had behaved with politeness, and not shouted, nor drunk too much, nor tried to hog the conversation, it would have been the only meal in his life at which he adopted such unnatural behaviour.”
It seems even more likely, however, that All Souls’ dropped Belloc because they suspected he was an unreliable scholar. His early biographies, published a few years after he left Oxford, rely more on vivid narrative and scene than on historical accuracy. Danton (1899) and Robespierre (1901)—and, to a lesser degree, the later Marie Antoinette (1909)—are enlivened by Belloc’s admiration for the French Revolution, that “sudden violent reaction…which is the basis of health in any political community.” His models were Gibbon and Macaulay, and the skillfully staged climactic scenes in his French biographies—the last hours of Danton, the “Thermidor” chapter in Robespierre, the execution in Marie Antoinette—consciously, and successfully, imitate theirs.
An idée fixe soon began to intrude on Belloc’s sense of history, however, an idea eccentric even to the Catholic tradition he championed. This idea, that “Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe,” was repeated in volume after volume of unashamedly potboiling histories (“My children,” Belloc explained, “are howling for pearls and caviare”), and couched as always in his marmoreal Macaulayan prose. The idea became less and less appropriate to the twentieth century that Belloc steadfastly refused to feel at home in. He also, fatally, gave up close attention to sources, and began to make claims for the superiority of intuition over scientific study. “History,” he wrote to George Wyndham in 1910, “is to know on one’s first vision, but to confirm and build, by an immense dual and coincident work of research and judgment, one’s original knowledge: modifying also a little as truth corrects and defines the whole.”
But research and modifying truth began to disappear in the potboiling, polemical years. In Belloc’s battles in the Twenties with Wells over his Outline of History, and in the Thirties with G.G. Coulton, the Cambridge medievalist who grew famous for the ferocity of his attacks on Belloc’s versions of the Middle Age and the Reformation, Belloc left truth behind whenever it suited him. “But is it true?” the Catholic editor Douglas Woodruff asked of some historical “fact” that Belloc had produced. “Oh, not at all,” Belloc replied blithely. “But won’t it annoy Coulton?”
Belloc’s French family was of the haute bourgeoisie—his grandfather and namesake had made a fortune as an academic painter—but there was a strong Radical tradition on his English mother’s side. Her father was Joseph Parkes, a reformist partner of James Mill, and she herself had been a friend of George Eliot and her circle. Impressed by the liberal Cardinal Manning, she converted to Catholicism; and her son later learned from Manning something more than a casual dislike of the very rich:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.1
Behind the cheerfully ruthless rhyme was a serious concern for the poor inspired by Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (which had been mostly Manning’s work). Belloc sympathized with Asquith’s Liberal party as it edged toward a welfare state, and presented himself as a Liberal candidate in 1906. He was elected and during his four years in the House spoke often; but he had acquired in France a broad style of oratory hardly appropriate to the ad hoc Realpolitik of Westminster. He soon began declaring his contempt for the compromises that parliamentary Liberalism demanded. He was happier when he left Parliament in 1910 and began writing his series of attacks on the political world. He saw jobbery everywhere:
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.2
and made fun of the interrelationships between the leading Conservative and Liberal families. In The Party System (1911) he argued that the democratic process had become a cloak for a ruling-class oligarchy. Not a new idea (Manning had said thirty years before that “Whig and Tory are names without equivalent…. They survive as two forms of class selfishness”), but Belloc argued it and exemplified it in forthright and unanswerable polemics.
In 1911, in company with Chesterton and others, he began editing a series of weeklies—The Eye Witness, The New Witness, GK’s Weekly—that for twenty years presented versions of what they called Distributism. Belloc’s The Servile State (1912), one of the principal Distributist texts, blames industrial capitalism for enslaving the modern worker, but finds socialism to be equally unacceptable for its “progressivist superstition,” its statism, and its attacks on private property (for Distributists, following Rerum Novarum, the basis of individual freedom). The Distributists favored individual or family control of the means of production—“three acres and a cow”—and the redistribution of land to what was to be a new peasantry.
Distributism, with its roots in the Victorian medievalism of Ruskin and William Morris, probably had its liveliest impact on the arts. Catholic writer-artists like Eric Gill and David Jones welcomed Belloc’s attacks on the deadening technologies of mass production and valued the movement’s revival of interest in individual craftsmanship. Gill, who insisted such skills could survive in a machine age, established his back-to-the-land artists’ community at Ditchling on Distributist lines. During the Thirties Douglas Jerrold founded the English Review, backed by Belloc, T.S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Roy Campbell, with a Distributist manifesto about mass culture. In the US. Distributism had a strong influence on the Southern Agrarians. I’ll Take My Stand (1930) by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and others, was a Distributist manifesto that later was important to the young Robert Lowell.
Distributism can be seen as one of the many honorable attempts to find a way between the absolutisms of right and left. But in retrospect the movement seems at best politically evasive. It had appealed to such antifascist groups as the English Dominicans with their journal Blackfriars to Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement in New York, and to the editors of Commonweal magazine. But at worst it hardened into didactic antisocialism and drifted toward fascism.
Why did this happen in Belloc’s case? His version of Distributism was closely tied to his notion of a Europe united first by Caesar and then by the Catholic Church. Modern workers must own their own land and tools, but they must have powerful leaders too. As Wilson remarks, “Belloc longed…for a great inspiring personal hero who would purge society of its corruptions and inspire the masses to return to the strong, the Roman, ideal…. He had little doubt that the Italian Duce was the new Caesar.” Mussolini’s reconciliation with the Catholic Church in 1923, the year before Belloc made a pilgrimage to meet him, could only please Belloc. With Arnold Lunn, Gregory McDonald, Douglas Jerrold, all Distributists in the Twenties, Belloc spent the Thirties praising Mussolini, Salazar, and Franco in the Catholic press as bulwarks against communism. The same writers also appeared at this time in Herbert Agar’s Free America or in The American Review, whose editor, Seward Collins, openly announced that his Distributist politics were in fact fascist.
By the late Thirties Belloc’s hostility to socialism, liberalism, and democracy led him to take authoritarian positions, and although he despised Hitler (“that lachrymose windbag”) he ended up, like Charles Maurras and his Action Française, on the extreme right. When World War II came he welcomed France’s new military regime, but the collapse of the French military establishment and Pétain’s compounding with the “Prussians” confused and tormented him.
Belloc suffered many personal losses. His wife, the American girl whom he finally was able to marry in 1896, died young in 1914. One son and many of Belloc’s brilliant young friends were killed in World War I. Another son died in World War II. Meanwhile, Belloc’s reputation began to slip. In the Thirties many English and American Catholic intellectuals—already troubled by his dubious histories—began turning away from his truculent apologetics, and adopted the more rigorous neo-Thomism of Maritain and Gilson, or the personalism of Emmanuel Mounier. They found the “Chesterbelloc” cheerfulness dated and were drawn to the darker Catholic imaginations of Mauriac, Bernanos, and Graham Greene. By the 1940s Belloc’s backing of Mussolini had done him serious political damage, and by the Fifties he had become something of an embarrassment even in Catholic circles.
A.N. Wilson’s analysis of Belloc’s career as a historian and politician is knowledgeable, and adds commendable detail to the account in Robert Speaight’s biography of 1957.3 But his portrait of Belloc himself, accepted by most reviewers of his book in both Great Britain and the US, is that of a monster—unattractive, loud, assertive, physically repellent, overconfident, yet full of self-contradictions. But Belloc was a much-loved man, and capable of great delicacy of feeling (see his Letters). And some of the contradictions Wilson finds are of his own invention: they are entertaining paradoxes, but they do not sound true. For instance, he turns Belloc’s Catholic faith into a comic idiosyncracy. Yet Belloc’s kind of quiet desperation is not an unusual spiritual position for French Catholics. “My whole nature,” he wrote, “is skeptical and my practice a perpetual struggle.” His French Catholicism is apparent both in his habit of cheerful blasphemy—he liked to refer to Christ as a bit of a milksop—and in his habit of anticlericalism. He wrote of the Church: “for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
Wilson claims that Belloc, defender of the family, neglected his wife. It is true that he spent much time away from home, though perhaps not so much as Wilson insinuates. Thirty-eight of the forty-three letters written during his married years that appear in Letters from Hilaire Belloc (edited by Robert Speaight)4 were in fact sent from King’s Land, the notoriously uncomfortable house in Sussex where Belloc lived from 1906 on, when, as a struggling journalist and politician, he had good reasons to be in London. Yet Wilson concludes, “Belloc did not have to spend long periods away from Elodie, the sad truth is, he chose to.”
The young couple had some early sexual difficulties. For Belloc, Wilson suggests, “the matter was shaming, and he compensated by eruptions of fury with her when he was at home.” He offers as evidence a letter that he claims Belloc wrote “in abject apology.” It is in fact a cheerful, touching love letter that includes these two sentences: “You must excuse my very cross-ness. I am very sorry indeed, sweetheart, but it comes from little physical matters in which we will both grow wiser.”
Wilson’s biography is often vulgar in its tone and judgments. The elderly Cardinal Newman looks, in a photograph, “like the spry inmate of a female geriatric ward.” Belloc’s typically Victorian, and typically French, habit of observing lifelong mourning for his young wife is described as “exhibitionist paraphernalia.” Worst of all is Wilson’s account of Belloc’s anti-Semitism:
In writing the life of a Jew-baiter or a Jew-persecutor, it might be necessary to inject a note of moral indignation with one’s subject. Belloc was neither. In common with all his generation, Jews, pro-Jews and anti-Jews, he spoke with a vigour of language on the subject which, after the horrors of the mid-twentieth century, will seem hideously distasteful to the huge majority of readers. That is the only note of apology which I want to sound.
This defense seems smug and ignorant. Belloc did not speak about Jews in a language common to all his generation of Englishmen. Anti-Semitism was common in England; but Belloc was a French anti-Semite, something very different—less a matter of snobbishness, more an openly contemptuous rejection of the Jews’ rights to be citizens. He probably picked up the infection at the aristocratic Collège Stanislas rather than, as Wilson speculates, during his French military service in “the company of rough soldiers.” His views were little different from those of such Jew-baiters as Edouard Drumont, Leon Daudet, and Charles Maurras.
Wilson’s tone on this subject is disturbing. Commenting on an evening at Maurice Baring’s at which Belloc held forth, he writes: “Nowadays, it perhaps sounds unattractive to have ‘discoursed of the Jewish Peril…with indescribable gusto and vehemence.’ It is only fair to record that fun was had at the time.” As for the anti-Semitism of the political novels, that too was fun in Wilson’s view:
The central figure…is the Jewish financier, Mr. I.Z. Barnett…. We see this villainous figure—’The Peabody Yid,’ as he is known in society—as the Duke of Battersea. He is one of Belloc’s most amusing creations. The methods by which he takes over the clubs, the Press, the City and the politicians, while appearing to do no more than smile and shrug and lisp with a foreign accent, are all richly comic; and the prose never flags.
In The Jews (1922),5 Belloc prophesied that if the Jews went on behaving as they did—being secretive, plotting international coups, feeling superior—something terrible was likely to happen to them. But “it goes without saying,” Wilson says, “that Belloc burned with anger and pity in making these prophecies. They began to be fulfilled in his lifetime, and he was loud and outspoken in his condemnation of the butchers and persecutors.” It doesn’t go without saying. In 1925 Belloc’s Jew-baiting son, Hilary, wrote to his father from California: “On Wednesday I fight a South African jew called Levine. It is all very amusing. I found it necessary to kick him for insolence last night. Later I caught him by the feet and dragged him down the street on his back.” Wilson records no “condemnation.” He simply finds this “a vigorous piece of Bellocian prose.” Belloc himself wrote in 1937:
Talking of Yids the swarm of Yids on board this sparsely populated craft is extraordinary…. There are two Americans on board…. Now, Americans are vocally and loudly and simply and in child-like fashion Jew-haters. So I live in hopes of an explosion…. Wouldn’t it be amusing if this next outburst of blind rage against the poor old Jews were to blow up in New York?…. If or when the New Yorkites rise against the Jews there will be a pogrom: for the Americans yield to none in promiscuous violence and bloodletting.
“As it happened,” Wilson comments, “no such pogrom took place in New York, either while Belloc was there, or later.”
After reading such passages one is tempted to say that Belloc got the biographer he deserved, and leave it at that. But having failed to see what is monstrous in Belloc’s views, Wilson often seems blind to the character of his work. He praises The Four Men (1912) as “one of Belloc’s most beautiful books,” and a new edition, introduced by Wilson, has just appeared.6 But this odd tale is an unattractively whimsical and loquacious celebration of Sussex. A false Edwardian heartiness about the ways of country folk often intrudes, as when one of the characters sings:
From Hurstpierpoint to Arundel town,
The girls are plump and the ale is brown.
Belloc is writing here for the vulgar audience Forster worried about in Howards End, the new weekending country-cottager. In other poems he sentimentally laments the passing of rural England, as in his short lyric “Ha’nacker Mill”:
Sally is gone that was so kindly
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill.
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly And ever since then the clapper is still, And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.
“Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done,” Belloc concludes.
A more convincing elegiac tone pervades Belloc’s The Path to Rome (1902), which is for the most part a plain account of a journey on foot to Rome, starting from Toul in the Grandes Vosges, where Belloc did his military service. The journey was the result of a very Bellocian vow “to go to Rome on pilgrimage and see all Europe which the Christian Faith had saved.” As he walks up the valley of the Moselle in June 1901, Belloc is thirty; the automobile has hardly touched the path he travels; the Jura, the Alps, and most of northern Italy still have a peasant culture. Stopping often, and drinking much wine, Belloc writes longingly and affectingly of ordinary people leading their lives. One has no sense of the anticlericalism in the Jura of that time or of largely secular life in the Piedmont, only of Belloc’s intense conviction that he belongs to the tradition of Catholic peasant Europe and can now imaginatively bring it to life. He weeps when he hears a village of peasants at vespers sing the “Te lucis ante terminum“: “There left me altogether that attitude of difficulty and combat which, for us others, is always associated with the Faith.”
Belloc’s most brilliant compositions are surely his pastiches of Victorian children’s didactic verse. Here the deep compulsions Wilson passes over so lightly—above all Belloc’s need both to rebel against and to simplify the contradictory worlds he was born into—find expression in the conflicting assumptions of adults and children. Belloc could retain the confident didactic form of the Victorian “cautionary tale,” and yet, with childlike ruthlessness and immense verbal skill, he could sometimes turn its pieties upside down. His retelling of the boy-who-cried-wolf story ends predictably:
For every time She shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her Aunt returned,
Matilda, and the House, were Burned.
Life is precarious, and “simple little rules and few” can be stated for coping with it: “And always keep a-hold of Nurse/ For fear of finding something worse.” But Belloc’s sympathies—and this helps to explain the great attraction of these verses to children—are clearly more with the bad children than with the good. This irony is not lost on children, who know how deceptive rules can be. His portrait of the perfect child, Charles Augustus Fortescue, is the portrait of an unbearable bore, who always took care “to take a judgment Broad and Wide.” And what child would not like to play with a “Dangerous Toy” if the result was that
The House began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below—
Which happened to be Savile Row.
while he himself “Received, you will regret to hear,/ A nasty lump behind the ear.”
Belloc’s imagination seems freest in such simplifying acts as walking all the way to Rome, or sailing a boat on a long voyage (The Cruise of the Nona, 1925), or in the simplicity of children’s verses. Robert Speaight tells us that when at twenty-one Belloc made his extraordinary journey to California, tramping and gambling and sketching to make a living along the way, he told a friend that he intended to settle there and “cultivate a style as simple as ‘Mary had a little lamb,’ Yes, he would create a sensation by his pellucid simplicity.” Torn between England and France, revolution and reaction, faith and the void, he always yearned to get away from his own contentious “attitude of difficulty and combat.”
He found simplicity in a terrible way in his last decade. After hearing of a second son’s death in action in 1941 he had a stroke and never wrote again. According to Wilson he spent most of his last twelve years reading and rereading his own works and those of P.G. Wodehouse—Wodehouse, whose brilliant schoolboy comedies depend on the convention that nothing has changed since about 1905. Belloc’s own works denied that the modern world had happened at all. When his bright mind fell into dullness he clung to the familiar for fear of finding something worse.
November 7, 1985
More Peers (1911). ↩
“Lord Lundy,” in Cautionary Tales for Children (1907). ↩
Robert Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (Farrar, Straus, 1957). ↩
Hollis and Carter (London), 1958. ↩
The Jews, surprisingly, is still in print (Gordon Press), and no fewer than fortyfive Belloc titles are listed in Books in Print. ↩
Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men, edited with an introduction by A.N. Wilson (Oxford University Press, 1984). ↩