Photograph of Belloc
Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (July 27, 1870–July 16, 1953) was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. His style and personality during later life complemented the nickname he received in childhood, "Old Thunder."
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, which 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.
Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce.
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. He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. His mother Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) was also a writer, and a great-grand-daughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. She married attorney Louis Belloc in 1867. 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.
As a young man, Belloc lost his Faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, an event which returned him to and confirmed him in his Faith for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a moving passage in "The Cruise of the Nona."
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.
After being educated at the 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. He was later a well known yachtsman.
An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc went into politics after he became a naturalised British citizen. At the Oxford Union he held his own in debates with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend. Sir John Simon who was a contemporary at Oxford, described his "...resonant, deep pitched voice..." as making an "...unforgettable impression". A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford, after he produced a small statue of the Virgin and placed it before him on the table during the interview.
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. It that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the race.
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. He was brilliant, but a poor listener. His larger-than-life personality, and strongly held views, were more acceptable to some in small doses. His setbacks in the academic and political worlds lent asperity to his writing.
Belloc and his wife Elodie had five children before her 1914 death from influenza, in their 17th year of marriage. He became estranged from Peter, one of his sons, who was subsequently killed in action in World War I. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home until his death in 1953.
His estate was probated at 7,451 pounds sterling.
Belloc's friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, described his personality in a preface to The Cruise of the Nona.
Time and again I have seen him throw out a sufficiently outrageous theory in order to stimulate his company, and, be it said, for the pleasure of seeing how slowly he might be dislodged from a position he had purposely taken up knowing it to be untenable...Of course Belloc was prejudiced, but there were few who knew him who did not love his prejudices, who did not love to hear him fight for them, and who did not honor him for the sincerity and passion with which he held to them. Once the battle was joined all his armoury was marshalled and flung into the fray. Dialectic, Scorn, Quip, Epigram, Sarcasm, Historical Evidence, Massive Argument, and Moral Teaching --of all these weapons he was a past master and each was mobilised and made to play its proper part in the attack. Yet he was a courteous and a chivalrous man. A deeply sensitive man, his was the kindest and most understanding nature I have ever known. In spite of a rollicking and bombastic side he was as incapable of the least cruelty as he was capable of the most delicate sympathy with other people's feelings. As he himself used to say of others in a curiously quiet and simple way, 'He is a good man. He will go to Heaven.'
Belloc sent out Christmas greeting cards one year with the following playful verse:
- Noel, noel, noel, noel,
- May all my enemies go to Hell.
- Noel, noel.
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 (OUDS), 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 OUDS.
He was at his most effective in the 1920s, on the attack against H. G. Wells's Outline of History. 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."
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.
Asked once why he wrote so much, he responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." See Hilaire Belloc's books for a chronological list of work by Belloc
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.
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."
His "cautionary tales", humorous poems with a moral, 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
- The Chief Defect of Henry King
- Was chewing little bits of String.
- At last he swallowed some which tied
- Itself in ugly Knots inside.
- Physicians of the Utmost Fame
- Were called at once; but when they came
- They answered, as they took their Fees,
- "There is no Cure for this Disease.
- Henry will very soon be dead."
- His Parents stood about his Bed
- Lamenting his Untimely Death,
- When Henry, with his Latest Breath,
- Cried - "Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
- That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea
- Are all the Human Frame Requires..."
- With that the Wretched Child expires.
Another 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 at an unsafe distance. 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...
He wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon. Two of his best known non-fiction works are The Servile State (1912) and Europe and Faith (1920). They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.
He wrote one of the alternative history stories/essays for the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.
Belloc was especially impatient with what he considered to be axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history."
There is an enormous book called volume 1 of A Cambridge History of the Middle Ages. It is 759 pages in length of close print . . . It does not mention the Mass once. That is as though you were to write a history of the Jewish dispersion without mentioning the synagogue or of the British empire without mentioning the city of London or the Navy (Letters from Hilaire Belloc, Hollis and Carter, 75).
Joseph Pearce notes Belloc's impatience with H.G. Wells' history.
Belloc's exchanges with H. G. Wells over the latter's publication of 'The Outline of History' comprised one of the most controversial and notorious academic battles of the twentieth century. 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.
Political and economic thought
With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc envisioned the socioeconomic system of Distributism. Belloc was strongly opposed to both capitalism and its alternative socialism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to end, and other works, Belloc criticized the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism.
He argued not that Distributism was a new 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.
Ignatius Press of California has been reissuing Belloc.
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:
Our fathers all but re-established the spiritual mastery of Europe over the East; all but recovered the patrimony of Rome (...) . Western warriors, two thousand miles and more from home, have struck root and might feel they have permanently grasped the vital belt of the Orient. All seaboard Syria was theirs and nearly [emphasis in the original] the whole of that "bridge", a narrow band pressed in between the desert and the sea, the all-important central link joining the Moslem East to the Moslem West (...) Should the link be broken for good by Christian mastery of Syria, all Islam was cut in two and would bleed to death of the wound.
But, as Belloc deeply deplored, that was not to be. The Crusaders missed their chance to capture Damascus, and the vital link between Eastern and Western Islam was not severed. Islam survived and eventually overwhelmed the Crusader bridgehead in the Middle East. Belloc then went on to reiterate that all this was not a matter of old history, and that Islam continued to pose a dangerous present and future threat. At the time of writing, the Islamic World was largely under the rule of the European colonial powers, and the most visible threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. He however wrote
The story must not be neglected by any modern, who may think in error that the East has finally fallen before the West, that Islam is now enslaved - to our political and economic power at any rate if not to our philosophy. It is not so. Islam essentially survives, and Islam would not have survived had the Crusade made good its hold upon the essential point of Damascus. Islam survives. Its religion is intact; therefore its material strength may return. Our religion is in peril, and who can be confident in the continued skill, let alone the continued obedience, of those who make and work our machines? (...) There is with us a complete chaos in religious doctrine (....) We worship ourselves, we worship the nation; or we worship (some few of us) a particular economic arrangement believed to be the satisfaction of social justice (....)Islam has not suffered this spiritual decline; and in the contrast between [our religious chaos and] the religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world lies our peril.
Belloc's words have been re-discovered and his anti-Islamic books re-published, getting such enthusiastic reactions as that of Texas pastor John H. Ingle: " Fantastic book! Particularly stark and foreboding is his warning that Mohammedism will be back to try again to destroy us - and here they are now! Anyone who thinks if we only ignore Islamofascism it will go away needs to read this" (}.
Belloc considered that it was not some fanatical branch of Islam but Islam itself that was permenently intent on assaulting the Church, and the West which the Faith had built.
In The Great Heresies (1938) Belloc grouped the Reformation together with Islam as one of the major "heresies" threatening the "Church Universal".
In The Great Heresies, Belloc cited the beliefs that identify Islam as a heresy of Catholicism. These beliefs include: the unity and the omnipotence of God; the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, and the providence of God; His creative power as the origin of all things, and His sustenance of all things by His power alone; the world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in war against God, with a chief evil spirit; the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the doctrine of reward and punishment after death; the Day of Judgment with Christ as Judge; the Lady Miriam [Mary] as the first among womenkind. But what Mohammed denied was the Incarnation, and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it.
Belloc and accusations of anti-Semitism
- For fuller discussion, see section in G. K.'s Weekly
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 (see Cliveden set, for the context), a friend of Belloc's in the 1930s until they broke over religious matters, was influenced by him against Jews in general. Rose asserts that Belloc 'was moved by a deep vein of hysterical anti-Semitism'. He was repeatedly critical, from his days in politics onwards, of the influence some Jewish people had on society and the world of finance. He is, however, consistently defended by some as not an anti-Semite.
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. A. N. Wilson's biography expresses the opinion that Belloc had a tendency to allude to Jews in conversation, in a seemingly obsessive fashion on occasion. Anthony Powell's review of that biography contains Powell's opinion, that Belloc was thoroughly anti-Semitic, except at a personal level.
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.
Belloc condemned anti-Semitism in The Catholic and the War (1940).
- The Third Reich has treated its Jewish subjects with a contempt for Justice which even if there had been no other action of the kind in other departments would be a sufficient warranty for determining its elimination from Europe...Cruelty to a Jew is as odious as cruelty to any human being, whether that cruelty be moral in the form of insult, or physical...You may hear men saying on every side, 'However, there is one thing I do agree with and that is the way they (The Nazis) have settled the Jews'. Now that attitude is directly immoral. The more danger there is that it will grow the more necessity there is for denouncing it. The action of the enemy toward the Jewish race has been in morals intolerable. Contracts have been broken on all sides, careers destroyed by the hundred and the thousand, individuals have been treated with the most hideous and disgusting cruelty...If no price is paid for such excesses, our civilisation will certainly suffer and suffer permanently. If the men who have committed them go unpunished (and only defeat in war can punish them) then the decline of Europe, already advanced, will proceed to catastrophe. (pages 29ff.)
Dennis Barton, in his "In Defense of Hilaire Belloc" , has defended Belloc at length. He notes that Belloc condemned wild accusations against the Jews, in his own book, The Jews.
Syndicated columnist Joe Sobran claimed that the anti-Semitism accusations against Belloc were misplaced.
- Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton, two of the greatest Catholic writers of the last century, were often critical of the Jews — each wrote a book about them — and today are routinely referred to as anti-Semites. Neither of them accused the Jews of killing Christ. In fact, both sought solutions to the “Jewish problem” which would be fair to Christians and Jews alike; Chesterton was pro-Zionist, Belloc anti-Zionist, and both spent many pages defending the Jews against common charges. But neither of these alleged bigots thought the accusation of deicide was worth mentioning, either to assert or to refute. Article "The Jewish Faction", May 2004
Sobran has had repeatedly to defend himself against the anti-Semitism charge.
In The Cruise of the Nona, Belloc reflected equivocally on the Dreyfus Affair after thirty years.
I, for my part, pretend to no certain conclusion in the matter...Of my own intimate acquaintance who were on the spot [at Dreyfus' trial] and competent to judge, most were for the innocence of Dreyfus: but the rest, fully competent also, were and are, convinced of his guilt...There are in England to-day two Englishmen whose wide knowledge of Europe and especially of Paris, and the French tongue and society, enable them to judge. They are both close friends of mine. One is for, the other against...I believe that, when the passions have died down, the Dreyfus case will remain for history very much what the Diamond Necklace has remained, or the Tichborne case; that is, there will be a popular legend, intellectually worth nothing; and, for the historian, the task of criticising that legend, but hardly of solving the problem.
- 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".
- A notable admirer of Belloc was the composer Peter Warlock, who set many of his poems to music. A well-known parody of Belloc by Sir John Squire, intended as a tribute, is Mr. Belloc's Fancy.
- Syd Barrett, the madcap genius founder of The Pink Floyd, was a fan.
- He is referred to in the Monty Python comedy troupe's sketch, 'The Mouse Problem'. He is cited as an example of one of the many famous men in history 'now known to have been mice'.
- Hilaire Belloc, the man and his work (1916) C. Creighton Mandell and Edward Shanks
- For Hilaire Belloc (1942) Douglas Woodruff (editor), Douglas Jerrold, Ronald Knox, Arnold Lunn, C. A. J. Armstrong, Christopher Hollis, Gervase Matthew, David Mathew, J. B. Morton, W. A. Pantin, David Jones
- Hilaire Belloc; An Introduction to his Spirit and Work (1945) Robert Hamilton
- Hilaire Belloc (British Council, 1953) Renee Haynes
- Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man. A Study in Christian Integration (1953) Frederick Wilhelmsen
- Hilaire Belloc: A Memoir (1955) J. B. Morton
- The Young Hilaire Belloc, Some Records of Youth and Middle Age (1956) Marie Belloc Lowndes
- The Life of Hilaire Belloc (1957) Robert Speaight
- Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978) John P. McCarthy
- Hilaire Belloc (1984) A. N. Wilson
- G. K. Chesterton & Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity (Ohio University Press, 1991) Jay P. Corrin
- Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (2002) Joseph Pearce
- Hilaire Belloc: 1870-1953 (1998) Cooney, Anthony, ISBN 0953507734.
- "On a Monkey's Birthday: Belloc and Sussex" (2006) Tim Rich, contained within "Common Ground: Around Britain in Thirty Writers" (Cyan Books) ISBN 1904879934.
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