Hilaire Belloc was a writer of great vigor and variety, whose work included poetry, history, biographies, and travel accounts, as well as essays. He is regarded by some as the best prose stylist of his generation. He chose early to write in English rather than French, using simple, unadorned language, only occasionally employing metaphor or other rhetorical embellishment. His plain style is sometimes likened to the “piety of speech” of the 17th century, or described simply as grave and majestic, yet unmistakably Belloc.
Belloc’s interests ranged widely, as did his knowledge and experience. His French and English ancestry insured him an unusual combination of insular and continental interests and sympathies as well as an acute way of analyzing everything he encountered. The essay form was particularly well chosen for his highly personal observations, which are consistently informed by his Roman Catholic sense of order as it existed in the Middle Ages, whose fragmenting with the Reformation Belloc saw as the West’s greatest scandal. But an antipathy to contemporary life does not inhibit Belloc’s enjoyment of the modern fools he saw everywhere. In “Fun for Clio” (1940) he noted: “The times in which we live have one great compensating advantage for their beastliness. They are vulgar and they are chaotic, they are murderous, they are dirty, they are atheist, they are intolerably wearisome, they have every vice, but they are a magnificent aid to the understanding of history.” Such sentiments explain why the essays are not presently in favor; they are dismissed as too conservative because few understand the radical attitudes of Catholic faith when it decries the failings of the world yet celebrates material creation.
Some of Belloc’s essays were published in the Sunday Times, the Weekly Review, and the Tablet. He was a close associate of G.K.Chesterton, with whom he published a weekly political newspaper the Witness. Belloc served as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1910, and many of his attitudes are Edwardian: a belief in arguing issues, social concern and delight in such pleasures of life as wine, but also a sense of foreboding and melancholy. The titles of volumes of essays suggest the quality of his mind: On Nothing and Kindred Subjects (1908), On Everything (1909), On Anything (1910), On Something (1910), First and Last (1911), This and That and the Other (1912), On (1923), Places (1941). Two others, The Silence of the Sea and Other Essays (1940) and Hills and the Sea (1906), reveal Belloc’s lifelong enthusiasm for the sea, ships, and sailing, which coexisted with a delight in landscape that is quintessentially English.
Whatever the subject of an essay, Belloc brings to it energy, thoughtful analysis, and deep feeling. He relishes opposing current fashion and expectation, but is never facile. “On the ‘Bucolics’ of Virgil, a Café in Paris, the Length of Essays, Phoebus, Bacchus, a Wanton Maid, and Other Matters” (1923) more than any other title indicates Belloc’s view of the essay as a free form, but he also acknowledges that there are exact expectations of length that lead to random padding. In “The Higher Criticism” he parodies the ludicrous excesses of Germanic academic analysis, concluding, “That is how the damned fools write.” In “On Footnotes” (1923) Belloc identifies the practice as a form of lying in modern history that begins with Gibbon but is enforced because professional critics accuse authors who lack footnotes of “romancing.” Among British writers Belloc wrote essays on Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan, Jane Austen, James Boswell, William Tyndale, and John Milton. In “On Milton” he identifies two common qualities of English literature—adventure and mystery—and the English hunger for landscape, which he sees as proceeding from the love of adventure. Such conceptualizing from the particular is typical of how Belloc thinks. His own delight in and ruminations about landscape appear in “About Volcanoes” (1940), “On Town Walls” (1940), and most fully in The Path to Rome (1902). According to “On History in Travel” (1941), guidebooks should present the whole road as a piece of history, and specific descriptions in “On Old Towns” (1909) culminate in the statement that “The Old Towns are ourselves: they are mankind.” For Belloc a place is “a sacramental thing,” encountered on the journey, the pilgrimage of life: “We see some one thing in this world, and suddenly it becomes particular and sacramental…there is a resurrection, and we are refreshed and renewed.” Part of Belloc’s mental quality is curiosity and skepticism, but beneath this there is a core of conviction rooted in his Catholic belief, which he identifies with European civilization. Belloc saw the decay of much European strength, culminating in World War I and repeated in World War II. He affirmed Europe’s base in Christianity and attacked contemporary views of progress, capitalism, and industrial wealth. Thus in “On an Educational Reform” (1923) he urges that Fraud is the new subject needed to prepare the sons of the wealthy. In “On Truth and the Admiralty” (1923) he observes that only sea charts are trustworthy: “The war has produced propaganda. Truth took to its bed in the spring of 1915 and died unregretted, with few attendants, about a year later. Everything since then has been propaganda.” An essay “On Statistics” (1940) classifies the subject as lies, since truth depends upon proportion, which can be distorted with mere figures.
Writing “On Latin,” from which all of the West proceeded, Belloc argues its older openness to all classes; he identifies its residual role as a liturgical language, even though “all religion has now arrived at such a stage that it may be called obsolescent.” The essays become more cogent over the years, as Western society developed in ways that support Belloc, opponent of the Barbarians, as prophet of the 20th century.
The so-called progress of the 20th century that rejected Catholic experience was anathema to Belloc. He was a Liberal, but not of the classical European variety that denied life rooted in the past. His analysis of history is grounded in one tradition, and he becomes a part of its continuity. Like other Edwardians he writes of Northernness, but he avoids simple Teutonic/Nordic enthusiasm, voicing his suspicion of Prussia, made strong in the Reformation and thus not tied to European Catholic morality. Belloc warns against blond supermen. Such anticipations validate many of his essays.
VELMA BOURGEOIS RICHMOND
Joseph Hilaire Pierre Belloc. Born 27 July 1870 in La Celle, St. Cloud, near Paris. Family moved to England, 1870. Studied at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, Warwickshire; Balliol College, Oxford, 1892–95, B.A. in history, 1895. Editor, with A.H.Pollen, Paternoster Review, 1890–91. Served in the 8th Artillery Regiment of the French Army, 1891. Married Elodie Agnes Hogan, 1896 (died, 1914): three sons (two died) and two
daughters. Became a British citizen, 1902. Freelance journalist, tutor, and prolific lecturer. Liberal Member of Parliament for South Salford, 1906–10. Editor, coeditor, or founder of the London Morning Post, 1906–09, North Street Gazette, 1910, Eye Witness, 1911–12, and G.K.’s Weekly, 1936–38; columnist of “A Wanderer’s Notebook,” London Sunday Times, 1938–53.
Awards: honorary degree from the University of Glasgow; Knight Commander with Star, Order of St. Gregory the Great, 1934.
Died in Guildford, Surrey, 16 July 1953.
Essays and Related Prose
The Path to Rome (travel sketches), 1902
The Aftermath; or, Gleanings from a Busy Life (sketches), 1903
Varied Types, 1903
Avril, Being Essays on the Poetry of the French Renaissance, 1904
Hills and the Sea, 1906
On Nothing and Kindred Subjects, 1908
On Everything, 1909
On Anything, 1910
On Something, 1910
First and Last, 1911
This and That and the Other, 1912
At the Sign of the Lion, and Other Essays, 1916
Short Talks with the Dead and Others, 1926
A Conversation with an Angel, and Other Essays, 1928
Essays of a Catholic Layman in England, 1931; as Essays of a Catholic, 1931
A Conversation with a Cat, and Others, 1931
An Essay on the Restoration of Property, 1936; as The Restoration of Property, 1936
Selected Essays, edited by John Edward Dineen, 1936
An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England, 1937
The Crisis of Civilization (lectures), 1937
The Silence of the Sea and Other Essays, 1940
Selected Essays, edited by J.B.Morton, 1948
One Thing and Another: A Miscellany from His Uncollected Essays, edited by Patrick Cahill, 1955
Essays, edited by Anthony Forster, 1955
Selected Essays, edited by J.B.Morton, 1958
Other writings: light verse (including The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, 1896;
Cautionary Tales, 1907), a play, fiction, and books on travel, religion, topography, and history, including biographies of Danton (1899), Robespierre (1901), Marie Antoinette (1909), Richelieu (1929), and Napoleon (1932).
Cahill, Patrick, The English First Editions of Hilaire Belloc, London: Tabard Press, 198-? (original edition, 1953)
Belloc Lowndes, Marie Adelaide, The Young Hilaire Belloc, New York: Kenedy, 1956
Corrin, Jay P., G.K.Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc: The Battle Against Modernity, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981
Markel, Michael H., Hilaire Belloc, Boston: Twayne, 1982
Speaight, Robert, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, New York: Farrar Straus Cudahy, and London: Hollis and Carter, 1957
Wilhelmsen, Frederick D., Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man: A Study in Christian Integration, London: Sheed and Ward, 1953
Wilson, A.N., Hilaire Belloc, London: Hamilton, 1984
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