A Reader's Guide to Hilaire Belloc
by Matthew M. Anger
Hilaire Belloc, who lived from 1870-1953, and wrote during most of those years, epitomized the word prolific. Roughly 150 titles are attributed to him, though a few of these are collections of newspaper essays. Some people set out to read everything Belloc ever wrote, which would be a mistake. Belloc was a writer by trade. He wrote to pay his bills. Thus, by his own admission, some of his writing was "hack work." Of course that leaves much that is simply brilliant and the critic was probably right who said that Belloc may have written bad books, but he never wrote a bad sentence. The reader should also keep in mind that he "wrote" most of his books by dictation. As one might imagine, this evinces inherent strengths and weaknesses. The tone of his books is often conversational, like listening to a private lecture. This off-hand manner, while evincing remarkable virtuosity, occasionally lapsed into generalizations and minor errors of detail. Yet, as Robert Speaight says in his biography of the Catholic author: "Men who had not always agreed with what Belloc said admired the way that he had said it." Perhaps more importantly, "no man of our time has fought so consistently for the good things."
For Catholic readers, Belloc is probably best known for works of religious controversy. This is no doubt because of the renewed interest in older apologetic literature and the fact that a number of Belloc's religious works have been reprinted in paperback by TAN Books. This genre represents an important dimension of his literary skill but by no means the only one. One should be aware that Belloc tended to recycle a lot of his material, as he was almost continually engaged in debates and defense of Catholic views during the 1920s and '30s. This makes for some repetition, and a sampling of his considerable output in this department will suffice.
Essays of A Catholic and Survivals and New Arrivals are probably the most insightful. In them he reveals his brillianace as an analyst and systematizer. He could point out trends, both past and future, that eluded most people. Even today, people are amazed at the frequently prophetic passages found throughout his apologetic works. There is, for example, the following passage on Islam in The Great Heresies:
[T]he recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, seems fantastic. Who in the Mohammedan world today can manufacture and maintain the complicated instruments of modern war? Where is the political machinery whereby the religion of Islam can play an equal part in the modern world?
Belloc must be credited for looking beyond the immediate preoccupations and opinions of his day. The power of religion had been all but discredited. The European colonial powers were still at their zenith. Meanwhile the relatively backwards Muslim peoples seemed permanently overwhelmed by the purely secular—political and economic—power of the West. As Belloc notes:
I say the suggestion that Islam may re-arise sounds fantastic—but this is only because men are always powerfully affected by the immediate past:—one might say that they are blinded by it.
He offers similarly far-sighted observations in his discussion of the nascent anti-Catholic forces of the 20th century, overlooked and unsuspected by many in his day. For example, he talks about the rise of "neo-paganism," which was replacing the older, cruder threats of anti-clericalism and religious bigotry:
Neo-Paganism grows prodigiously.... So long as there were definite Protestant creeds, more or less thought out and sustained by logic of a kind, so long as men could say what they thought and acted thus and thus, Paganism was kept out.
But with the increasing irrelevance of Protestantism as a major force in European culture, Belloc realized that new religious elements must necessarily fill the vacuum:
Paganism once erected into a system, once having taken on full shape, and proceeding to positive action, must necessarily become a formidable and increasingly direct opponent of the Catholic Church. The two cannot live together, for the points upon which they would agree are not the points which either thinks essential.... I have suggested that the threat of Paganism returning among the white races, and the strength of Paganism when it shall have returned, will be presumably enhanced by a sort of moral alliance between it and the exterior Paganism of the East, of Asia and not only of Asia, but, for that matter, of Africa too.
Histories and Biographies
Archbishop Downey of Liverpool, a contemporary of Belloc, said of the author's skill as a historian, "He was, above all, a humanist, and his approach to history is essentially psychological. He says himself that if the historian 'be not seized of the mind which lay behind all that was human in the business, then no synthesis of his detailed knowledge is possible'.... Belloc made the past live in the minds of its readers."
A number of biographies stand out for their style and lively interpretation, in particular the studies of James II and Cardinal Richelieu. Of the infamous French prelate, whose narrow self-aggrandizing policies had such a disastrous effect on Europe, Belloc says:
A single will, far more than other conscious force—one man far more than other man—lay, without knowing it, at the origin of this our present condition. One man more than any other man, and more than any impersonal force (out of so many forces at work) both founded [modern] Nationalism, and made permanent the division between the Catholic and the Protestant culture. That man was Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu.
Many recommend the Cranmer biography, no doubt because of its relevance to the situation in the Church since Vatican II. The parallels between Cranmer's revision of the liturgy in England and the modern venacularization of the Mass are striking. One might also consider Belloc's treatment of English revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, one of the most ferocious (as well as brilliant) opponents of the old order of Europe. Belloc eschews the "double myth" about Cromwell, which tends to exaggerate both his virtues and his vices. Yet he makes it clear just where the Puritan dictator stood in the battleground of European culture. Quite vivid is the personal, and pathetic, note of Cromwell's life as revealed in his death:
But the terrors returned. In the furnace of his dissolved and failing mind he was heard to affirm, despairingly, the Divine Love; but then to mutter once and again and yet again, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God!" Surely he might hope. Had he not hewed the enemies of the Lord to pieces...? Surely he could claim the reward beyond conception, the supernal light, beatitude? Was he not of the Chosen? And then, with shuddering, the abyss opened—might he not wake to nameless horror, and fall shrieking into the hands of an angry God?
Unfortunately, the biographies written towards the end of Belloc's life—accounts of Louis XIV, Charles II and Elizabeth—betray Belloc’s gradual exhaustion, both physically and mentally. He would suffer a debilitating stroke in 1941 just about the time his last history, of Elizabeth, went to press. Compared to the early works, these can be disappointing. By contrast, the early studies of French Revolutionaries Danton and Robespierre helped put him on the literary map. They are still lauded for their style, though orthodox readers will find it difficult to endorse their pro-Revolutionary sympathies. As an aside, Belloc’s understanding of the French Revolution was undoubtedly flawed, though his treatment of the subject became more conservative and critical as time went on. It is reflective of an overall shift in his writing and thinking as he approached middle age.
The aftermath of the First World War was for him, as it was for many, a challenge to the pristine liberalism of the Victorian and Edwardian era. Likewise, the long unquestioned legacy of French Republicanism, which had stamped itself upon most of Europe, was now open to serious criticism. Belloc was not immune to this conservative reassessment which had its counterpart in the Southern agrarian movement in this country. Unfortunately, he never quite shed his Bonapartist hero-worship. In addition, he was a Francophile and as such he did not estimate the importance of Spain and Austria as much as he should have, though later works show that he did not neglect their roles altogether.
No single author should serve to shape one’s view of history, but certainly Belloc can provide a solid foundation as well as some thought-provoking hypotheses. His single-most famous work of history/apologetics, Europe and the Faith, is well worth one's time, with the above proviso in mind. It is his most criticized book and one that has been greatly misunderstood. His motto: "Europe is the Faith, the Faith is Europe" has been interpreted as a form of religious ethnocentrism. In fact, he was making the point that what we regard as the greatest cultural, political and artistic achievements of Western civilization stem from the old creed. Without the one, the other would not exist.
The Protestants and rationalists of latter times attempted to carry on without reference to our original patrimony. As a result, for roughly five centuries we have been living off the diminishing capital of our Catholic heritage, to the point where such a position is no longer tenable. The result is a widespread cultural collapse that Belloc himself foretold in uncannily accurate works of social prediction. In Europe and the Faith, Belloc sums up his own view of history:
For the Catholic the whole perspective falls into its proper order. The picture is normal. Nothing is distorted to him. The procession of our great story is easy, natural, and full. It is also final.... But the modern Catholic, especially if he is confined to the use of the English tongue, suffers from a deplorable (and it is to be hoped), a passing accident. No modern book in the English tongue gives him a conspectus of the past; he is compelled to study violently hostile authorities.... whose knowledge is never that of the true and balanced European.
Some undeniable weaknesses in Europe and the Faith are Belloc's apparent disregard for the Hebraic heritage of the Old Testament and the positive influences of Germanic cultures. On the latter point, Belloc may be pardoned in that he was reacting to the pantheist, materialist and racialist philosophies coming out of Germany during his generation. Nevertheless, Belloc made up for some of the deficiencies in his religious-biblical oriented history The Battle Ground (1936). Therein he provides a full and fair treatment of the ancient Jews and other Middle Eastern cultures, though as far as literature goes, Europe and the Faith is the more re-readable work.
A much overlooked contribution to Catholic historiography is A History of England which was originally projected as a six volume work, covering the period of the Roman Conquest through the early twentieth century. It was, for Belloc, a "labor of love," but was continually put off by more lucrative work. Volume four was the last completed, in 1931, which takes one to the end of the reign of James I. In contrast with the popular titles, this work truly reflects the scope of his original research and interpretation. An abridged Shorter History of England (1934) is complete, and covers England up to the First World War, but is less satisfying than the full-length study.
Belloc was also considered something of a military expert in his day, and was admired by the contemporary American historian Hoffman Nickerson for his ability to understand all the factors that made for the success and failure of a general in battle. Some short and interesting accounts of warfare can be found in the British Battles series and his study of the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough.
Perhaps the most overlooked facet of Belloc's literary corpus is his essays, highly regarded in his own day. As a genre it suited him best. By contrast he tended to lose his creative steam in longer works. As author and literary critic A.N. Wilson says, his writing was like his conversation, which was best when it was spontaneous and could leap effortlessly from one topic to the next.
As a rule, Belloc's output can be divided between the pre- and post-World War I period. While critics generally rank his pre-war literature higher, with the essays the opposite is true. It may be that like Dr. Johnson, who embarked on his career as essayist around age 50, a level of maturity is needed to plunge into the depth of memory and experience and pull forth those small polished gems of the essay form.
The essays written after the 1920s show Belloc in top form. For beauty of style, for humor, and profound insights, one can recommend such titles as Short Talks With the Dead, A Conversation With A Cat, A Conversation With An Angel, as well as his Silence of the Sea which, for being written as late as 1941, is surprisingly spirited and entertaining.
In a typically satirical passage, from "On Conversations in Trains," which was later republished in a collection edited by humorist P.G. Wodehouse, Belloc describes
two frightfully rich men near Birmingham arguing why England was the richest and the Happiest Country in the world. Neither of these men was a gentleman but they argued politely though firmly, for they differed profoundly. One of them, who was almost too rich to walk, said it was because we minded our own affairs, and respected property and were law-abiding. This (he said) was the cause of our prosperity and of the futile envy with which foreigners regarded the homes of our working men. Not so the other: he thought that it was the Plain English sense of Duty that did the trick: he showed how this was ingrained in us and appeared in our Schoolboys and our Police: he contrasted it with Ireland, and he asked what else had made our Criminal Trials the model of the world?
The topics presented in his essays are diverse, and one gets a glimpse of Belloc that defies the stereotypes resulting from a limited perusal of his works. In "Advice to a Young Man in the Matter of Wine" he informs us that "if you drink too much you are a fool, and worse. But you will never, as a habit, drink too much red wine." More importantly, "never warm red wine by putting the bottle before the fire or into hot water. This abominable trick turns red wine into vinegar." Such admonitions, sometimes useful, sometimes nonsensical, are the hallmark of Belloc's fireside manner.
Finally, among his best essays are Characters of the Reformation, a work of history/apologetics. It cannot be too highly recommended, and is arguably more engaging than his chronicle, How the Reformation Happened, which covers basically the same territory, but in a more generalized, less "vicarious" manner. The sketches that appear in Characters are not so much detailed life studies as bold vignettes, considering some aspect of character or intellect of twenty-three influential individuals of the period. Belloc's coverage of the Reformation even extends to the reign of Louis XIV which enhances the book's interest and reminds us that this religious conflict was more than just a brief squabble between Luther and Calvin and the Church of Rome in the 16th century. It had lasting consequences – socially and politically as well as theologically. Few writers bring this home as well as Belloc, who was an apt judge of the psychological side of history and the impact that men's personal choices have on human events.
Just as Belloc was a great essayist, he is deservedly remembered for his travel writings. When Belloc describes a scene, it isn't just any scene. He can actually place in our minds the very image that he saw, be it a woods in Sussex, a lake in Italy or a road in France. That is the power of his prose at its best.
Among the best titles in this category one must include Hills and the Sea (reprinted in 1996) which offers sketches of his rambles across France, Spain and North Africa. Belloc's account of a nighttime crossing of the Pyrenees, "The Wing of Dalua" is quite eerie and undoubtedly worth the price of the book alone.
There stood in the broader and lower part of the valley to which we had now come, numerous rocks and boulders; for our deception some one of them or another would seem to be a man. I heard my companion call suddenly, as though to a stranger, and as he called I thought that he had indeed perceived the face of a human being, and I felt a sort of sudden health in me when I heard the tone of his voice; and when I looked up I also saw a man. We came towards him and he did not move. Close up beside his form we put out our hands: but what we touched was a rough and silent stone.
Belloc visited North Africa frequently (the former French colonies of Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia). One of his least known but most interesting books is Esto Perpetua, which describes his journey to Algeria before World War I. Like the more famous Path to Rome, it is graced by the author's charming pen and ink sketches. It is a very beautiful and profound book. In one section, Belloc recalls the many "startling resurrections of [ancient] Rome which a man sees in less than twenty days on foot in any part of Algiers...." In particular, he mentions the town of Verecunda, beyond a French Legionaire outpost. The town has disappeared, but what remains is a great gate left by a grateful citizen of the empire: "It is all alone. The wind blows through it off the mountains. Every winter the frost opens some new little crack, and every generation or so a stone falls. But in two thousand years not so much has been ruined by time, but that the impression of Rome remains."
Esto Perpetua also expresses something very important to the author. It is the sense of Romanitas ("Romaness"), or the civilizing and ordering power of antiquity transmitted to us by Christendom. Needless to say, the best exemplar of this view is his best-selling travelogue, The Path to Rome (1902). It is very much a product of the "young Belloc"—entertaining, zestful and precocious.
Another important title in the "travel" category is The Cruise of the ‘Nona’ (1925), which is as close as Belloc ever got to a work of autobiography. It offers a series of personal reminiscences interspersed with accounts of sailing on the his ship, the Nona. Belloc produced a number of more technical geographical/archaeological studies, including The Old Road, The Pyrenees, and The Historic Thames. Belloc's introduction to The Old Road is a highly evocative piece. Take this sample:
There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has traveled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows.
Among travel books, only The Contrast, discussing the difference between America and England/Europe, is a disappointment. Yet even here his native genius shines forth, with some cogent observations. He is fair, often complimentary, thus making his criticisms all the more acute. But as a work of "travel/cultural literature" it indulges in his occasional propensity for over-generalization. For example, he devotes an entire chapter to American literature without once naming a book or author!
Most people are unaware that Belloc wrote fiction, nor was it his literary forte. Nevertheless, given Belloc’s native talent, it would have been impossible for him not to produce something of worth.
The bulk of Belloc’s fiction consisted of period pieces—farcical novels and satires on the political and social mores of the day. For that reason they tend to date badly and many are unabashed potboilers. Still, a few possess a certain charm of their own. One of the better farces is The Green Overcoat (1912). An unusual specimen is Belinda (1928), a clever, light-hearted spoof of early 19th century romances. Though Belloc devoted much of his career to history, curiously he wrote just one historical novel—The Girondin (1911). It is memorable mainly for the realistic battle scenes at the end of the story.
The Mercy of Allah (1922) sardonically recounts the exploits of Mahmoud, a sharp Baghdad merchant turned moneylender who has grasped and clawed his way to the top. Ostensibly a critique of Islamic culture set in some indeterminate period in the past, the book is really an attack on what the author considered to be the unbridled greed of the modern West. As a work of socio-economic satire, it forms a nice complement to Belloc’s Distributist writings like The Servile State (1912). A. N. Wilson calls it "the most brilliant of his fantasies."
The Four Men (1911) stands in a class of its own, not only among Belloc’s works but arguably as a minor classic of 20th century fiction. It has the hallmarks of a medieval allegory set in modern prose. It is based on a journey that Belloc made across Sussex in 1902. He did not complete the work until nine years later. This fact may explain the story's quality compared to many of his novels that were composed in a space of a week!
Originally meant to be a non-fiction English counterpart to The Path to Rome, The Four Men was meticulously transformed into a tale of four men who band together in a journey across their native Sussex. Set around the time of All Saints, the things that haunt a man—the transience of life, the presence of death and decay—feature heavily beneath its boisterous and whimsical surface. The prose is appropriately autumnal in tone to match the chill fall days that herald the onset of winter. One reason for book's appeal may be that it is a Bellocian microcosm. It combines all the best elements of his style in a work than can entertain as well as make us think. The visual power of his writing is in evidence, eliciting a primal sense of life, experience and truth. Take this excerpt:
I woke the next morning to the noise, the pleasant noise, of water boiling in a kettle. May God bless that noise and grant it to be the most sacred noise in the world. For it is the noise that babies hear at birth and that old men hear as they die in their bed, and it is the noise of our households all our lives long; and throughout the world, wherever men have hearths, that purring and that singing, and that humming and that talking to itself of warm companionable water to our great ally, the fire, is home.
Such poetic prose recalls the introduction to The Old Road (mentioned above). Of course, Belloc is not always so purposefully profound. There is much hilarity, as found in the tale of Chief Justice Honeybubble, with Dickensian overtones, or the argument over the definition of Cheese.
It’s interesting to note as an aside that the BBC produced a radio version of the play decades ago. In the 1990s, the recently deceased Bob Copper, an English folk singer, wrote a photo book called Across Sussex with Belloc which retraces the path that the Four Men took and the actual towns, houses, pubs and other sites which make up the enchanted countryside of the novel.
Tribute to Genius
So extensive was Belloc's literary harvest that it is impossible to touch on every aspect in a short survey. An essential part of his work has not been discussed—his Distributist writings on economics—to say nothing of his poetry, which Waugh considered his highest achievement. Nevertheless, the esteem with which he was regarded by his contemporaries provides some sense of his enduring value as a writer and thinker.
Following Belloc's death at age 82 on July 27, 1953, there was a generous acknowledgement of his place in English letters, not only on the part of Catholics but by major newspapers and the BBC. The Times said that Belloc "talked, argued, taught, with a mixture of gusto and sincere passion which, by itself, would have been enough to make the reputation of a less inexhaustible personality." The obituary in The Manchester Guardian acknowledged that there "was hardly any field of letters in which he had not won distinction, or more than distinction." A closing tribute comes from the Catholic publisher Douglas Woodruff, who knew and worked closely with Belloc:
The abounding health of body, mind and soul, the delight in activity, in walking and riding and, long continued, sailing, the love of friends, the eye for beauty in nature, the passionate interest... in the ways and habitats and affairs of men, and not least in their humbugs and pretences; all this pours into his writings from a full life outside, and much of it is the noble writing of grateful praise; it is Lauds.
Finally, as for the relationship of Belloc's religion to his writing, it formed a seamless garment:
His was a religion of positive affirmation, and few men have entered more fully and more articulately into life as a rich inheritance, of God's creation and God's plenty.
In addition to drawing on many of Belloc's original works for this essay, the author wishes to express his indebtedness to The Bellocian, newsletter of the Hilaire Belloc Society (edited by Dr. Grahame Clough), as an invaluable source of hard-to-find secondary material. For further information, readers can contact the Society at HilaireBelloc1@aol.com.
Matthew Anger is a freelance journalist who has written essays on history, philosophy and literature from a Catholic perspective. He lives with his wife and seven children in the Richmond, Virginia area, where he is employed as a web/multimedia designer. In addition to Seattle Catholic, he contributes to The Latin Mass and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.