Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was an Anglo-French writer and historian who became a naturalised British subject in 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He was known as a writer, orator, poet, satirist, man of letters and political activist. He is most notable for his Catholic faith, which had a strong impact on most of his works and his writing collaboration with G. K. Chesterton. He was President of the Oxford Union and later MP for Salford from 1906 to 1910. He was a noted disputant, with a number of long-running feuds, but also widely regarded as a humane and sympathetic man.
His most lasting legacy is probably his verse, which encompasses cautionary tales and religious poetry. Among his best-remembered poems are Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion and Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death.
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. Much of his boyhood was spent in Slindon, West Sussex, for which he often felt homesick in later life. This is evidenced in poems such as, "West Sussex Drinking Song", "The South Country", and even the more melancholy, "Ha'nacker Hill".
His mother Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829–1925) was also a writer, and a great-granddaughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. In 1867 she married attorney Louis Belloc, son of the French painter Jean-Hilaire Belloc. 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.
After being educated at John Henry Newman's 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.
After his military service, Belloc proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as a History scholar. He went on to obtain first class honours in History, and never lost his love for Balliol, as is illustrated by his verse, "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me/ Whatever I had she gave me again".
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 the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. In 1896, he married Elodie Hogan, an American. In 1906 he purchased land and a house called King's Land at Shipley, West Sussex where he brought up his family and lived until shortly before his death. Elodie and Belloc had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. After her death, Belloc wore mourning for the remainder of his life, keeping her room exactly as she had left it.
His son Louis was killed in 1918 while serving in the Royal Flying Corps in northern France. Belloc placed a memorial tablet in the Cathedral at nearby Cambrai. It is in the same side chapel as the noted icon, Our Lady of Cambrai.
Belloc suffered a stroke in 1941 and never recovered from its effects. He died on 16 July 1953 in Guildford, Surrey, following a fall he had at King's Land. He is buried at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation of West Grinstead, where he had regularly attended Mass as a parishioner. At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."
An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, being President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. He went into politics after he became a naturalised British subject. A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford in 1895. This failure may have been caused in part by his producing a small statue of the Virgin and placing it before him on the table during the interview for the fellowship.
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. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.
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 fell short of money.
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, 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 Union. He held his own in debates there with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend.
He was at his most effective in the 1920s, on the attack against H. G. Wells's Outline of History, in which he criticized Wells' secular bias and his belief in evolution by means of natural selection, a theory that Belloc asserted had been completely discredited. 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." Wells responded with a small book, Mr. Belloc Objects. Not to be outdone, Belloc followed with, "Mr. Belloc Still Objects."
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.
His style during later life fulfilled the nickname he received in childhood, Old Thunder. Belloc's friend, Lord Sheffield, described his provocative personality in a preface to The Cruise of the Nona.
In Belloc's novel of travel, The Four Men, the title characters supposedly represent different facets of the author's personality. One of the four improvises a playful song at Christmastime, which includes the verse:
'May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me,
And may all my enemies go to hell!
Noel! Noel! Noel! Noel!
May all my enemies go to hell!
The other characters regard the verse as fairly gauche and ill-conceived, so while part of Belloc may have agreed with this song, it is not necessarily representative of Belloc's personality as a whole.
During his later years, he would sail when he could afford to do so. He became a well known yachtsman. He won many races and was in the French sailing team. In the early 1930s, he was given an old Jersey pilot cutter called Jersey. He sailed this for some years around the coasts of England, with the help of younger men. One of them, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about his time on the water with Belloc, called Sailing with Mr Belloc.
Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, from warfare to poetry to the many current topics of his day. He has been called one of the Big Four of Edwardian Letters, along with H.G.Wells
, George Bernard Shaw, and G. K. Chesterton
, all of whom debated with each other into the 1930s. Belloc was closely associated with Chesterton, and Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.
Asked once why he wrote so much, he responded, "Because my children are howling for pearls and caviar." Belloc observed that "The first job of letters is to get a canon," that is, to identify those works which a writer looks upon as exemplary of the best of prose and verse. For his own prose style, he claimed to aspire to be as clear and concise as "Mary had a little lamb."
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. More than a mere travelogue, "The Path to Rome" contains descriptions of the people and places he encountered, his drawings in pencil and in ink of the route, humor, poesy, and the reflections of a large mind turned to the events of his time as he marches along his solitary way. At every turn, Belloc shows himself to be profoundly in love with Europe and with the Faith that he claims has produced it.
As an essayist he was one of a small, admired and dominant group (with Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and Robert Lynd) of popular writers.
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 an implausible moral, beautifully illustrated by Basil Blackwood and later by Edward Gorey, 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. A 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. 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 ...
Of more weight are Belloc's Sonnets and Verses, a volume that deploys the same singing and rhyming techniques of his children's verses. Belloc's poetry is often religious, often romantic; throughout The Path to Rome he writes in spontaneous song.
History, politics, economics
Three of his best-known non-fiction works are The Servile State (1912), Europe and Faith (1920) and The Jews (1922).
From an early age Belloc knew Cardinal Henry Edward 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 capitalism and of many aspects of socialism.
With others (G. K. Chesterton, Cecil Chesterton, Arthur Penty) Belloc had envisioned the socioeconomic system of distributism. In The Servile State, written after his party-political career had come to end, and other works, he criticized the modern economic order and parliamentary system, advocating distributism in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. Belloc made the historical argument that distributism was not a fresh 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. He called for the dissolution of Parliament and its replacement with committees of representatives for the various sectors of society, an idea that was also popular among Fascists, under the name of corporatism. But original corporatism, sometimes called "paleo-corporatism", was a system that predates capitalism and fascism. Paleo-corporatism was based around the guilds of the Middle Ages and served to appoint legislators. Neo-corporatism is a fascist system that merges the state with the capitalistic corporations and the corporations then are directed by the state, under nominal private ownership. Belloc's views fit medieval paleo-corporatism rather than neo-corporatist fascism.
With these linked themes in the background, he wrote a long series of contentious biographies of historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Napoleon. They show him as an ardent proponent of orthodox Catholicism and a critic of many elements of the modern world.
Outside academe, Belloc was impatient with what he considered to be axe-grinding histories, especially what he called "official history." Joseph Pearce notes also Belloc's attack on the secularism of H.G. Wells's popular Outline of History:
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.
He wrote also substantial amounts of military history. In alternative history, he contributed to the 1931 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by Sir John Squire.
One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; this sums up his strongly held, orthodox Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them. Those views 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.
As a young man, Belloc lost his faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, and which returned him to and confirmed him in his Catholicism for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a passage in The Cruise of the Nona. According to his biographer A.N. Wilson (Hilaire Belloc, Hamish Hamilton), Belloc never wholly apostatized from the Faith . The momentous event is fully described by Belloc in The Path to Rome (. It took place in the French village of Undervelier at the time of Vespers. Belloc said of it, "not without tears", "I considered the nature of Belief" and "it is a good thing not to have to return to the faith".
Belloc's Catholicism was uncompromising. He believed that the Catholic Church provided hearth and home for the human spirit. More humorously, his tribute to Catholic culture can be understood from his well-known saying, "Wherever the Catholic sun does shine, there's always laughter and good red wine." He had a disparaging view of the Church of England, and used sharp words to describe heretics, such as, "Heretics all, whoever you may be/ In Tarbes or Nimes or over the sea/ You never shall have good words from me/ Caritas non conturbat me". Indeed, in his "Song of the Pelagian Heresy" he becomes quite strident, describing how the Bishop of Auxerre, "with his stout Episcopal staff/ So thoroughly thwacked and banged/ The heretics all, both short and tall/ They rather had been hanged".
Belloc's 1937 book The Crusades: the World's Debate, he wrote,
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 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.
Since the Crusaders missed that chance, Islam survived and eventually overwhelmed the Crusader bridgehead in the Middle East. For Belloc this was not a matter of old history: Islam continued to pose a threat. He 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 Islam's] religious certitudes still strong throughout the Mohammedan world lies our peril.
In The Great Heresies (1938), Belloc argues that, although, "That Mohammedan culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it—whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it."
At the time of his writing, the Islamic world was still largely under the rule of the European colonial powers and the threat to Britain was from Fascism and Nazism. Belloc, however, considered that Islam was permanently intent on destroying the Christian faith, as well as the West, which Christendom had built. In The Great Heresies, Belloc grouped the Protestant Reformation together with Islam as one of the major heresies threatening the "Universal Church".
Belloc cited the many beliefs and theological principles which Islam shares with Catholicism. For Belloc, the common ground includes the unity and the omnipotence, personal nature, all-goodness, timelessness and 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, and the Lady Miriam (Mary) as the first among womenkind—and exactly which, in Belloc's view, identify it as a heresy: where Islam decisively diverges from Catholicism (and Christianity in general) is the "denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it"—with Islam regarding Jesus as a merely human Prophet.
Accusations of anti-Semitism
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.
There are a number of grounds on which the accusations of anti-semitism have been based. From his days in politics onwards, he repeatedly demonstrated a belief that Jewish people had significant control over society and the world of finance. In The Cruise of the Nona, Belloc reflected equivocally on the Dreyfus Affair after thirty years. Norman Rose's book The Cliveden Set (2000) poses the question of whether Nancy Astor, a friend of Belloc's in the 1930s until they broke over religious matters, was influenced by him against Jews in general.
On the other hand, 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.
Robert Speaight cited a letter by Belloc in which he pilloried Nesta Webster because of her accusations against "the Jews". In February 1924, Belloc wrote to an American Jewish friend regarding an allegedly anti-Semitic book by Webster. Webster had rejected Christianity, studied Eastern religions, accepted the Hindu concept of the equality of all religions and was fascinated by theories of reincarnation and ancestral memory. Belloc expressed his views very clearly:
In my opinion it is a lunatic book. She is one of those people who have got one cause on the brain. It is the good old 'Jewish revolutionary' bogey. But there is a type of unstable mind which cannot rest without morbid imaginings, and the conception of a single cause simplifies thought. With this good woman it is the Jews, with some people it is the Jesuits, with others Freemasons and so on. The world is more complex than that.
Speaight also points out that when faced with anti-Semitism in practice—as at elitist country clubs in America before World War II—he voiced his disapproval. Belloc condemned Nazi 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.
Dennis Barton has defended Belloc at length. He notes that Belloc condemned wild accusations against the Jews, in his own book, The Jews. Belloc's open praises for the Jews is further evidence that his anti-Semitism, to the degree that it existed, stemmed rather from unexamined cultural or personal prejudices than from conscious hostility to the Jews.
Belloc grew up in Slindon and spent most of his life in the county. He always wrote of Sussex as if it were the the crown of England and the western Sussex Downs the jewel in that crown. He loved Sussex to the point of idolatry as the place where he was brought up and as his spritual home. Belloc wrote several works about Sussex including Ha'nacker Mill, The South Country, the travel guide Sussex (1906) and The County of Sussex (1936). One of his best-known works relating to Sussex is The Four Men: a Farrago (1911) in which the four characters, each aspects of Belloc's personality, travel on a pilgrimage across the county from Robertsbridge in the far east to Harting in the far west. The work has influenced others including Sussex folk musician Bob Copper, who retraced Belloc's steps in the 1980s. Belloc was also a lover of Sussex songs and wrote lyrics for some songs which have since been put to music. Belloc is remembered in an annual celebration in Sussex, known as Belloc Night, that takes place on the writer's birthday, 27 July, in the manner of Burns Night in Scotland. The celebration includes reading from Belloc's work and partaking of a bread and cheese supper with pickles.
In the media
Stephen Fry has recorded an audio collection of Belloc's children's poetry.
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, a founder of Pink Floyd, was a fan. His song "Matilda Mother" was drawn directly from verses in Cautionary Tales, and was rewritten when Belloc's estate refused permission to record them. The Belloc version has been released on a 40th anniversary reissue of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.