Paul Ross surveys the life of Hilaire Belloc, who died 50 years ago this week
Almighty God will surely cry, "St Michael! Who is this that stands With Ireland in his dubious eye, And Perigord between his hands...
And in his mouth Burgundian songs, But in his heart the Pyrenees?"
St Michael then will answer right (And not without angelic shame), "I seem to know his face by sight: I cannot recollect his name..."
His name was Hilaire Belloc, and this was how he foresaw his arrival in Heaven, He had good reason to feel sure of reaching there, for no other man of our time, as his friend Chesterton said, "fought so consistently for the good things". Though he loved life, and lived it to the full, Heaven was never far from his thoughts. "Belloc really loved the Church, the institution," wrote Frank Sheed. "More than any other man, he made the English-speaking Catholic world."
"He will be remembered," said Mgr Knox, "as a great master of English prose, as a satirist to be mentioned in the same breath as Swift and Moliere, as a historian who had the rare quality of making the past live." Many critics claimed that not only his prose but his poetry too was among the finest written in the 20th century. Edward Shanks described him as "the greatest writer of English ,prose since Dryden".
He wrote more than 150 books. "A library of books, all of them by Belloc," stated Douglas Woodruff, "is a liberal education, about Europe and its history, about cities and countrysides and men." He wrote all sorts of poems, novels, biographies, histories, essays. He wrote about economics, politics, religion, sociology, travel. He wrote books entitled On Anything, On Everything, On Nothing and even On. "For 50 years he stormed through English life and letters," said Sir Desmond McCarthy, "like an express train through a quiet country station."
Hilaire Belloc was born in La Celle St Cloud, 12 miles from Paris, on 27 July 1870. His mother Bessie Parkes, an English convert, was the daughter of a Birmingham solicitor. His father, a banister, was half-French and half-Irish — his mother being one of the Swantons, Irish Protestants from Co Cork. And so English, French and Irish blood flowed, and often boiled, in Belloc's veins.
Soon after his father's death, his mother returned to London with him and her only other child, Marie. Five years later she lost most of her inheritance, £20,000, through her stockbroker's rash speculations. She was obliged to sell her London house and rent a smaller one near Arundel in Sussex. Hilaire was sent to the school attached to the Birmingham Oratory of Cardinal Newman, the first great English figure he was to know — by the boys' nickname of Jack.
His long wandering life began when he left this school at 17. First he spent some months at a Marist College in Paris, with a view to joining the French navy. Next he returned to Sussex and worked for a while on a farm. Then he spent another few months in an architect's office in London.
It was in London too, when he was 19, that he met and fell in love with Elodie Hogan, an Irish-American girl, who was on a pilgrimage to Rome with her mother. Both her parents were Irish emigrants. Belloc soon raised enough money to follow her to California, where he wanted her to marry him at once, but her mother opposed this.
On returning home, Belloc, still a French citizen, went to France for a year to do his military service. Then in 1893, with a history scholarship and some financial help from his sister, he went to Oxford for foUr years. He excelled at Balliol and began his brilliant career as an orator at the Oxford Union, Confident of getting an Oxford Fellowship —
which would have given him a secure income — he returned to America to marry Elodie, in Napa, California, in 1896. He came back to live in Oxford, but failed to get a Fellowship because, so he said, of his militant Catholicism. It was a bitter disappointment, one he felt keenly for the rest of his life.
While still at Oxford he published his first two books, a collection of poems and a life of Denton. He was now forced to earn his living by coaching undergraduates, lecturing, journalism and writing books. In 1900 he moved to Chelsea in London, where he lived for five years. That same year he first met GK
Chesterton, with whom his name will always be linked. Their friend GB Shaw did so when he called them Chesterbelloc. The following year he went on a pilgrimage, by foot, from Tout, in northern France, to Rome, He kept a diary of his journey and entitled it The Path to Rome. It soon became a classic and his best known work, He left London in 1906 and bought an old house, King's Land, and a farm of 50 acres at Shipley in Sussex. It was to he his home for nearly 50 years. Here he entertained his many friends and returned to rest from his travels. He had a little chapel upstairs where Mass was often celebrated.
Entering politics in 1906, he was elected MP for Salford, first as a Liberal and then as an Independent. During his election campaign he said, "Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that he has spared me the indignity of being your representative."
But it was Belloc instead who rejected politics four years later, completely disillusioned with the parliamentary system. He never lost this contempt for party politics. With Cecil Chesterton, GK's brother, he now published The Party System and started a weekly paper, The Eye-Witness, to expose the evils of party politics. At the same time, in another
famous book, The Servile State, he warned that the country's freedom was also in danger from the capitalist economic system. As a remedy for the twin evils of capitalism and communism he advocated the ownership of widely distributed private property among the people. His wife's death, at the age of 42, in 1914, when he was only 43, was the greatest sorrow of his life. He mourned her for the 40 years he lived after her, and always wore black clothes afterwards. They had five children, three boys and two girls, Eleanor and Elizabeth. His eldest son, Louis, an airman, was killed in the First World War, and his youngest son, Peter, died in the Second World War. His other son, Hilary, an engineer, emigrated to America.
Now a British citizen, Belloc offered his services with the British Army during the First World War, but was not accepted. He had to content himself instead with writing weekly articles on the military situation. These were widely read and made his name even better known. He was invited to No. 10 Downing St, visited the French GHQ in France and met most of the British and French leaders. He was now earning more money than ever before, but he never saved it. He loved the good things of life — good food and wine, good company and travel. He imported barrels of wine from France and bottled it himself — at a time, before 1914, when table wine cost only 4d a bottle! On one occasion he helped his neighbour, Sir Winston Churchill, to bottle his wine.
His Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine, a memorial to the Catholic faith and Latin civilization, is his masterpiece. "For most people," said Robert Speaight, "it will stand as Belloc's monument; the quintessence of a European mind."
It was for his poetry that he hoped to be remembered. His total output was small, compared with his prose. Some of his best verses were written for children. Among them is his wonder
ful 'Tarantella", which begins: "Do you remember an Inn, Miranda?"
But if, regrettably, Belloc left us too little poetry, he wrote an enormous amount of prose — which Maurice Baring compared to "the mellow tones of a beautifully played cello". It was when he used his great prose style in re-writing history that he really fell foul of the Establishment in Britain and its official historians. "Ever since the Reformation the attack on the Faith has been principally conducted in the field of history," he wrote, "The time has come for us to take the counter-offensive; for with the expansion of historical knowledge, history is now with us." He counterattacked with a succession of brilliant works on great English and French figures like Cranmer, Elizabeth, Wolsey, Richelieu, Charles I, Robespierre and Milton, He said his life of Cromwell was one of the books he was most proud to have written, for "Cromwell was a man on whom official English history has lied more freely than on anybody else".
The Establishment's academic historians deeply resented him, of course, and smeared him as much as they could, But "when the history of history comes to be written," said Mgr Knox, "Belloc will be vindicated." In 1934 Pope Pius XI made him a Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great for his services to the Church as a writer.
until Belloc's time the Catholics in England were despised as an inferior, anti-national clique. "Into this group of rather timid Catholics Belloc strode with the supreme confidence of youth and unfaltering conviction," wrote Reginald Jebb. "He went straight to the attack, denouncing those who through greed had organised the change of religion and pouring scorn on the historians who had shaped history to conceal the plunder. The effect upon English Catholics of this turning of the tables against those who had oppressed them was profound. They were filled with a new confidence and began to develop a new outlook."
Yet much as Belloc loved England, especially Sussex, his Catholicism was Irish. He estimated that threequarters of the Catholics in Britain were of Irish origin; the rest were converts and old Catholic families. His son-in-law said "he had a profound admiration, and love of the Irish people".
He was forever travelling, by land and sea. He walked all over Europe even as far as Moscow. He loved the sea and sailing, in his yacht the Nona. He loved singing too, particularly French marching songs. But above all he loved talking. JB Morton recalled that "he would talk,
hour after hour ... the best talk I ever heard." No wonder Chesterton said that "Belloc in low spirits was better company than anyone else in high spirits".
His lectures were equally brilliant. "I have heard many brilliant talkers," wrote Maisie Ward, but none as good as Belloc. "He takes you off your feet, he leaves you breathless, he can convince you of anything," Yet for all his exuberance and love of life, he was a melancholy man — "by the very circumstance," said Mgr Knox, "of being continually at issue with the society in which he lived." After a stroke and a serious illness in 1941, his memory and powers of concentration began to fail and he wrote no more. But he lived on for another 12 years, in retirement in his Sussex home. It was as a result of an accident there that he died on 16 July 1953, aged 83. Archbishop Cowderoy spoke at his funeral in the little country churchyard at West Grinstead, Sussex, where he is buried; and a few days later Mgr Knox preached a panegyric at a Requiem Mass for him in Westminster Cathedral, with Cardinal Griffin presiding.
"He wasn't merely a genius," said Max Beerbohm, "he was a man of many geniuses."