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Is Belloc best forgotten?

The Catholic writer is nowadays neglected, but much of his writing is florid, dull and unreadable

By on Monday, 5 December 2011

I have had AN Wilson’s biography of Hilaire Belloc on my shelves for a long time now, and I have just got round to reading it. Belloc is one of those writers who exists on the periphery of my imagination. I have a very strong picture of him in my mind, and feel that I know quite a bit about him, but, apart from some of his verse, which I have come across in anthologies, I have never read anything substantial by Belloc.

This, in a way, sums up Belloc’s great success: he is a character everyone knows about, even without reading what he wrote; just as a lot of people know who Jeeves is without every having read a single book by PG Wodehouse. I have visited his grave, which is in the cemetery attached to the shrine church at West Grinstead in Sussex, and have been powerfully aware of this mighty beast in the Catholic jungle; my godfather was very much given to quoting the Cautionary Tales, which must be amongst the best comic verse in the language; I once lived with a priest who loved to preach on the subject of “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe”; and yet Belloc himself is nowadays neglected.

Mr Wilson’s excellent biography tells us why in terms that are rapidly understandable. Belloc was cursed with the necessity of making money all his life, and consequently wrote far too many books, most of which were hurried productions, indeed not written at all, but dictated. In this he sounds like that other most prolific author, Dame Barbara Cartland. Belloc could turn out a book in a week. He was a constant traveller too, and how he got any time to do any reading remains unclear. His history books are very thin on fact and solid research, and long on argument, and the arguments, one gets the impression, are repeated again and again.

Having read the biography I then searched my shelves for some Belloc books and found The Path to Rome – a book much recommended by the priest mentioned above. I hate to say this, but I find it utterly unreadable. It is florid, orotund, long-winded and just plain dull. Of course, that is a personal judgement. There may be some around still who love it. But it struck me as dated; and great literature never goes out of date.

I wonder if Belloc has any value nowadays apart from as a minor poet. Is he best forgotten? As Wilson makes clear, he was an obsessive character, and at least one of his obsessions is very embarrassing nowadays. Belloc’s reputation is overshadowed, as it was in his own lifetime, by his attitude to the Jews. He probably wasn’t an anti-Semite in the usual sense of the word, but much of what Wilson quotes leaves you feeling that Belloc really should have exercised more restraint and more Christian charity.

Belloc’s Wikipedia entry is remarkably favourable, especially on the charge of anti-Semitism, and it also introduces another matter that Wilson, who was writing in 1984, does not mention, namely Belloc’s writings about Islam. These sound interesting, and, unlike his ideas about Distributism, rather more in tune with our times. But, and it is a huge but, how much did Belloc really know about Islam or the Islamic world? He was certainly not short on opinions, but opinions that are not underpinned by real knowledge of a subject strike me as hollow.

One last thing: Wilson’s biography is sympathetic to Belloc, and it is hard not to like Belloc as a man. The Cautionary Tales, which can be read here, are the work of a merry kindly soul, even if Belloc himself was, as Wilson tells us, frequently melancholy.

 

  • http://twitter.com/thirstygargoyle Thirsty Gargoyle

    For what it’s worth, ‘Europe and the Faith’ has really value. His chapter on the Church in the Roman Empire is excellent, and his comments on the real effect of the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions on Europe in general and Britain in particular are highly perceptive. It took a long time before proper academics came along and put real scholarly meat on his largely intuitive bones, but the bones were his for all that.

  • http://twitter.com/Michael_Merrick Michael Merrick

    I’m not sure one can really talk of Belloc without mentioning the socio-economic analyses that have played a big part in his continuing legacy, both in contemporary politics (where his influence can be found amongst the two headline-grabbing movements on both left and right at the moment) and, to a lesser extent perhaps, across the pond. On that score he remains important reading, whilst the general ChesterBelloc oeuvre continues to be an important source of thought and inspiration for many a Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

  • Annie

    Do like Cautionary Tales. Can’t say he’d be on my list of books to save from a burning building.

  • Pastor in Valle

    Thank goodness! I have always felt guilty for not enjoying Belloc: at least I know I am not alone.

  • Guest

    Joseph Pearce’s book is better than Wilson’s.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Hardly an apt comparison with P G Wodehouse, still enjoyed by a vast readership. Though he too wrote too much.

  • David Lindsay

    Fr Ian Ker’s 2003 book, The Catholic Revival in English Literature, 1845-1961, describes Belloc’s The Path to Rome as “a minor classic”, but Belloc as “neither a major writer nor a figure of the intellectual stature of Newman or even Chesterton.”
     
    In fact, Belloc is one of the greatest of unsung prophets, unsung simply because anyone who did not know otherwise would see or hear his name and assume him to have been French. Belloc’s views on England’s and Britain’s proper relationship with the Continent and with Latin culture could not be more timely. Nor could be his subtle insights into Islam. And nor could be his trenchant critique both of capitalism and of state socialism, now that almost no one in the political or intellectual classes seems to remember that the Conservative, Liberal and Labour traditions all arose out of classically Christian critiques both of Whiggery and of Marxism. Furthermore, as Fr Ker points out, Belloc’s “verses for children” are “incomparable”. In this age of children’s literature’s prominence, those works are vital ancillaries in one of the great cultural battles in Anglophonia and beyond.
     
    All in all, so much for Belloc as “neither a major writer nor [comparatively speaking] a figure of intellectual stature.” But what of that which Fr Ker nevertheless has to say about him? That, too, gives the lie to any assertion about Belloc’s relative minority. On the contrary, Belloc’s analysis of the Reformation anticipates that of Duffy and Scarisbrick in our own time. His view of capitalism as a consequence of Protestantism in general and of Calvinism in particular is now widely shared, and probably always has been at an intuitive or popular level.
     
    That the rise of the absolutist State was a result of the Protestant, followed by the Catholic, princes’ casting off of the authority of Christendom, is an idea now attaining much wider prominence: the ‘sovereign State’ (its ‘sovereignty’ first princely, then popular) is a parody of the Body of Christ. If The Path to Rome is “a minor classic”, then The Servile State is surely a very major classic, of vast contemporary importance. And as for Belloc’s insights into the religious roots of all culture and conflict, one is left marvelling that his name is not on every lip in the present global situation.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I am moved to think that I am at one with the Pastor in Valle.

  • http://www.greenhornetlighting.com Green LED Buld

    Thank goodness! I’ve got generally believed remorseful intended for definitely
    not making the most of Bellow: at the very least I’m sure My business is not
    alone.

  • Roger Pearse

    May I dissent from your view on the “Path to Rome”?  You realise that any book will have its defender, although I am slightly surprised that it is me. 

    The reason that you were disappointed is that probably you were expecting a conventional travelogue, and to such an expectation, the book is a  vast disappointment.  I was very disappointed too, when I first read it, presuming that the material in it was mostly getting in the way of “the real story”.  Belloc deliberately did not write a travelogue, as the concluding sections make clear. 

    But in fact the journey is almost incidental, and the digressions are the meat of the book.  It is rather too self-conciously “literary”, but it does have real charm. 

    I have never been able to read any of the rest of his books, although complaining because he held views reflecting the time in which he lived isn’t something we should do (and you masterfully avoided much of this).  The PC orthodoxy of our own times has no claims to validity beyond being current in the times in which we live, after all.

  • Dwight Lindley

    I can sympathize with Fr. Smith’s sense of Belloc as too uncharitable in his view of the Jews, dated in some respects, etc., but to say that his ideas about Distributism are out of tune with the times is clearly false. Indeed, the distributist economic vision of The Servile State is one of the greatest influences on Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism, as well as Maurice Glassman’s Blue Labourism. If that’s not evidence of Belloc’s political-economic relevance, I don’t know what is.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Supposedly, Belloc insisted that the Soviet Union was a Jewish government.  That in itself should raise red flags. 

  • David Lindsay

    Why?

    Especially when combined with the intensely scholarly tradition of the Jews, it is almost impossible to overstate the impact on the world of the Jewish denial of Original Sin, and of unfulfilled Jewish Messianic hope and expectation.

    The former may not necessarily have originated, but has certainly contributed immeasurably, to the concept of the perfectibility of human nature in this life alone and by human efforts alone. Thus was the latter able to give the world Marx and Trotsky, Freud and Alinksy, Max Shachtman and Leo Strauss, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises, Zionism and the secular Turkish ultranationalism that goes back to the Donmeh (the ultimate in unfulfilled Jewish Messianic hope and expectation). This list is far from exhaustive.

    However radically, each of these is completed, perfected and transformed by, in, through and as the Messiah. As much as anything else, He necessarily turns them away from any purely temporal utopianism, a radical transformation indeed for most or all of them.

    Or else they become neoconservatism, a compendium of all of them, and the ultimate expression of the theory, utterly horrific in the consequences at which it always arrives eventually, that human nature can be perfected in this life alone and by its own efforts alone, since Jesus of Nazareth is not the Messiah promised by and to the Hebrew Prophets.

  • David Lindsay

    Quite so.

    Lord Glasman is a friend of mine and very Jewish, complete with the old London Jewish accent so little heard these days. Belloc and Chesterton are great influences on them, and he is a great influence on Ed Miliband, who is also Jewish. So much for the Chesterbelloc’s anti-Semitism.

  • Darrin Grove

    Thumbs up for Belloc!

  • Nat_ons

    ‘The Path to Rome is the product of the actual and genuine buoyancy and thoughtfulness of a rich intellect …. He will be a lucky man who can escape from that world of freezing folly into the flaming and reverberating folly of The Path to Rome.’ - G.K. Chesterton.
    If that is not reason enough for enduring one’s own discomfort ‘on a journey into himself and out of himself, a voyage of discovery in which Home and Exile are interwoven in a mystical dance of contemplation’ (Joseph Pearce, Author, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc) then there is little else to be said.

    Journeys, especially pilgrimages, are not meant to be uncomfortable today; they are meant to wrap around us like a blanket, limiting, yes, but not binding. Belloc, with all his obsession, seems to have understood the requirement for something like a buoyant discipleship in facing up to the tangled, contradictory and even discomforting character of a personal pilgrimage made in Christ. The irrelevant turns of his ‘Rome’ sigh out with this all too human – and therefore often dull, otiose, meandering – trudge through man’s flaming folly; not the book to take on a Beach Trip, then, being far from the ‘classic’ good read in any age; yet that is the essence of a challenge, and here Belloc is woefully neglected: as a proponent for the necessary change of heart, struggling against the world’s minimising, Job-type, comforts – in statu quo ante bellum.

  • Jason

    Would you please explain Leo Strauss? Why did you place Strauss in the same group as Marx, Freud, Alinsky et al.? I’m interested because Father James Schall recommends reading his work and I haven’t touched his work yet.

  • Patrick Mulvey

    The good father cites many objections to Belloc that have been around for decades.  I think this is an acceptable point of view.  He is a hero of mine for many reasons stated in some of the comments such as his critique over 100 years ago of the current Fascist-Capitalist State that has reduced the majority of citizens to vassals of the State; his prophecy of the reemergence of Islam – he understood historical dynamics and the importance of religion; and his thesis that Europe (including the UK) divorced from Catholicism has no unifying rationale and purpose.   All of these important points were made a century ago.  Compare him with the other seers of his era (HG Wells?) and you have to agree that it wasn’t prophetic gifts that proved him correct but a deep understanding of history, religion, culture and economics.   I would recommend Belloc’s ‘Characters of the Reformation’ for a politically incorrect and truthful  portrayal of the men and women who caused the the breakup of Europe – it wasn’t for the most part a search for religious truth that drove Europe to ‘reformation’ but rather a a triumph  7 Deadly Sins over the 7 Virtues.    

  • Darrin Grove

    Cursed his whole life to make money?
    Maybe that’s what sharpened his intuition that I find so much joy in. And more than that he can say as we do today that we are the 99%.

  • schmenz

    I do pity anyone who can read Belloc and not find immediately in his writings that true “sensus Catholicus” which is possessed by the finest Catholic minds.  I’m very much afraid Rev Lucie-Smith is one of those who is unable to perceive this great and good mind, so thoroughly, so completely Catholic. 

    Regarding Belloc’s historical perspective it is instructive to note that other historians shared his views nearly exactly while doing original research on their own. Hollis’ brilliant THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT comes immediately to mind. So, if one is going to dismiss Belloc’s view of history one has to be prepared to also dismiss a great deal of other men’s researches and works.

    No, Belloc will never go out of style because Catholicism will never go out of style, and when the Church finally abandons the idiocies brought forth by the modernists at Vatican 2 Belloc will be once again be seen as the prophet and brilliant thinker he is.

  • schmenz

     I agree that Pearce’s is better than Wilson’s, but neither of them really understood Belloc.

  • Couerdelion

    I personally found the Path to Rome to be a great read – one full of humour and good solid Faith.
    To the devil with those who think otherwise!

  • Darren

    I personally can’t understand the good Father’s lack of interest in Belloc.

    His “The Servile State” is a fascinating and eye-opening view on the ills of both Capitalism and Socialism and how they both lead ultimately to the same wretched state.

    His views on the destructive nature of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in England, have since gained more widespread acceptance, although he (like Chesterton) had been somewhat influenced by those like William Cobbett before him.

    To those unfamiliar with Belloc’s style he may come across at first as vocal and opinionated…but I find that approach very refreshing as it displays his undoubted passion for the faith of our fathers and the building of Europe (which is rapidly being torn down), and free from politically-correct language.

  • Yasha Renner

    My dear friend,

    My message to you is simply this: Read Belloc! Read everything he ever wrote.

  • Matthew

    Read a man named Robert Speaight’s biography for a deeper insight. It may show you the difference between a biography written sympathetically by a man who shared an era with his subject and one who did not. Could A.N. WIlson, as a person, really “feel together” with someone with a personality like Hilaire Belloc’s? Try reading “Charles I” or “James I” for Belloc at his best. He seems to have attacked Nazism and anti-semitism in “The Catholic and the War” (1940). Also I would be tempted to ask anyone questioning Mr. Belloc’s right to an opinion about Islam if he or she had visited North Africa (or any Islamic area) and observed the Islamic culture there first hand like Mr. Belloc did.