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 But it struck me as dated; and great literature never goes out of date.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.