Hilaire Belloc: The Politics of Living
‘When I am dead, I hope it may be said: “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”’ When Hilaire Belloc penned his own epitaph he still had three decades of life ahead of him with little reason to worry seriously about posterity. Reading those words now in the seventieth anniversary year of his passing, they still amuse but seem far from prophetic. Of the more than 150 books he wrote, almost none are in print by mainstream publishers. Other than a dedicated following among Catholic traditionalists, he is read mostly for his Cautionary Tales for Children and some anthologised verse. As for the sins that have sullied Belloc’s reputation, the least pardonable is his anti-Semitism.
Belloc has found admirable biographers in the likes of A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce and Chris Hare does not attempt in this persuasively reasoned study a further retelling of his life. Instead, he approaches his subject thematically. Through a series of discreet but related essays we are presented with critical reflections on Belloc’s private thoughts and public writings on a range of matters. Thus we have Belloc on religion, on politics, on war and peace, on mortality and, inescapably, on Jews. There is also an insightful interpretation of Belloc’s picaresque novel The Four Men.
A powerful motif across the chapters is Belloc the eternal outsider. Born in France but raised in Britain, he was at home and a stranger in both countries. As a young volunteer in the French military his fellow soldiers referred to him as ‘the Englishman’. Fiercely proud of his adopted home in the English south coast county of Sussex his Franco-Catholicism set him apart from its rustic folk. There was an element of self-sabotage about his situation. He privately supped at the tables of a social elite he publicly affected to despise. For all his desire for belonging, his restlessness took him on long travels far from his neglected family.
In a sharply perceptive chapter, Hare shows how Belloc was not even entirely at one with the Catholic Church of which he was such a staunch apologist. His was a religion less of intellectual doctrine than felt sentiment, especially in the ritual of the sacrament. For all his faith in Catholicism as the foundation of Western civilisation, Belloc had an abiding fascination with paganism. It was more than passing sentiment that caused him while sailing off the south coast of England to rhapsodise about ‘The Holy Moon’.
That veneration of the natural world pervades the most revered of Belloc’s novels, The Four Men. The tale of a quartet of travellers who make their way on foot across Sussex, is, as Hare observes, a celebration of a landscape threatened by change. In reconnecting with their home county, the wanderers are imbued with a sense of belonging planted deep in its chalky soil. Hare includes a quotation from Belloc that again alludes to a spiritual belief system unbound by orthodox Catholicism: ‘if a man is part of and is rooted in one steadfast piece of earth, which has nourished him and given him his being, and if he can on his side lend it glory and do it service, it will be a friend to him for ever, and he has outflanked Death in a way.’
Did Belloc’s mourning of a landscape and way of life being lost to time make him a reactionary or a radically forward thinker? Hare deftly teases out the contradictions of his subject, showing how he can be read in different ways. Take his lamentation for a South Downs ceding to tourism, urbanisation and commercial farming. ‘Which of us could have thought, when we wandered, years ago, in the full peace of summer Weald, or through the sublime void of the high Downs, that the things upon which we had been nourished since first we could take joy in the world would be thus rapidly destroyed in our own time, dying even before we ourselves die?’ That utterance could have come as easily from a contemporary environmentalist as an Edwardian curmudgeon. Yet there is no sense in its fatalism that Belloc anticipated the conservationist agenda of our own era in a way true of fellow authors such as W. H. Hudson whose wandering across the South Downs also led him to warn of a disappearing countryside.
As for his own passing, Hare suggests Belloc retained a sense of humour and stoicism as he neared death. Some of the testimonies included in the book possibly imply otherwise. Such is true of a statement made by early biographer J. B. Morton who witnessed in person the way that Belloc ‘when trapped into exposing his deeper feelings, regained his balance, as it were, before you had noticed what happened.’ Belief in an eternal life did not entirely reconcile Belloc to the grief that came from the early death of his wife Elodie and the sacrifice of a son to each of the World Wars.
If, as Hare argues, Belloc can still at times sound modern, then he was in other respects on the wrong side of history. His regressive attitude towards women’s rights, not discussed in the pages of the book, is a case in point. So too most obviously is his anti-Semitism. Hare is admirably dispassionate in his assessment, setting out the cases for both the prosecution and defence and allowing the reader to reach their own decision. The book does not hold back in detailing Belloc’s infatuation with Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Belloc gushed over Il Duce’s ‘excellent experiment’ in governance, proclaiming it a successful defence of a European civilisation otherwise crumbling into decline and ruin. Instrumental in that collapse were, in Belloc’s mind, the ‘international financiers’ of no national affiliation who conspired to cause scandals and wars for their own commercial profit. Hare could also have mentioned Belloc’s insistence on the guilt of Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus decades after the French government had overturned his notorious conviction for treason. On the side of the defence is the fact that Belloc was an early and outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler’s regime in Germany. Here Hare wisely reminds us of A. N. Wilson’s observation that there was a wilful blindness towards the affinities between Nazi political doctrine and his own prejudices.
Hilaire Belloc: The Politics of Living is an astute and highly readable study that illuminates its subject in all his complexities. What it may lack in original research it more than compensates for in the suppleness and depth of its analysis.
Clive Webb is Professor of Modern American History at the University of Sussex. His book Vietdamned: How the World’s Greatest Minds Put America on Trial, will be published by Profile Books.
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