Hilaire Belloc: Personality and Paradox

Philip B. Newman

Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a man of paradoxes–which is perfectly appropriate, given that he was one of the best friends of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), famous for his use of paradoxical observations in confounding the conventional wisdom of his time. Belloc was an Englishman who was also half-French; a pensive poet, novelist, and historian with well over one hundred books to his credit who also vociferously represented the Liberal Party in Parliament; an anti-imperialist who had served in the French army and wrote an admiring biography of Napoleon; a defender of medieval civilization who was an avid consumer of modern technological gadgetry; the defender par excellence of Catholic tradition who happened to descend from a family that counted radicals, deists, and modernist reformers among its members.

Hilaire Belloc’s was a household name in the Britain of his time, and he was–along with Sir Winston Churchill–one of only two men to have their portraits in the National Gallery during their own lifetimes. He was a hero not only to many of his friends and peers, but to younger writers like Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis. Yet his posthumous reputation has suffered much, unlike that of his friend Chesterton. Furthermore, Belloc, where he is known at all anymore, is often unfortunately caricatured today as a rigid, bitter archconservative reactionary, hankering after England’s lost medieval past. Statements like “[i]t was the disruption of Catholic unity in Europe [i.e. the Reformation] which let in all the evils from the extreme of which we now suffer and are in peril of dissolution,” as he wrote in his 1937 The Crisis of Civilization, sometimes lead readers to a false impression of Belloc’s true outlook.

Several now-obscure memoirs written as tributes by his family and friends in the years after Belloc’s death in 1953 offer us a glimpse into some of the lesser-known aspects of his personality and character. In these we see a personality that hardly lends itself to easy categorization. We encounter a Belloc who is not the last ember to die of a fading European Catholic worldview, but one who spent his life championing the rescue of civilization through recovery of essential Catholic values. “Break the conventions; keep the commandments,” Chesterton once wrote. Like his friend, Belloc had no interest in preserving tradition for tradition’s sake. Rather, he sought to revive, cultivate, and preserve those Catholic values that offered the answer to what seemed to him the increasingly bleak visage of Victorian and Edwardian England’s future. The origins of the social evils of his time, Belloc believed, could be discovered by the study of history. He defined the Reformation as

“the disruption of our society and the sowing of those seeds which were later to threaten our very existence: the independence of each separate province of Christendom from the rest; the denial of any common moral authority over them; the affirmation of the Sovereign State, owing allegiance to none and free to destroy any of its fellows, and open itself to a similar fate without appeal; the destruction of cooperative social life and the growing tyranny of wealth.” [The Crisis of Civiliation]

Early Life

Hilaire Belloc’s elder sister and only sibling, Marie Belloc Lowndes, herself a noted essayist and novelist, left us the most comprehensive account of her brother’s childhood and early adult life in The Young Hilaire Belloc: Some Records of Youth and Middle Age, published posthumously in 1956. The book is just one of several personal memoirs about Belloc that appeared within a few years of his death.

Among the most bizarre aspects of Belloc’s personal history is the quite colorful cast of characters who made up his genealogy. The famed champion of Catholicism and outspoken defender of Europe’s ancient Catholic heritage was the great-great grandson of none other than Joseph Priestley, the eighteenth-century English-American scientist, discoverer of oxygen, inventor of carbonated water, French revolutionary sympathizer and proto-Unitarian rationalist, who died in the Pennsylvania countryside in 1804 after fleeing England for his radical political views. Hilaire Belloc, who was himself born in a village near Paris with the assistance of a Quaker midwife, was also the grandson of Louise Swanton Belloc, a woman who would have stood out of the crowd even today. While his grandmother was “a fervent Christian and practicing Catholic,” according to Marie Belloc Lowndes, she “had met almost all the outstanding people in the intellectual and literary worlds in France and in England . . . she was the first writer to translate Dickens into French, and her translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was still in print in 1914.” Louise Belloc once lamented that she wished to have met the eccentric nineteenth-century feminist writer George Sand, famous for her illicit relationship with Frederic Chopin. But as Madame Belloc once tactfully related to her daughter, “I did not think it compatible with my duty to my daughters.”

Hilaire Belloc’s mother, Bessie Rayner Belloc, was born a Unitarian, but converted to Catholicism two years before her marriage to the French painter, Louis Belloc, who became crippled after a serious illness he suffered in his late twenties. Before her reception into the Church, Bessie had attended Mass every Sunday for nine years, and had once visited Cardinal Manning for advice on her conversion. It was a constant source of irritation to her that many of her contemporaries assumed she had entered the Church at the time of her marriage.

Hilaire Belloc’s mother once said that she hoped her son would become a painter like his father, but this was not to be. In his twenties, however, Belloc did trade sketches for food and lodging when he hitchhiked his way from Europe all the way to Napa Valley, California to ask the hand of Elodie Hogan in marriage. Elodie, who had met and captivated Belloc while on a trip to England, was considering a vocation to the convent and refused him after she got over the shock of seeing him at her door thousands of miles from the place they had met, but eventually changed her mind. After giving birth to a fifth son, Elodie died at Belloc’s country estate, “King’s Land,” at the age of forty-two. Belloc never recovered from her death, which he regarded as the greatest tragedy of his life. When Elodie’s body was removed from the room in which she died, Belloc sealed the room, never to reopen it. Each time he passed the room he made the sign of the cross on the door. Until his death he wore nothing but black–and had his stationery printed with a black border–in perpetual mourning.

The “Chesterbelloc”

Belloc is today probably known best for his close friendship and collaboration with Gilbert Keith Chesterton, who wrote admiringly in his autobiography that “Belloc is an English poet, but a French soldier.” The two men were so closely associated in their own time that their contemporary George Bernard Shaw referred to them as the “Chesterbelloc,” half-jokingly calling this two-headed personality “a conspiracy” of the intellectual and political kind. Chesterton, who had gone to art school as a young man before embarking upon his career as a journalist, often provided the illustrations for Belloc’s satirical novels. Belloc’s daughter recalled how the two men would sit together in the dining room of Belloc’s home for hours, smoking cigars as the laughter (or Chesterton’s high-pitched “giggle”) would drift through the closed door. Belloc would describe scenes and characters from his novel-in-progress while Chesterton sketched his fanciful illustrations on the spot.

Chesterton’s biographer Maisie Ward writes of the first meeting between the two men, when Belloc was thirty years old and Chesterton just twenty-six. “Belloc opened the conversation by saying in his most pontifical manner, ‘Chesterton, you wr-r-ite very well’” (Belloc’s distinctive French pronunciation of the letter “r” amid his otherwise English accent was an idiosyncrasy commented upon by many of his friends, and can be heard in a British Library recording Belloc made of his song “Miranda” around 1932).

Maisie Ward records Chesterton’s own recollection of his first meeting with Belloc:

“When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else’s high spirits. He talked into the night, and left behind in it a glowing track of good things. When I have said that I mean things that are good, and certainly not merely bons mots, I have said all that can be said in the most serious aspect about the man who has made the greatest fight for good things of all the men of my time.”

The two men became famous as collaborators when they advocated the Catholic economic philosophy of Distributism around 1910. This is undoubtedly one of the things Chesterton had in mind when he referred to Belloc’s fight “for good things of all the men of my time.” Distributism, while never aiming to be a completely practical philosophy, but rather an ideal better approximated than left completely unrealized, sought to counter the influence of the banks that Belloc so despised for their growing power, and to return the means of production to the hands of laborers, farmers, and artisans. Distributism was based on human dignity, not socialism, and was partly outlined by Belloc during the 1920s in his work The Restoration of Property, while he warned of the dangers that threatened in his book The Servile State. “I doubt heavily that it is possible to plant successfully even the small seedlings of economic freedom in our society, here, in England, today,” Belloc wrote in The Restoration of Property, but added that if things did not change, “our industrial society must necessarily end in the restoration of slavery. The choice lies between property on the one hand and slavery, public or private, on the other. There is no third issue.”

Academia, Politics, and Apologetics

After Belloc graduated from Oxford, where he studied history, he failed to win a fellowship to pursue further study and the life of a professor, despite his exemplary academic performance. All the rest of his life he maintained that he had been denied this prize because of his Catholic faith, and held a grudge against the English academic world as a result. It is possible that Belloc’s outspokenness and “take no prisoners” approach to argument was an obstacle to his academic advancement, however. This personality trait is illustrated by one of his most often quoted statements, from his campaign for Parliament from a largely Methodist district while in his mid-thirties. “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic,” Belloc defiantly declared during a public meeting, against the advice of his managers. “As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [pulling his rosary from a pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I go down on my knees and tell these beads each 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!”

“Belloc was skeptical by temperament,” wrote his friend J.B. Morton in Hilaire Belloc, A Memoir (1955). “He did not accept the Catholic Faith because it was a comforting belief, but because he was convinced that it was the Truth. His reason had won what Pascal calls its greatest victory, the surrender to reality.” Belloc’s resulting intellectual self-confidence more than once offended the more mild-mannered of his time. Morton explains that “it will no doubt surprise many who have read or been told that he, in his championship of the Faith, was invariably arrogant and intolerant—it will surprise them to hear that he disliked and despised violent methods as a means of convincing an opponent. Logical argument, close-knit, was his weapon.”

The Lighter Side

“With children Belloc was usually popular,” wrote his daughter Eleanor Belloc and her husband Reginald Jebb in Testimony to Hilaire Belloc (1956). “He fascinated them by doing surprising and delectable things, such as carrying them off at bedtime in their dressing-gowns to look at the moon through a big telescope, or making realistic birds out of paper . . . In fact he broke all the nursery rules and talked to them with great seriousness in language that they could not understand, and, for that reason, greatly appreciated.” It is no surprise that among Belloc’s many books are several he wrote for children–most fairy tales that more often than not recounted the stories of little boys and girls who were eaten by monsters for sins like telling lies. Belloc’s daughter remembered a small boy who was brought to say goodbye one evening to her father. “’Never forget, my boy, that you have today shaken hands with the great Rudyard Kipling,’” Belloc solemnly declared. “The child seemed duly impressed, but later asked his mother, ‘What is Rudyard Kipling?’”

Belloc’s whimsical sense of humor comes across not just in his books for children, but in several collections of essays he wrote mid-career, the first of which was entitled in parody of typical titles of his day, “On Nothing.” This was followed by a volume called “On Something,” and succeeded finally by his book “On.” Belloc dictated most of his books to a secretary, much as Chesterton did, and used no footnotes in his histories–all was from the vast storehouse of his memory. He was fond of taking friends on tours of ancient battlefields in the English countryside, dramatically re-enacting scenes from the War of the Roses and other famous conflicts. His love for history was accompanied, however, by a fascination with modern gadgetry that was a source of amusement to his friends. Though his clothes were often old-fashioned, and he cared little for what he saw as useless conveniences, Belloc had a Ford car that he used to bomb around the countryside to visit friends. He also took snapshots with his camera, and he loved to telegraph and telephone to announce his usual busy schedule of comings and goings. “I must telephone,” he would famously announce upon entering a building.

Among the most interesting and distinctive of his books of loosely organized thoughts on history and civilization is The Cruise of the Nona, named after his small, old-fashioned, hand-operated yacht for which he became famous. The Nona, followed later by the Jersey, which was almost a hundred years old when it was given to Belloc as a gift by his friends, was a source of inspiration to him as he sailed from England to France with his companions. Later in life Belloc was fond of enlisting his friends’ children, who by that time were in their twenties and thirties, in serving as his crew aboard the succession of yachts he owned.

Dermod MacCarthy was a medical student when Belloc arrived at MacCarthy’s parents’ home one vacation period to ask if the young man would accompany himself and his sons on a voyage. Belloc, who constantly referred to his men aboard ship as “my children,” brought aboard bottles of wine from his cellar at King’s Land. Belloc, who was as knowledgeable about wine as anybody of his time, visited France each year to acquire his entire supply for the year from a small farmer and winemaker, which he then bottled himself with the help of friends from the enormous casks shipped to him at his country home. In Sailing with Mr. Belloc, MacCarthy relates (italicizing the letter “r” to signify Belloc’s French pronunciation) that “he never drank whisky or gin, cocktails or aperitifs or large amounts of beer and once, when asked about his consumption of alcohol, said ‘I don’t drink alcohol, I drink wine.’”

Belloc was, MacCarthy and his other friends tell us, unafraid of aggressively asserting his Catholic identity in the anti-Catholic milieu of Britain in the early twentieth century. “The word Papist he used fearlessly and provocatively. Although his being Catholic was at that time an obstacle on many professional roads he might have wished to take, he always insisted on declaring it and loudly making it known that the Catholic faith was far more important to him than the project in hand, the compagne, or anything else.”

Belloc’s writings help to remind us that it is the Catholic faith that is the foundation of what is universally celebrated in our culture, and that the “crisis of civilization” that he believed faced his own time is the same that faces our own.

Philip B. Newman is a member of the Secular Oratory in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and besides reading and writing, enjoys playing ice hockey and smoking the occasional cigar. He has read nearly everything written about Hilaire Belloc, which is a much easier task than reading everything written by Belloc.