David Twiston Davies on the greatness of Hilaire Belloc
GREAT B RITISH
The most striking thing about Hilaire Belloc when I was a young man was the sight of his juniors fleeing from his influence. He was one of the most arresting figures of the early 20th century, celebrated for walking across America, serving in the French army and becoming an MP. More important, he was a writer of brilliant verse, trenchant history, arresting biographies and elegantly turned morality tales; his essays, many of them still uncollected, have a golden quality as he reflects on the magnificence of Gothic cathedrals, the labour involved in a harvest, the desire for posthumous fame and the Christmas celebrations in the Belloc home. Oh yes, but he was old-fashioned, long-winded, riposted those juniors (who were my seniors); he wrote too much and was too outspoken, particularly when drinking. How strange, I thought, that so many of his contemporaries considered him a genius.
After all he was, with G K Chesterton, half of a mythical Catholic fighting beast nicknamed “the Chesterbelloc” by the playwright George Bernard Shaw, which did battle with all that was progressive and materialistic in a debate conducted in books and pamphlets and on the platforms of public meetings. The moral issues at stake then are still with us, many posing greater dangers than 100 years ago. Belloc saw that the most important defence against all the errors of the world was the Church, whose concrete form contained the inner mystery of God. Unlike his friend Chesterton, however, he is experiencing a slow revival, though a Belloc Society was founded nine years ago, and Fr Ian Ker has devoted a chapter to him in his Catholic Revival in English Literature.
Part of the problem with Belloc for English Catholics was that, although they were proud of him, they found his French background gave him an exuberance that was very different from the inherent caution that was their legacy of the penal centuries. He was resolute in his Catholicism: “This is the faith which I have and hold/ This is the faith in which I mean to die.” But he celebrated it noisily in wine and verse; he was flippant in evading discussion of doctrine, sneering about Jews and unenthusiastic about Italian popes. He so delighted in upsetting Protestants by showing – forcefully and often – that the Reformation was an unmatched disaster that they responded by dismissing him as a bore; and since his facts were sometimes wrong, his critics turned this into blanket dismissal because he refused to list his sources in footnotes. Yet while Professor Jack Scarisbrick points out significant errors in Belloc’s view of the Reformation, he says that Belloc was right in recognising the key factor was the grabbing of Church property.
Inevitably the quality in Belloc’s 153 books and pamphlets is uneven, but he has an established place in the canon of English literature for his children’s verse, with its genial, mocking morality in powerful rhyming couplets, and The Path to Rome, a travel book which retains a firm hold on the modern imagination after 100 years.
Contrary to his critics’ belief, Belloc remains relevant both because of his perceptions on war, socialism and capitalism and because of his shrewd understanding of the way national life is conducted in Britain. The Party System exposed the conspiracy between the two front benches in the conduct of parliamentary business, which is today as pertinent as when he wrote it in 1911. He was not a great novelist; he wrote too hastily, and could never keep himself out of his narrative to enable his characters to grow into convincing individuals. Nevertheless, Belloc’s ironic sketches of public issues and the way politicians react to them were acute.
The Postmaster General (1932) dealt with the granting of commercial television franchises in the 1950s. But Soft: We are Observed (1928), a spy story about a mineral concession in Irania, contains the portrait of a woman prime minister in the 1970s who has an extraordinary resemblance to Mrs Thatcher during the same period – “a most determined mouth, and steady deciding eyes which even before she spoke put confidence into the wavering and the fear of God into the weak”. Outside Britain, he saw the key importance of Poland as it faced the German menace, and correctly predicted the rise of Islamic terrorism, based on his observations of Arab nationalism in North Africa.
I sometimes wonder what he would say, if encountered vigorously striding along a country lane today, about the Muslim threat, public amorality or the EU. No doubt some might regard his remarks as inappropriate. But Belloc prepared a defence of genius for himself: “When I am dead I hope it may be said/ ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’ ” This clearly emanates from the mind of a Great Catholic.
David Twiston Davies works for The Daily Telegraph