Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Belloc during Holy Week, 1912: 'I have become a Protestant...'

Belloc’s jaded vision of parliamentary politics inspired two more satirical novels, Mr Clutterbuck’s Election and A Change in the Cabinet, published in 1908 and 1909 respectively. These were written in haste and in haphazard fashion, most of the former being dictated at a stretch in Holy Week, possibly to mollify the effects of abstinence. For the first time, Belloc wrote to Maurice Baring on 13 April 1908, he had given up drinking beer or wine in Holy Week:

...partly to see what this is like, partly in memory of the Passion, and partly to strengthen my will which has lately had bulgy spots on it.

I have now gone through thirty six hours of this ordeal, and very interesting and curious it is...The mind and body sink to a lower plane and become fit for contemplation rather than for action: the sense of humour is also singularly weakened.

In later years Belloc extended his abstinence to the whole of Lent, drinking crates of ginger beer instead of his customary Burgundy. ‘I have become a Protestant and am drinking no wine during Lent, with the most terrible results to my soul which is in permanent despair,’ he wrote to Chesterton in 1912. ‘I now see what a fool everybody is, a truth which, until now the fumes of fermented liquor had hidden from me.’

It is a little curious, considering that he had spent most of Holy Week writing a satirical novel, that Belloc should confess to Baring that abstinence had ‘singularly weakened’ his sense of humour. Perhaps this explains why Mr Clutterbuck’s Election does not rate amongst Belloc’s better books. Perhaps, indeed, the novel would have been better, and funnier, if he had waited until Easter. A Change in the Cabinet was written in similar haste. Belloc told Wilfrid Scawen Blunt that it ‘was run up in such a scramble (seven days) without a touch of the pen & so purely for money that I was ashamed of it, & when the press let off by blaming it I agreed’. Blunt, however, had enjoyed the book and, possibly prompted by his friend’s positive response, Belloc moderated his self-criticism. ‘But the later reviews are much more favourable & your letter puts me in heart again.’

An extract from Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (London: Harper Collins, 2002) page 130 by Joe Pearce.

Joe’s Blog: Ink Desk

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