A friend has drawn my attention to this week’s ‘Tablet’ which features an article by A.N. Wilson on Hilaire Belloc. Unhappily there is something wrong with the online registration process which should have allowed me to look at the article pro bono. I won’t subscribe to a paper which I gave up reading years ago for what I thought good reasons even then.
I have met A.N.Wilson more than once and I have followed his literary, intellectual, and spiritual progress for at least 40 years.
I am therefore not in the least surprised when I read an editorial introduction which states:
‘Hilaire Belloc is on our cover this week, his stare as starchy as his winged collar. He was a better writer in every way then his chum Chesterton [two sneers for the price of one], but, as A.N. Wilson writes, his Catholic apologetics were rotten to the core with casual anti-Semitism, odious falsehoods and sheer nastiness...’
Belloc composed an epitaph for himself which read:
‘When I am dead, I hope it may be said
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read’.
Rather than engage with this digging up and stoning of the dead, I’d like to suggest to such of my friends as may be interested why HB’s books repay Reading- whatever the sins in which he. Is said to offend.
* Firstly, his verse - it’s sometimes forgotten just how original this was: Belloc discovered his gift for verse in the 1890s, and it bloomed completely otherwise than in the orchid hothouse of Swinburne and the buttonhole of Oscar Wilde. In the elegance of his cautionary tales, the muscularity of his satire, and the pointed wit of his epigrams, Belloc looks back to the CXVIII and especially Prior - a poet whose quick wit, lapidary style and keen eye for human folly is close to Belloc’s own; in lyric, Belloc introduced into English verse the vernal freshness of the CXIII Provençal poets - a preference which was enthusiastically but less convincingly adopted in the strained archaisms of Ezra Pound; in his sonnets, Belloc's model is Joachim du Bellay, whose rigorous intellect, formal discipline, and elegiac tone is distinctly shared by the later poet; and there are two or three lyrics of such brilliance and originality that they deserve a place in the most exclusive anthologies of English verse - of these the most uncontroversial is ‘Ha’nacker Mill’: movingly set by Ivor Gurney, it is one of the most evocative elegies for a rural England that was passing out of existence even as Belloc wrote its epitaph immediately before the Great War;
* Second, is Belloc’s history, which was a witheringly polemical response to the vanity, pride and provincialism of the Whig interpretation of history - until the death of G.M Trevelyan the official voice of English academic history. With his half-French parentage, extensive travel and wide reading, Belloc understood the historical significance of the classical, mediaeval and Christian mindset for the European history of which Britain was part. He had an unusual sense of how Church and Monarchy had worked as complementary forces in curbing the elites which ultimately triumphed over both - to the abiding benefit of the few, and the continuing prejudice of the many. Here the models are Cobbett and Lingard, but the dramatisation of events, the psychological penetration, and the play of ideas derives from Toqueville, Taine and Michelet. Belloc’s analysis of English history between 1399-1688 outraged academic opinion in his day, but is now recognised as substantially accurate. It is clear, compelling and absolutely unimpressed by the Whig environment in which it was composed - only a rash or courageous man could have written it, for no one dependent on the patronage of the establishment would have dared to do so. it testified to Belloc’s hatred of the oppression exercised by the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor, and the worldly over the innocent - it evinced a wholly ‘modern’ contempt for the money-power, colonialism and philistine materialism as they then existed but whose persistence is easily identified in modern equivalents, notwithstanding the pool of cant in which they comfortably paddle about.
* Third - the ‘dialogues’ - Belloc’s completely original itinero-monologues , written with a Rabelaisian gusto but a Montaignard sensitivity to the transitoriness if human life and the vanity of human wishes. With the exception of Stevenson, there is nothing like them in English literature, and the Stevenson of ‘Travels With a Donkey’ admirable though he is for his combination of unblunted appetite and reflective sensibility nevertheless lacks the learning, the experience and the wonderful variety of voices which Belloc brought to ‘The Path to Rome’, ‘Thr Four Men’ and ‘The Cruise of the Nona’;
* Finally there are the Essays - occasional, humorous, appraising, polemical, evocative and whimsical by turns - full of astute comment on the patterns and trends of our time - the tendency towards self-dissolution in the protestant collision with biblical scholarship; the inadequacy of scientific materialism as against human, moral and religious truth; the corruption of parliament and the press stemming from their subjection to patronage, party, business and money; the sleight of hand whereby the state substituted an undeclared serfdom in which the individual trades dignity and self-determination for the serfdom of a pensioner - and, most percipently a prediction of the ultimate resurgence of Islam - here ‘Survivals and New Arrivals’, ‘Essays of a Catholic’ and ‘The Servile State’ are most characteristic of the polemicist; while ‘Hills and the Sea’ and ‘Conversations with a Cat’, represent the unbuttoned, Johnsonian Belloc at his ease and amusing himself quite as much as anyone for whom he might be writing.
This was a great man and a great defender of the Faith: A.N.Wilson, and the editor of the 'catholic' magazine who commissioned this 'damnatio memoriae' should be deeply ashamed of traducing his memory... but perhaps they have done no more than make a shrewd judgment as to the limitations of their readership for it is difficult to see how any reasonably intelligent and educated man could otherwise write as they have.