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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Wednesday 23 May 2012

All Saints and the Sussex Countryside. A Look at Belloc’s Novel, The Four Men.

The Four Men Map

At about the middle of his life, Hilaire Belloc wrote an unusual novel called The Four Men. It is unique in comparison to his other works, and is arguably one of the most beautiful minor classics of modern English prose. On reading The Four Men, one immediately feels that it has more in common with a medieval allegory than the popular fiction of Belloc’s time. Though the book is currently out of print (see note at end of article) the fundamental concepts underlying the novel are worth reviewing. The opening lines, with their almost Virgilian strain, give one a sense of the whole:

 My country, it has been proved in the life of every man that though his loves are human, and therefore changeable, yet in proportion as he attaches them to things unchangeable, so they mature and broaden. On this account, Dear Sussex, are those women chiefly dear to men who, as the seasons pass, do but continue to be more and more themselves, attain balance, and abandon or forget vicissitude. And on this account, Sussex, does man love an old house, which was his father’s, and on this account does a man come to love with all his heart, that part of earth which nourished his boyhood. For it does not change, or if it changes, it changes very little, and he finds in it the character of enduring things.

On one level, Belloc sought to capture an aspect of southern English rural culture that was fast fading even in his day. On another, deeper, level The Four Men reveals a Christianized pagan melancholy and resignation. As the late Thomist philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen pointed out, Belloc was instinctively drawn to the natural nobility of classical humanism, while realizing that ultimately we must be sustained by faith in revealed truth. Thus unlike contemporary rural sketches, this tale is no quaint and dusty vignette. The characters are men we all seem to have known, displaying whimsy and melancholy, boisterousness and reflection. They remind us that the common sense championed by the author is not "optional," but truly necessary if our lives are not to be completely intolerable.

Companions and Archtypes

Published in 1911, The Four Men was based on an excursion that Belloc made in 1902. But he did not complete the book until nine years later. This was unusual for a man who often dictated entire volumes in the space of a week. Originally, he envisioned it as no more than a counterpart to The Path to Rome, his nonfiction account of a one-man pilgrimage to the Eternal City. In the intervening years, however, the story was slowly and meticulously transformed.

 The plot appears simple enough. The narrator, called "Myself," is joined by three other men—Grizzlebeard, Sailor and Poet. Together they journey on foot across their native Sussex, England, in the early 1900s. Beneath this apparently facile plot is a tale of rich, autumnal prose which appropriately reflects the fading sunlight and falling leaves of late October and early November. It is the time of All Saints. The story thus touches on the fundamental fact of life, which is death.

The nicknames the men agree on amongst themselves. As Myself says, "My name is of importance only to those who need to know it; it might be of importance to my masters had I such, but I have none." Each character might be seen as representations of classic archetypes, or even the Four Temperaments. They evince unique strengths and weaknesses, yet all serve to complement one another.

Grizzlebeard, whom Myself first meets at a pub at Robertsbridge, is the man of wisdom and experience, or what traditional societies call the "Ancient" of the clan. Grizzlebeard and Myself next make the acquaintance of Sailor. He is the man of the world, energetic, enterprising, restless yet seeking rest. Sailor’s dream is to put in his ship at a harbor of final rest. Grizzlebeard, in his somewhat pedantic manner, reminds him there is no such fulfillment this side of the grave.

The band is completed when Poet is met "moving along in a manner quite peculiar to men of a sort… who seem to have no purpose, and yet in some way are by the charity of their fellows kept fed and clothed." He is just what his name implies; the artist with a metaphysical bent and a woolgatherer who seems to lack all common sense. Without the help of his comrades, one wonders how he can even find his own feet.

Reading further, one sees aspects of all three of these fellows reflected in Myself which gives us a key to the real meaning of the characters—they are really aspects of Belloc’s own personality. For example, while the sensitive Poet seems the least like the author, his appearance is very curious. Belloc had a high regard for poetry and, above all, desired recognition of his verse rather than his prose works. It may be that the depiction of the Poet reveals a certain embarrassment over the author’s reflective and vulnerable poetic side as opposed to the boisterous bardic side. At the same time there is, as with any study of normal and natural men, an element of paradox. This gives rise to the subtle irony by which Grizzlebeard occasionally plays the fool, the Sailor waxes philosophical and the Poet sometimes appears the most pragmatic of the lot.

"Integrated Man"

Belloc carries off these human portraits successfully because he truly knew himself. As the late Frederick Wilhelmsen explained, he was an "integrated man" as opposed to the "alienated man" of our times who seems not to understand himself at all. Of course, we have taken this alienation to a higher level than the already dysfunctional generations of the past, drowning all thought and genuine self-awareness in incessant noise and distraction. Needless to say that leaves no room for consideration of those things which, nevertheless, continue to haunt us. Our lives become fragmented as we deliberately try to divorce the connected realities of the profane and the sacred. But Belloc, with his feet firmly planted in the soil of Christian culture, could wrestle with the paradox of immortal desires confronting the limits of personal mortality. Wilhelmsen’s study (Hilaire Belloc, No Alienated Man, 1953) is a favorite of Bellocians, and worth quoting at length:

The Four Men represent the natural and classical foundation of Belloc’s personal integration. He makes his own these archetypes of Western Man of that Western culture in which human nature most fully came into its own. The Poet, the Sailor, and the Man of Wisdom [Grizzlebeard] are the classical unities that underlie traditional Christian values…. 

Myself is one with himself in these companions. But all the camaraderie, the good fellowship, the hearty wisdom, and the love exchanged between friends is threatened by what one might call the possibility of classical or human alienation. Man is not his own enemy in Belloc’s farrago; Death is the enemy. The campfire blazes in the woods and the inn is full of decency and laughter, but the universe in the background breathes mutability and is marked for the harvest. The seasons rise and fall. Generation issues into corruption….

Myself finds his soul in these companions, who part from him after Grizzlebeard warns Myself, Man, to meditate Death. Then "the mist received them and they had disappeared." Myself, troubled in spirit, faces the dilemma Everyman faces. Must this humanity, found and achieved in these four, be swallowed up in the mists? Must alienation, "the saddest thing in the world," claim the soul in the end? Why discover ourselves and then come realize that we have found an illusion? We cannot come to be ourselves finally unless Death itself die in the end. The Night of the Dead has always been the night of their return, and Belloc implies throughout his closing chapter that this prefigures eventual immortality.
Doubt is a natural condition of man. Christ himself expressed the depths of purely human despair from the Cross before commending Himself to His Heavenly Father. Belloc did not surrender to self-centered anomie. Hope transcends the doubt and seeming absurdity of life, just as the story transcends the diversity of the characters and brings out the underlying unity of these four men who at first seem so haphazardly associated.

The Primal Things

Belloc’s writing at it’s best is like poetry. It achieves the utmost artistic economy with a few lines of remarkable imagery. Like other great authors, he can present the known and commonplace as if it were new, and give voice and definition to fundamental experiences. In one scene the four travelers have found an overnight lodging in a forester’s hut. Myself says:

 I woke the next morning to the noise, the pleasant noise, of water boiling in a kettle. May God bless that noise and grant it to be the most sacred noise in the world. For it is the noise that babies hear at birth and that old men hear as they die in their beds, and it is the noise of households all our long lives long; and throughout the world, wherever men have hearths, that purring and that singing, and that humming and that talking to itself of warm companionable water to our great ally, the fire, is home.

 A similar passage can be found in Belloc’s introduction to The Old Road, a study of the ancient pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury. It is an example that deserves quoting as well:

 There are primal things which move us. Fire has the character of a free companion that has traveled with us from the first exile; only to see a fire, whether he need it or no, comforts every man. Again, to hear two voices outside at night after a silence, even in crowded cities, transforms the mind. A Roof also, large and mothering, satisfies us here in the north much more than modern necessity can explain; so we built in the beginning: the only way to carry off our rains and to bear the weight of our winter snows. A Tower far off arrests a man’s eye always: it is more than a break in the sky-line; it is an enemy’s watch or the rallying of a defence to whose aid we are summoned. Nor are these emotions a memory or a reversion only as one crude theory might pretend; we craved these things—the camp, the refuge, the sentinels in the dark, the hearth—before we made them; they are a part of our human manner, and when this civilisation has perished they will reappear.

The four men must separate at the end of their journey, yet Myself confronts alienation with renewed confidence. The cycle of life, which is itself a metaphor that God has given us, tells us that after the Fall and the Winter there is yet another Spring. This makes for a hope that is stronger than mere sentiment or sloppy optimism, and comes across in the whimsical notes which break through the more somber tone. In this respect the book achieves a wonderful balance which is surely a result of that inward "integration." For Belloc had a delightful sense of the absurd. There is much hilarity, as found in the Dickensian tale of Chief Justice Honeybubble, the retelling of the argument between St. Dunstan and the Devil (with typically Bellocian anachronisms), or the argument over the definition of Cheese. It takes an awareness of reality to make the best jokes. An appreciation of the absurd is only possible where a man already has a grasp of things in their everyday, normal proportions.  

The Man Behind the Novel

One may fairly state that in the realm of fiction, Belloc was less at home than in any other genre, though with his irrepressible energy he managed to produce eighteen novels. Most of these were satires on political and social mores of the day, or light-hearted moral tales. Few have fared well with the passage time, though farces like The Green Overcoat and The Postmaster General are quite entertaining while The Mercy of Allah remains a savagely brilliant satire of Western capitalism.

Viewed in relation to these and other books, The Four Men represents a transitional stage in the author’s life as well as his writing. The earlier Path to Rome is referred to as "the story of youth." It is ebullient and even precocious; a realm of bracing mountain air and sunshine in which life’s challenges are met with a confident gaze and lusty song. By the time that The Four Men was finished Belloc had turned forty and the mood is more pensive. If one has the opportunity to read the book at a relatively young age and re-read it a decade or so later, many of these aspects appear in greater relief. It is a sign of real craftsmanship that the story matures with the reader.

The contrast between The Four Men and Belloc’s earlier writing was no doubt due, in part, to the disillusionment of a brief parliamentary career (1906-10). Such experiences were a rude awakening to his earlier idealism. Belloc was looking back with mixed emotions upon his rejection of what could have been a promising political career, and, on the other hand the refusal, at the hand of the anti-Catholic dons of Oxford, of a history fellowship, despite his outstanding academic record. Such events threw him out upon the world as an erudite vagabond who had to earn his keep by unstinted output of prose. Yet he was a man of strong convictions who devoted a great part of his life to writing on the most acrimonious topics of the day, even as he confessed to his friend Fr. Vincent McNabb how much it wearied him at times.

Contrary to the notion some people have of Belloc, as no more than a literary pugilist with a chip on his Catholic shoulder, he would have much rather "tended his rightful garden," composing verse and gems of prose like The Four Men. It is therefore fitting to close with the lines of the drinking songs that grace his tale, in this instance recounting St. Germanus’ victory over the Pelagians:

…Now the Faith is old and the Devil is bold,
Exceedingly bold indeed;
And the masses of doubt that are floating about
Would smother a mortal creed.
But we that sit in a sturdy youth,
And still can drink strong ale,
Oh—let us put it away to infallible truth,
Which always shall prevail!

And thank the Lord
For the temporal sword,
And howling heretics too;
And whatever good things
Our Christendom brings,
But especially barley brew!

Matthew Anger and Michael Hennessy

Note: The last edition of The Four Men was published by Oxford Press in 1984, with an excellent introduction by Belloc biographer, A.N. Wilson. Older hardback copies can be readily obtained through online used book services.

Saturday 19 May 2012

On disliking champagne but delighting in existence...

Belloc wrote a letter from King's Land to Maurice Baring on February 6, 1911 (to be found in Speaight's collection, Letters from Hilaire Belloc [London: Hollis & Carter, 1958]).. I am not just sure from whence Baring was writing to Belloc, but in his response, Belloc disagreed with something Baring said. In Baring's letter, Belloc found "a touch of Devil-worship about it," a serious concern indeed. Devil-worship evidently means ultimately denying that existence is good.

But to make his point, Belloc presented to Baring a sort of litany of "do's" and "don't's" to explain just how the Church itself acted in dealing with reality. For instance, the Church says simply as a command, "Don't kill." The Church does not say, "If you kill, regard it as a sacrament." However, in saying "Do not kill" there are exceptions. One exception is just war. There the Church blesses the banners of the Armies. Preventing killing is not murder.

The Church does not say, "Do not marry." Belloc observes that the Church has difficulty in dealing with normal human relations "in a prohibitive way." What the Church does say about the marriage is that it is "indissoluble." The Christian praise of the celibate life has nothing to do with whether "marriage is right or wrong," just as, Belloc adds in a striking comparison, preferring a professional to a conscript army tells us nothing about whether a given war is just or unjust.

Belloc sees the Church's teaching on celibacy in this manner: if you are going to deal with the "inner life," you best be celibate. The Church adds that if you are going to deal with the "inner lives of others and direct and administer them, you must really be celibate." Belloc adds that this last practice is not a dogma, but it is discipline. The relation between the celibate and married life is not a question of degree of holiness, but of "two different kinds of life, both approved." Because of its very nature of dealing with one's own and other's inner lives, one is more "spiritual than the other."

Nor does the Church say, "Do not be rich." She does warn that wealth is dangerous and can easily corrupt. This is merely a statement of observed fact. But as such, being rich tells us nothing of someone's "character." We cannot conclude from the fact that riches are dangerous to whether a given rich man is actually corrupt. He may be quite virtuous. When there is no Church present to counteract the normal false assumptions about riches, Belloc observes, "people always think that great wealth indicates something: Intelligence at the lowest and courtesy or some other virtue at the highest." But of itself great wealth neither indicates intelligence our courtesy. Belloc adds, that the Church soberly warns us about wealth: "Unless you use it with the greatest care and worry yourself to death about it, you are doing a direct injury to your fellow citizens." Belloc calls this simply "sound economics."

Then Belloc adds, in an example that probably does not follow, "Every time you (Baring) and I drink champagne, we are ultimately depriving some poor man of beer, and don't you forget it." This quip of Belloc, however, is not "sound economics." It is best forgotten. In a market economy, we are more likely to deprive a poor man of his beer if we do not drink champagne. But of course, Belloc adds, with some playfulness, that in fact, at that moment, at least, he does not like champagne. So on his own terms there is no danger in his drinking it and upsetting the flow of beer to the poor man, which beer, be it noted, Belloc thinks he has a perfect right to. Belloc's stomach is upset. Thus, he does not think that he likes any "wine" except "Herefordshire Cyder." Just why he calls "cyder", "wine", I am not sure, for surely Belloc of all people, with both French and English blood in his veins, knew the difference. He did not, consolingly, seem to worry about whether the champagne that he and Baring might drink would deprive the poor man of "Herefordshire Cyder."

"What is all of this leading up to?" you might ask. So far we see little of the devil here. But he is hanging around fuzzy ideas. Belloc continues, "As for the Church saying 'Don't exist,' that is the last of the series and is absolutely plumb flat contradictory." The Church cannot approve of something that is "absolutely plumb flat contradictory." Faith does not contradict reason, as Aquinas often put it. If you want to get Belloc's point, try to command something before it exists, not to exist. We do not have the power of existence as such in our arsenal. This is the great Thomist truth, the truth of existence. Existence is the Gift we do not give ourselves, but only receive it. This is why, from our side, to recall Belloc's friend Chesterton, gratitude is the first response to being.

Belloc sums up these teachings: "The Church does say definitely 'Don't kill'. She certainly thinks sex dangerous, she regards riches with the utmost suspicion. But existence she delights in and it is Catholic civilisation only that ever produces a strong sense of individual existence." This is the most marvelous of sentences. To delight in existence itself, this is the highest mark of sanity and reality. If we can delight in existence itself, we can, even more, delight in the tiny particular being that exists -- the "strong sense of individual existence."

In conclusion, Belloc gives us in 1911 a criterion against which to test his thesis: "Let a nation lose the Church, and it is bound to fall in time into Pantheism, or a denial of spiritual continuity, and the immortality of the soul." We no longer bury our dead. We kill our kind before they are born and hasten their ends when they are useless. We deny that past generations can bind us to anything, no Constitution, no natural law. We subsume all back into Earth and judge individual existence merely as a function of or threat to the Environment. We can no longer, it seems, smoke indoors or out of doors. We have reinvented prohibition and made killing the tiniest of our kind a "right."

Thus, with regard to economics, I do not see why the rich and the poor both cannot have either champagne, beer, or Herefordshire Cyder. And with regard to the Devil-worship, that Belloc worried about in Baring's letter, what Belloc caught was a rancid smell of the idea that existence itself is not good, and hence that life is not good, that sex is not good, that material things are not good. In the affirmation that the Church "delights in existence," he knew that, however gingerly we must sometimes treat them, because of what they are, all things, as it says in Genesis, are good. And we are to delight in them in their proper order.

 From Schall on Belloc, Generally Speaking, February, 1997.
(James Schall SJ - Georgetown University)

Saturday 12 May 2012

Maurice Baring...


Maurice Baring, In the Shadow of the Chesterbelloc

Imagine one body with two heads. The twin giants of the Catholic literary revival of the early 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, were so much associated in the eyes of the reading public that they together became the butt of the caricaturist's humor and the satirist's wit. Most famously, George Bernard Shaw, in an article titled "The Chesterbelloc: A Lampoon," likened them to two halves of "a very amusing pantomime elephant." Max Beerbohm, a friend of both men, drew a famous caricature depicting Belloc and Chesterton seated at a table, each holding a tankard of foaming beer, with the former lecturing the latter on "the errors of Geneva." The rumbustious joie de vivre captured by Beerbohm in this caricature captivated the public's imagination to such a degree that H.G. Wells complained that "Chesterton and Belloc have surrounded Catholicism with a kind of boozy halo." George Orwell, in the satirical attack on the literati in the opening chapter of his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, went one step further than other humorists by bestowing an honorary ordination on the Chesterbelloc, describing "Father Hilaire Chestnut's latest book of R.C. propaganda."

The literary legend surrounding the figure of the Chesterbelloc has cast such a long and enduring shadow that the lesser-known figure of Maurice Baring has been almost eclipsed by it. This is unfortunate and unjust. As a man of letters and faith, Baring deserves to emerge from the shadow of his two illustrious friends and take his place beside them as he did in Sir James Gunn's famous painting, The Conversation Piece. This large group portrait, now displayed in London's National Portrait Gallery, depicts Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton assembled round a table. The group, which Chesterton, with characteristic humor, labeled "Baring, over-bearing and past-bearing," represented more than a mere assemblage of friends. By the 1920s, when Baring had established a reputation as a Catholic novelist, he was seen in the eyes of the reading public as the third person, alongside Belloc and Chesterton, in a Catholic literary trinity. Sharing not only a common friendship but a common philosophy and faith, Baring, Belloc, and Chesterton might not have been as indivisible as the Holy Trinity, but they were certainly thought by many to be as indomitable as the Three Musketeers.

Lukewarm Faith

Baring was born in 1874, the same year as Chesterton and four years after Belloc. A younger son of the first Lord Revelstoke, and an heir to the Baring international banking dynasty, he enjoyed all the trappings of privilege. As a child he was looked after by a succession of nannies and governesses in the sprawling opulence of England's great country manors and the dignified splendor of London townhouses. His autobiography, The Puppet Show of Memory, evokes a world of wealth and cultured comfort, furnished with servants and characterized by a savoir vivre that would be beyond the reach of later generations. It is invaluable as both elegy and eulogy to a dying world and as a testament to a blissfully carefree childhood.

Baring's school days at Eton are also remembered in The Puppet Show of Memory and are re-created atmospherically in his novel Friday's Business. From Eton he went to Hildesheim, near Hanover, to learn German, adding to the French he had learned in the nursery and to the Latin and Greek in which he had excelled at school. Later, he would become fully conversant in Italian, Russian, and the Scandinavian languages. After a period in Florence, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he first came into contact with the fashionable skepticism of the 1890s. He met Bertrand Russell, Robert Trevelyan, and other intellectuals who sought to convince him that he should not go to chapel because "Christianity was exploded, a thing of the past" and that "nobody believed in it really among the young and the advanced:

I remember thinking that although I was much younger in years than these intellectuals, and far inferior in knowledge, brains, and wits, no match for them in argument or in achievement, I was none the less older than they were in a particular kind of experience – the experience that has nothing to do either with the mind, or with knowledge, and that is independent of age, but takes place in the heart, and in which a child may be sometimes more rich than a grown-up person. I do not mean anything sentimental. I am speaking of the experience that comes from having been suddenly constrained to turn round and look at life from a different point of view. So when I heard the intellectual reason in the manner I have described, I felt for the moment an old person listening to young people. I felt young people must always have talked like that. It was not that I had then any definite religious creed. I seldom went to Chapel.

Although the "dogmatic disbelief" of these intellectuals remained "intolerable," the religious tenets of his own lukewarm Protestant faith were equally unsatisfactory. Eventually his insecurely held faith, a remnant of childhood, "just dropped away… as easily as a child loses a first tooth." By the winter of 1893, he was an avowed agnostic, ceasing all church attendance and declaring to friends that he "didn't believe in a Christian faith." This was his state of heart and mind when, in 1897, he first made the acquaintance of Belloc.

Chesterbelloc's Influence

Having witnessed one of Belloc's pyrotechnic displays at the Oxford Union, Baring described him as "a brilliant orator and conversationalist… who lives by his wits." At their first meeting, Belloc confronted Baring's agnostic arguments with the uncompromising riposte that he would "most certainly go to hell." Evidently finding Belloc's dogmatic belief more tolerable than the dogmatic disbelief of Bertrand Russell's intellectual coterie in Cambridge, Baring concluded from "the first moment I saw him" that Belloc was "a remarkable man."

In spite of their differences, Belloc's and Baring's friendship was cemented by mutual respect. "I like him immensely and think him full of brilliances and delightful to be with," Baring wrote of Belloc three years later. At this stage, however, Baring did not feel tempted to succumb to the allure of Belloc's faith. When his friend Reggie Balfour informed him in the autumn of 1899 that he "felt a strong desire to become a Catholic," Baring was "extremely surprised and disconcerted." Until that moment, he had only known two converts – his sister Elizabeth, who had married the Catholic earl of Kenmare, and an undergraduate who had explained his motive merely as a need to have all or nothing. He was "amazed" that his friend should consider such a step and sought to discourage him, arguing that the Christian religion "was not so very old, and so small a strip in the illimitable series of the creeds of mankind." Out of loyalty to his friend, simple curiosity, or both, Baring accompanied Balfour to a Low Mass. He was pleasantly surprised: "It impressed me greatly… One felt one was looking on at something extremely ancient. The behaviour of the congregation, and the expression on their faces impressed me too. To them it was evidently real."

Soon after their attendance at Low Mass, Balfour sent Baring an epitaph that he had come across in the church of San Gregorio in Rome: "Here lies Robert Peckham, Englishman and Catholic, who, after England's break with the Church, left England not being able to live without the Faith and who, coming to Rome, died not being able to live without his country." This epitaph and its underlying tragedy produced a marked and lasting effect on Baring's whole view of the Reformation and probably had as much to do with his eventual conversion as anything he discussed with Belloc. The epitaph itself would haunt him to such a degree that, 30 years later, it would reemerge as the inspiration for his novel, Robert Peckham, which, alongside R.H. Benson's classic, Come Rack! Come Rope!, is perhaps the finest historical novel ever written about the bloody legacy of the English Reformation.

Baring entered the diplomatic service and was posted, between 1899 and 1904, to Paris, Copenhagen, and Rome. Becoming disillusioned with life as a diplomat, and simultaneously becoming enamored with Russia, its language, and its people, he resigned from the diplomatic service and arrived in St. Petersburg shortly after Christmas 1904. It was from here, in January 1906, that he had written excitedly to a friend about the books of Chesterton, particularly Chesterton's first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and his controversial book of essays entitled Heretics, stating simply and emphatically, "I like his ideas."

Considering that Baring and Chesterton had both been good friends of Belloc since the turn of the century, it is perhaps surprising that they did not become acquainted with each other until as late as 1907. Indeed, as late as March 1908, Baring was writing to Chesterton from Moscow requesting a greater intimacy in their relationship, asking whether he might "call you by your Christian name," and adding his hope that "you and I and Hilaire may meet." The slow development of their friendship was probably due principally to Baring's long absences from England, but once formed, their affection for each other grew stronger as the years passed. Frances Chesterton was to say many years later that of all her husband's friends there were none he loved more than Maurice Baring.

Welcoming the King

It is not clear whether Chesterton's Orthodoxy, published on September 25, 1908, had any direct influence on Baring's conversion, but considering Baring's admiration for Chesterton's earlier works and his growing fondness for the author, it would be surprising if he had not read Chesterton's hugely influential volume in the months immediately preceding his reception into the Church on February 1, 1909.

Describing his reception as "the only action in my life which I am quite certain I have never regretted," Baring sought to elucidate the forces at work in his conversion in the admirable sonnet sequence "Vita Nuova." The first sonnet deals with the initial approach to conversion: "I found the clue I sought not, in the night, While wandering in a pathless maze of gloom." The second sonnet describes the act of conversion itself, the desire to linger no longer "in a separated porch" and the sudden realization that the fire was "ablaze beyond the gate." He knocks "and swiftly came the answering word," inviting him to enter into his own estate where "my broken soul began to mend":
I knelt, I knew – it was too bright to see – The welcome of a King who was my friend. The final sonnet centers on the hope for eternity beyond the grave where the "tranquil harbour shines and waits."

Explaining his reasons for conversion more prosaically, he wrote that "directly I came to the conclusion inside that life was for me divine, and that I had inside me an immortal thing in touch with an Eternal Spirit, there was no other course open to me than to become a Catholic." He told the composer Ethel Smyth, who was a close friend and confidante, that his faith was a fusion of want and need: "I feel that human life which is almost intolerable as it is, would be to me quite intolerable without this which is to me no narcotic but food, air, drink." These words, so candidly self-perceptive, offer a key not only to Baring's conversion but to the motivation and force behind many of his novels' stoically self-sacrificial heroes and heroines who cope with the exile of life, and its trials and sufferings, with the consolation offered by faith. "One has to accept sorrow for it to have any healing power, and that is the most difficult thing in the world," says one of the characters in his final novel, Darby and Joan. "When you understand what accepted sorrow means, you will understand everything. It is the secret of life."

In her memoirs, Ethel Smyth described Baring's conversion as "the crucial action of his life." When she was informed of the event, she "had the feeling that the missing piece of a complicated puzzle, or rather the only key wherewith a given iron safe could be unlocked, had at last been found."
A similar view was held by the French writer Raymond Las Vergnas in his critical study of Chesterton, Belloc, and Baring, translated into English by Jesuit C.C. Martindale. Baring's Christian faith was, Las Vergnas wrote, the "powerful unifying force" responsible for "harmonising the complex tendencies" in his artistic temperament.

Belloc, who had observed his friend's slow but steady spiritual progress for more than a decade, greeted his conversion with jubilation. "It is an immense thing," he wrote to Charlotte Balfour, who had been received into the Church herself in 1904. "They are coming in like a gathering army from all manner of directions, all manner of men each bringing some new force: that of Maurice is his amazing accuracy of mind which proceeds from his great virtue of truth. I am profoundly grateful!"
Baring also brought a depth of culture that few of his generation could equal. Although still only 34 years old, he had traveled widely throughout Europe as a diplomat, journalist, and man of leisure. He knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Danish, and he was widely read in the literature of all these languages. He was the quintessential European. Belloc's words in An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, published in 1906, would have struck Baring with a particular resonance and poignancy as he made his final approach to the Church:

I desire you to remember that we are Europe; we are a great people. The faith is not an accident among us, nor an imposition, nor a garment; it is bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh: it is a philosophy made by and making ourselves. We have adorned, explained, enlarged it; we have given it visible form. This is the service we Europeans have done to God. In return He has made us Christians.

His Grace-Filled Prose

At the time of his reception into the Church, Baring had only scratched the surface of his own literary potential. He had written several books, most notably on his experiences in Russia, and also a translation of Leonardo da Vinci's Thoughts on Art and Life. He had also published in 1906 a volume of poetry, Sonnets and Short Poems, which did not receive the critical acclaim it deserved. Sadly, today as in his own day, the merits of Baring's poetry continue to go largely unnoticed. Several sonnets inspired by his experience as a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, particularly "The Dead Samurai to Death" and "The Dying Reservist," warrant a place in any anthology of war poetry. That place is seldom granted. Similarly, several sublimely beautiful sonnets inspired by his love for Russia, most notably "Harvest in Russia," and by his love for the arts, particularly his trilogy of sonnets on "Beethoven," "Mozart," and "Wagner," remain unread and completely unknown to modern readers. His poem, "Candlemas," written alongside the sonnet sequence "Vita Nuova" as a commemoration and celebration of his reception into the Church, is one of the finest religious sonnets of the 20th century.

Further books on Russia followed in the wake of his reception into the Church, along with a number of genre-defying humorous volumes, Diminutive Dramas, Dead Letters, and Lost Diaries, in which subtle pastiche, mischievous satire, and sheer farce are combined in equal measure. It was, however, as a novelist that he would finally receive the literary recognition commensurate with his superlative gifts.

Baring's career as a novelist was relatively short, commencing with the publication of Passing By in 1921 and ending prematurely 15 years later with the onset of the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease. In between, he left his claim to posterity in the form of several novels of outstanding grace. C, published in 1924, was highly praised by the French novelist André Maurois, who wrote that no book had given him such pleasure since his reading of Tolstoy, Proust, and certain novels by E.M. Forster. If anything, Baring was to enjoy greater success in France than in England. Ten of his books were translated into French, with one – Daphne Adeane – going through 23 printings in the edition of the Librairie Stock. Others were translated into Czech, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Not surprisingly, Baring's greatest literary champions in England were Belloc and Chesterton. Belloc considered Cat's Cradle, published in 1925, "a great masterpiece… the best story of a woman's life that I know." He also greatly admired Robert Peckham. "The style," Belloc wrote, "which is characteristically yours, is even better in Robert Peckham than in any of the other books… Where you triumph unusually is in the exact valuation of characters which do not differ in black and white, but in every shade. You do it better in this book, I think, than in any other, even than in Cat's Cradle… It seems to me to have a more permanent quality than any other… All those who count will unite in its praise, except those who do not feel a subtle thing at the first shock."
In 1929, shortly after Baring's novel The Coat Without Seam had been published, Chesterton wrote that he had been "much uplifted" by his friend's latest book:

It is, as you say, extraordinary how the outer world can see everything about it except the point. It is curiously so with much of the very good Catholic work now being done in literature, especially in France. The Protestant English, who prided themselves on their common sense, seem now to be dodging about and snatching at anything except the obvious… I am only a vulgar controversial journalist, and never pretended to be a novelist; my writing cannot in any case be so subtle or delicate as yours. But even I find that if I make the point of a story stick out like a spike, they carefully go and impale themselves on something else. But there are plenty of people who will appreciate anything as good as The Coat Without Seam.

If Baring could rely on Belloc and Chesterton to appreciate the subtleties of grace and providence that he had sought to weave throughout the fabric of his novels, he could count on the "dogmatic disbelief" of the Bloomsbury group to miss the point entirely. Virginia Woolf had declared in 1928 that T.S. Eliot "may be called dead to us all from this day forward" after she had learned, with evident horror, that he had "become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality." There was, she added, "something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God." It is little surprise, then, that she dismissed Baring, too, complaining about what she perceived as the "superficiality" of his novels. Baring's response to such criticism was expressed plaintively in his book, Have You Anything to Declare? (1937):

It is utterly futile to write about the Christian faith from the outside. A good example of this is the extremely conscientious novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward called Helbeck of Bannisdale. It is a study of Catholicism from the outside, and the author has taken scrupulous pains to make it accurate, detailed and exhaustive. The only drawback is that, not being able to see the matter from the inside, she misses the whole point.

If Baring felt frustrated at being misunderstood by those who were exiled in ignorance from the faith that breathed life into his novels, he was "too moved to speak" when he learned that François Mauriac had a deep admiration for his work. "What I most admire about Baring's work," Mauriac had told the Catholic actor-writer Robert Speaight, "is the sense he gives you of the penetration of grace."

Baring's Resurrection

Baring's final book was Have You Anything to Declare? Described by Robert Speaight as "the best bedside book in the English language," this anthology was gleaned from the literatures of many of the languages in which Baring was conversant. It was a fitting swan song from a man who appeared to be the very incarnation of the various cultures that comprised "the Europe of the Faith."
"Everything about him," says a character in one of Baring's novels, "gave one the impression of centuries and hidden stores of pent-up civilisation." In our uncivilized age, it is perhaps inevitable that Baring's star should have been overlooked. For as long as the light of civilization dwindles, so will the reputation of this most civilized of writers. Ultimately, however, his future position in the ranks of the great novelists of the 20th century is assured. As the permanent things reassert themselves, and as civilization rises from the ashes of burned-out nihilism, so the works of Maurice Baring will enjoy their own resurrection. The facile and the fashionable will fade, and the peripheral will pass away; but Baring, or at least the best of Baring, will remain.

by Joseph Pearce - July 24, 2010


Wednesday 2 May 2012

The South Downs Way Annual Walk...

One of the finest walks in England ...

22nd - 30th June 2012
places are still available at all pick-up points
This is an organised nine day walk along the full 100 miles of The South Downs Way National Trail, one of England's most beautiful long distance walks.
It has been enjoyed every June by hundreds of people from all over the world, for the past 33 years.

It is, by tradition, a supported rather than guided walk -with everyone free to walk at their own pace. The 'Footprints' team of ten experienced leaders walk the whole trail with you.

And you're assured that there will always be people nearby to help with directions, some first aid or just a friendly smile.

With luxury coach transport provided to and from the trail each day, it is by far the simplest way of completing this linear walk.


Chalk Stone Sally & John
Passing one of Andy Goldsworthy's chalk stones on the Annual South Downs Way Walk in June
The walk this year will begin in Winchester on Friday 22nd June
and finish at the magnificent 'Seven Sisters' on Saturday 30th June.        
Shirley 3Crossing Firle Beacon (courtesy Shirley Rushmer)
Each day averages around 11miles; the sectors are as follows :
Winchester - Exton - Queen Elizabeth Park - Cocking - Whiteways
Washington - Devils Dyke - Newmarket Inn - Alfriston - Eastbourne.