Hilaire Belloc's Prolific Life

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    Belloc's luck at cards running out at Cincinnati, he hopped freights or walked. Six months after leaving England, he knocked on the Hogans' door in Napa: "...like one who brings his merchandise to Californian skies."

    Mrs. Hogan was having nothing of it.

    Miss Hogan was terrified with joy. She was of medium height, with a graceful figure, but her glory was a mass of red-gold hair, and the translucent-looking white skin that so often accompanies it. She had met Belloc while she and her mother were visiting a friend. A door opened and Belloc, preoccupied with his zine, The Paternoster Review, his dark clothes disheveled and his hair awry, burst into the room.

    Three years before, W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had commissioned Belloc, then 17, to write a string of articles on his impressions whilst bicycling through France. Belloc had then turned to editing his own paper. Then he fell in love. She saw a stocky, broad-shouldered man, with a severe face, strong jaw and direct, unwavering glance, and fell in love at a moment. Even in youth, Hilaire Belloc had great presence: "the ...impression of power, of energy under command, of dignity, of distinction," wrote Gertrude Atherton.

    Each seized the imagination of the other. They saw each other often in London. He talked to her endlessly of politics, modern literature and his plans for the future, as one does with the person who occupies one's mind for fear of learning one's emotions are not returned. She listened to him, at least for the pleasure of seeing his face; then, one day in a cab, she seized his hand and kissed it.

    In Napa, however, Mrs. Hogan was adamant. Miss Hogan declined his proposal of marriage. He returned home. They wrote to each other constantly.

    Belloc returned to New York five years later. After serving in the French artillery, he had been a brilliant scholar, debater and writer at Oxford. An eyewitness wrote of his first appearance at an Oxford Union debate:

    As he rose, men started up and began to leave the house; at his first sentence they paused and looked at him?and sat down again. By the end of his third sentence, with a few waves of his powerful hands, and a touch of unconscious magnetism and conscious strength...Belloc held his audience breathless.

    Then Elodie begged him to come for her: he did, and they were married in California. After they settled in Oxford, he began earning their bread by the pen.

    Whenever Hilaire Belloc found himself without a book, he wrote one. From 1896 until 1942, he wrote 156 books, more than three a year. This does not count pamphlets, poems and articles. He published the enduring hit, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, a collection of whimsical cautionary verse, in 1896. It has never gone out of print. After a string of respectable biographies, he again hit the jackpot in 1902 with The Path to Rome, a travelogue describing his one-man pilgrimage to the Holy City; it, too, remains in print. His work's diversity is astonishing: history, literary criticism, comic and serious verse, novels, economics, military tactics and strategy, satire, topography and travel, essays, translations, religious, social and political commentary. And he was unusually focused: as a subject took form in his mind it fell almost automatically into paragraphs and then into sentences. Pen in hand, he wrote James II in eight days at El Kantara, in Algeria; he later wrote Milton in 10. In later life, as he took to dictating his work, Belloc talked with amazing fluency, as if his memory held an army of books and articles in serried ranks, ready to march from his lips upon command.

    He advocated an alternate vision of history: Catholic Europe had seen the decline of slavery and the rise of a largely independent property-holding peasantry in the Middle Ages; this balanced economic arrangement was upset by the Lutheran revolt of the 16th century. Aristocrats ostensibly promoting religious reformation while bent on filling their own pockets polarized classes, creating a propertyless proletariat. Belloc's social analysis, denounced in his lifetime, has been largely vindicated by recent scholarship.

    In 1899 he moved to London where he joined the Liberal Party. More importantly, he met and became the closest friend of G.K. Chesterton: their partnership in the Catholic literary revival was so patent that George Bernard Shaw called them the "Chesterbelloc."

    Belloc made and kept friends for life. Even in his flaws he could be likable. Thus, he often grumbled for hours: but with such exaggeration and bombast as to put his companions in stitches. He was a tremendous talker, interested in an unusual variety of subjects and curious about every aspect of human affairs. Belloc's temper was skeptical. He never believed anything because he wanted to believe it. But he knew that what we seek is not to be found in our brief years on Earth. This did not agitate him: with Pascal, he believed "we are not commanded to see that the Christian faith prevails, but only to strive that it should."

    It followed that his piety was matter-of-fact. To him, the church was home. Thus, although he attended Mass daily, he believed (it is theologically sound) that a Low Mass should last no more than 10 minutes. If I attended Mass daily and were as hungover as he often was at that hour (Belloc was occasionally known to almost stagger to church, murmuring, "Oh, what we must endure for our holy religion"), I suspect I, too, might prefer similar brevity. I would not imitate H.B.'s criticism of a slow priest by standing up after 10 minutes, taking out a pocket watch, opening it and staring at its face.

    In 1906 the Liberal Party nominated him for Parliament in Salford South, near Manchester. No Liberal had ever been elected there, which may explain why one of the country's two great parties would nominate an eccentric French-born Roman Catholic journalist who had been naturalized for only three years. The voters were mostly Methodist, and Belloc's campaign manager warned him to avoid religion.

    Belloc rose to his feet in a packed hall at his first meeting of the campaign. "Gentlemen," he began, "I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [reaching into his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads, every 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!" There was an absolute silence. One imagines the campaign manager contemplating the razor and his wrists. Then the crowd exploded with applause. His constituents may not have shared his religion, but they admired his guts, openness and ebullient temperament. (Perhaps, too, his capacity for drinking most of them under the table.) He was elected.

    Belloc argued finance capitalism and socialism between them were grinding down civilization: the solution was "to apply the fruits which the Catholic culture had produced when it was in full vigor, the restriction of monopoly, the curbing of the money power, the establishment of cooperative work...and the jealous restriction of usury and competition, which have come so near to destroying us."

    Belloc was often charged with anti-Semitism. His attacks on high finance sometimes drift into bigotry. But so does the diary of Eleanor Roosevelt. Moreover, Belloc, at his worst and most ungenerous, when hungover and past his deadline for an article with a bill collector at the door, never wrote anything even in private as coldly inhuman as H.G. Wells wrote in Modern Utopia:

    And for the rest, these swarms of black and brown and dingy white and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency... I take it they will have to go.

    In 1908, Belloc began advocating campaign finance reform: that party funds (today, we call this "soft money") be subject to reporting and audit. The Liberals dumped him at the next general election. But South Salford liked Old Thunder and he was reelected. He chose not to run at the December 1910 general elections and resumed his staggering output. He published 17 books in the next two years, including his major social thesis, The Servile State (1912).

    Elodie's health began declining in 1913. It may have been cancer?we do not know. In her delirium, her English accent fell away and she spoke once more as a Californian. On Feb. 2, 1914, she died. He had watched by her bed for five weeks. He embraced her, and they led him away. Her body was taken downstairs and prepared for the grave. The next day, he went to her room. He glanced about it once more. Then he came out and turned the key in its lock. The door never opened again in his lifetime, nor did he ever pass it without pausing to trace upon it the Sign of the Cross, and to kiss it. He did this for 40 years.

    In 1923, Belloc returned to New York on a lecture tour. He had not wanted to leave home, had demanded an outrageous fee and, to his distress, got it. The tour was hard work: he spoke in New York, Cincinnati and Chicago, and numerous towns between. He liked Americans, yet resented never being left alone: "If you sit down to write a man at once sits down beside to talk?very slowly, heartily, full of good heart and with a limited vocabulary. If you are in a public place, [it could be] any stranger...[and] there is no shutting one's ears."

    Of course, he had been trying to write his finest book. He loved sailing. Ten years before, an admirer had given him a small yacht. In 1925, he published The Cruise of the Nona. It describes not a single cruise, but some 10 years' intermittent voyaging round the coast of Great Britain and a lifetime's reminiscences. He wrote the book in full maturity, to his own plan and in his own time, in nearly perfect prose: economic, sinewy, flexible, as shining and thunderous as the sea.

    In February 1935, Belloc returned to the United States. He stood on deck as the liner passed Sandy Hook, heading for the Narrows, remembering almost against his will the woman for whom he had made his first and second journeys. After 20 years he still grieved. As the ship came up the outer bay, something happened to him. To call this event a vision would have invited his laughter. He later wrote to a close friend that his faith had been experienced as well as believed: that "the original matter returned completely, armed with life, unaffected in any way by time, easily unconquerable. Certain. Fully existent." Perhaps the event's full measure is that a hard-headed, practical, articulate, skeptical man had experienced something he could not put in words. His lectures proved so successful that he returned two years later. In 1942, Belloc suffered a stroke. He no longer practiced the writer's trade. On July 12, 1953, he lost his balance and fell into his study's fireplace. Though the burns were not serious, the shock was fatal. At sunset on July 16, he slipped away, going, as he had written in Cromwell, "...to discover whether there were beatitude for his reward who had hewn to pieces the enemies of Jehovah; or whether he should fall shrieking into the hands of an angry God; or whether Death be indeed no more than a mighty sleep."