Belloc, Hilaire (1870-1953) by Bergman, Annie

Hilaire Belloc 1870-1953

An eloquent and exuberant speaker, Hilaire Belloc was known for supporting unpopular opinions and pontificating on the idiocy and ignorance of the views of the British public (DeBoer-Langworthy 41). Ironically, Belloc could deliver his speeches with such elegance and wit that the British public seemed eager to listen. However masterful Belloc was in his speech, though, he seemed to be embroiled in political controversy for much of his adult life.

It is fitting, then, that Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was born July 27, 1870 during a thunderstorm in the village of La Celle St. Cloud 12 miles outside of Paris, and two days before the Franco-Prussian war broke out. He was the second child of Elizabeth (Bessie) Parkes and Louis Belloc. His mother, originally from London, was a famous suffragist and writer, and a close friend to those in contemporary literary circles such as: George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, and William Thackeray (Speaight 5). Belloc’s father, Louis, was a French barrister who was always sickly, and consequently too frail to practice law. He died two years after his son’s birth, and upon his death, Bessie moved her family back to London.

Belloc began his schooling at the Oratory School in Edgbaston, Warwickshire, which was run by the famous John Henry Cardinal Newman. It was here that Belloc was introduced to strict Catholic doctrine. While at the Oratory school, Belloc won awards for mathematics and literature, and was taken under the wing of Cardinal Newman. Belloc, growing restless and longing to return to his native France, left the Oratory after the summer of 1887. He entered the Catholic affiliated Collège Stanislas in Paris. There he was placed in the Naval class with about 20 other boys, but was ultimately unhappy (35). He remained at Stanislas for little more than a term, and upon returning to London resolved never to return to school.

In 1888, Belloc began work as a land agent on a farm in Sussex, and it was here that he began writing poetry. His poems were first published in the Irish Monthly and the Pall Mall Gazette, a magazine for which his sister, Marie, worked. Belloc, who showed no aptitude for farming, left Sussex in 1889 to begin his own monthly literary review. He turned to an old Oratory schoolmate – Arthur Hungerford Pollen – for help. Together they published the Paternoster. The monthly was unsuccessful, however, and only six issues appeared in print. It was in these years also that Belloc met and was received by Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, a convert to Catholicism. Manning frequently told Belloc of his political and religious views, and Belloc welcomed the information because of its unconventionality. It was Manning who instilled in Belloc an almost militant stance on Catholicism. In 1891 a frustrated and unemployed Belloc once again felt compelled to return to France. He joined the French Artillery in the 10th Battery of the 8th Regiment (63). He served in the French military until 1893 when he entered Balliol College, Oxford.

It was with the help of his sister that he was able to attend Balliol. At Oxford, Belloc began debating, and his speeches astonished and captivated audiences. He graduated from Balliol College in 1895 with first class honors in history and exceptional distinctions in the university debating society (95). After graduating, Belloc turned to journalism. He began touring the United States giving lectures, and married Elodie Hogan on June 16, 1896 in Napa, California, while on this tour. Also in 1896, Belloc published Verses and Sonnets. It was hardly acknowledged, however, so Belloc continued his work as a speaker and free-land journalist. In 1897, The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts appeared, and Belloc became suddenly popular as a writer.

In 1899, after a year of touring the United States giving speeches, Belloc lost a fellowship at Oxford and a professorship in history at Glasgow University due to his growing militant views on Catholicism. Belloc was devastated, but continued to write. In 1900 he published “Paris”, a personal essay; “Robespierre”, an historical essay appeared in 1901; and, a spiritual autobiography and personal travelogue appeared in 1902 titled The Path to Rome. Five more books appeared from 1903 to 1904, as did many pamphlets for various Catholic organizations, volumes of poetry, and articles and reviews for a variety of magazines.

Over these years Belloc began to voice his growing disillusion with politics. He ran for a seat in Parliament proclaiming his Catholicism during his campaign. Many critics believed that this would alienate some voters, but nevertheless, he won a seat as a Liberal in January 1906 (Tierny 53). During his years in Parliament he developed an even more radical stance, but was still able to captivate his audiences with his speaking abilities. He eventually resigned from Parliament in December 1909 disgusted with party politics. In these four years Belloc produced a biography of Marie Antoinette, two books of travel, two satirical novels, one volume of verse, four pamphlets, and five volumes of essays.

It was also during this time that Belloc and fellow writer, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, were writing on the ills of the 20th century (DeBoer-Langworthy). They particularly focused on social and moral theories that developed into what is now called Distributism. They wanted to create a balanced economy that supported both independent farmers and small industries owned by the workers. The Catholic Church, according to their theory, would provide whatever control, local and international, that would be needed. Their theory was famously debated among Belloc, Chesterton, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw over two years in The New Age. The debate dragged, however, and Belloc and Chesterton sought a new outlet for their views. They broke away from The New Age in 1911 to begin their own literary journal called The Eye Witness. In this journal, they intended to expose Socialism and to express their personal and political views more effectively (Martin 121).

The beginning of World War I and the years following were hard for Belloc. First, he lost his wife Elodie to a stroke. Distraught by the loss, Belloc turned to writing once again, and produced military analyses for Land and Water journal. These essays broke the monotony of the day for Belloc. The war, however, also took the lives of his friend, Cecil Chesterton, and his son, Louis. To ease the suffering, he continued to publish and he eventually received an honorary law degree from Glasgow University. After World War I, Belloc returned to his adoptive Sussex where he continued to write, and many of his later novels are based on his life there. Belloc suffered yet another personal loss; his son Peter died in 1941 in the Second World War. In 1942, Belloc suffered a slight stroke which ended his literary work. He continued to live peacefully however, for another eleven years. Belloc died on July 16, 1953 at his home in Sussex.

—Annie Bergman

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