Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
Hillaire Belloc ca. 1950
JOSEPH HILAIRE PIERRE BELLOC,
ONE OF THE TRUE LORDS of the English language, was not an Englishman
by birth. His father was French, his mother was Irish; and when
he married, his bride was an American. But he looked more like
the traditional figure of John Bull than any Englishman could.
He wore a stand-up collar several sizes too large for him. His
rotund head was crowned with a black hat-sometimes tall, sometimes
of the pancake variety. He was big and stocky and red of face,
and a typically British great-coat draped his beefy form except
in the warmest weather.
Hilaire Belloc-he dropped the
other appendages at an early age-was born at La Celle, near Paris,
on July 20, 1870. His father, Louis Swanton Belloc, was well
known as a barrister throughout France. Bessie Rayner Belloc,
his mother, was of Irish extraction. Somewhere in his immediate
background was an infusion of Pennsylvania Dutch blood. His mother,
who lived into her nineties and died in 1914, was a remarkably
intellectual woman, noted as one of the signers of the first
petition ever presented for women's suffrage.
Her son studied at the Oratory
School at Edgebaston, England, and at Balliol College, Oxford,
where he matriculated in 1893. In his third year he was Blackenbury
History Scholar and an honor student in the history schools.
Between Oratory School and
his matriculation at Oxford, Belloc served in the French Army,
where as a driver in the Eighth Regiment of Artillery, he was
stationed at Toul. It was from this spot that, years later, he
was to set forth on the pilgrimage afoot to St. Peter's that
furnished material for the book that many critics consider his
best,- The Path to Rome.
In 1903 Belloc became a British
subject and in 1906 was returned to Parliament by the South Salford
constituency. He was a member of the Liberal party in the brilliant
House of Commons created by the Tory debacle of the preceding
year. He made his maiden speech in the House early in 1906 and
it won him an immediate reputation as a brilliant orator. He
had already attracted considerable attention during his campaign.
In the year of his return to Parliament he was also the nominee
of the British Bishops to the Catholic Education Council.
Belloc's literary career began
immediately after Balliol. He rapidly achieved success as a newspaper
and magazine writer and as a light versifier. His first book,
published in the year of his graduation, was Verses and Sonnets,
and this was followed within a year by The Bad Child's Book of
Beasts, in which his reputation as a master of whimsy was fully
established. One of the most famous in this category starts out
The nicest child I
Was Charles Augustus
He never lost his cap
His stockings or his
In eating bread he made no crumbs.
He was extremely fond
Another, more dire, ballad
about an untruthful maiden named Mathilde was a famous forerunner
to the Ogden Nash style of rhyming:
It happened that a
few weeks later
Her aunt was off to
To see that entertaining
The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.
Belloc sat in the House of
Commons from 1906 to 1910, but refused to serve a second term
because, in his own words, he was "weary of the party system,"
and thought he could attack politics better from without Parliament
than from within. From that time on he devoted his entire efforts
to writing and lecturing.
Belloc's wife, the former Elodie
Agnes Hogan of Napa, California, whom he married in 1896, died
in 1914. He never remarried. His eldest son, Louis, was killed
while serving as a flier in World War I, and his youngest, Peter,
a captain of the Royal Marines, died during World War-II. Belloc
made his home with his elder daughter, Mrs. Eleanor Jebb, wife
of a member of Parliament, in Horsham, Sussex. Besides Eleanor,
he had another daughter, Elizabeth, a poet, as-well as another
son, Hilary, who lives in Canada. Belloc's sister, Mrs. Marie
Belloc Lowndes, also a noted British writer, died in 1947.
By Pope Pius XI, Belloc was
decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the
Great in 1934 for his services to Catholicism as a writer. In
the same year, his alma- mater, Oxford, conferred upon him the
honorary degree of Master of Arts. He shared with the then British
Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, the distinction of being
the only persons to have their portraits hung in the National
Portrait Gallery while they were alive.
Mr. Belloc visited the United
States on many occasions. In 1937 he served as a visiting Professor
of History at the Graduate School of Fordham University in New
York. From the matter of these lectures came his book, The Crisis
A prolific writer, he was the
author of 153 books of essays, fiction, history, biography, poetry
and light verse as well as a vast amount of periodical literature.
He was largely responsible for G. K. Chesterton's conversion
to Catholicism, and the two of them became ranked as not only
among England's greatest writers but as the most brilliant lay
expounders of Catholic doctrine. The two were also close friends
and frequent collaborators, especially on the magazine which
came to be known as G. K's. Weekly, and in which they came to
wage many a valiant crusade together. As a critic noted: "To
Hilaire Belloc this generation owes big glimpses of the Homeric
spirit. His mission is to flay alive the humbugs and hypocrites
and the pedants and to chant robust folk-songs to the naked stars
of the English world to a rousing obligato of clinking flagons."
Because of his antagonism to
many British sacred cows and his free and caustic criticism of
them, he was not a wholly popular man in England. Nor did his
espousal of the Franco cause against the Communists during the
Spanish civil war add to his popularity there. But Belloc had
never been a man to purchase popularity at the price of integrity.
Just four days before his eighty-third
birthday, while dozing before the fireplace in his daughter's
home, he fell into the flames and was so badly burned that he
died in hospital at Guildford, Surrey, soon afterward on July
Despite his own prediction
to the contrary, his place in English letters is forever secure,
primarily as a poet and as the author of The Path to Rome.