“If You Reject Me on Account of My Religion…”
Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc
By Joseph Pearce
Review Author: Thomas Storck
Joseph Pearce is well known as the author of Literary Converts and of biographies of Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn, Tolkien, and others. Now Pearce has turned his talents to another massive literary figure of the 20th century, Hilaire Belloc.
Belloc, who to some degree has been overshadowed by his friend and contemporary, G.K. Chesterton, is a thinker and writer of enormous importance. Whether as an essayist, poet, historian, social critic, or novelist, what Belloc wrote is always of interest. His style alone, sparse and manly, is enough to captivate a reader. But his value for us today lies chiefly in his social criticism, in such books as Essays of a Catholic, Survivals and New Arrivals, and An Essay on the Nature of Contemporary England. These works contain something that Catholics — American Catholics especially — need to learn: that a religion always produces a culture, a common way of life, and that, since we live perforce surrounded by a secularized Protestant culture, we ought to immerse ourselves in Catholic thinking on every subject. Only in this way will we have any chance of escaping the split personality of being Catholic in faith but Protestant or secular in culture.
Belloc’s life is nearly as interesting as his writing. He was born in 1870 of a French father and English mother, and after his father’s early death his mother settled permanently in England. Belloc attended Cardinal Newman’s Oratory School and became good friends with a great English churchman of that period, Cardinal Manning, from whom he received his enduring passion for social justice and the poor.
In 1889, the same year that Cardinal Manning settled the great London dock strike, obtaining the best terms he could for the strikers, Belloc met his future wife, Elodie Hogan, a 19-year-old American who was visiting London with her mother. The two of them fell in love, and the ups and downs of their romance — including often being separated by the Atlantic Ocean, the opposition of Elodie’s mother, and Elodie’s vacillant desire to enter the convent — is a story in itself. Belloc’s impulsive trip to America in 1891, when he traveled across the North American continent to California to see Elodie, and walked part of the way back, is typical Belloc. Feeling he would not be able to win Elodie, he joined the French army and served for a year in the artillery. After his discharge he entered Oxford, where he had a brilliant career, graduating in 1895 with a first-class honors degree in history. Finally, in 1896, he married Elodie, and the two eventually had five children.
For all the depth of his thought, Belloc was also a man of action, a famous conversationalist and debater, one who took long walking tours through the Continent and owned his own sailboat. He served as a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1910. His integrity and fearlessness are well shown by the way he confronted anti-Catholic bigots when he first ran for office. As Pearce recounts the incident: “He chose a Catholic school as the venue for his first public meeting and decided to ignore the warnings of the local Catholic clergy that he would be wise to skirt the religious question and concentrate on other, less contentious issues. Disregarding their advice, he rose to address the packed audience as follows: ‘Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking his beads out of 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.'”
Pearce chronicles this and the rest of Belloc’s long (1870-1953) life, including the early death of his wife, the varied fates of his children (one of whom named his own son Martin Luther Belloc just to annoy his father), his friendships, his many controversies, his opinions (which, whether right or wrong, were always firmly, even stubbornly held), and his incessant work as a writer, about which he often complained. Even though Belloc was compelled by economic necessity to write, he wrote very well, and although he regretted all his life that he had not obtained a Fellowship at Oxford, the Catholic world is more in his debt than if he had been simply an academic.
The period of some of Belloc’s most intense literary activity, between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, was also one of the most interesting of the 20th century. The Catholic revival which had begun in the 19th century had matured, and Catholics now had the intellectual confidence to stand in opposition to the dominant philosophical and social systems of the Western world. On the one hand, there were the liberal democracies, with their accompanying capitalism, and on the other Communism, newly established in Russia and confident of eventual world revolution, as well as a wide variety of socialisms. Then there was the rising force of Fascism and like-minded movements, which seemed to have some affinity with the Catholic worldview in that they were both opposed to socialism and Communism, and to the liberalism that animated the capitalistic democracies. Belloc, like many Catholic intellectuals of his day, tried to discern where the interests of the Church and of Catholic culture lay. Belloc (and Chesterton) had an overly sanguine view of Mussolini, especially during the early years of his rule, but Belloc’s view of the essential incompatibility of a Catholic social order with either socialism or liberalism was certainly correct. Belloc was always clear in his equal opposition to both socialism and capitalism, and he pilloried parliamentary democracy in his 1911 book The Party System, co-authored with Chesterton’s brother, Cecil.
Pearce deals with many of these controversial aspects of Belloc’s thought, especially his alleged anti-Semitism. But in general there is less treatment by Pearce of Belloc’s ideas than of the events of his life. Pearce hardly devotes any space to Distributism, the economic system that Belloc and Chesterton championed, and about which Pearce himself has written a book, Small is Still Beautiful (see my review in the Sept. 2002 NOR).
One strength of Pearce’s biography is the numerous excerpts from letters, newspaper articles, reviews, pamphlets, and books by Belloc, his friends, and his enemies. These give a nice flavor to both Belloc and to the events of his time. All in all, this is a captivating book that details the panorama of a fascinating life. Read this book. You will not be sorry.
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