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Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc

by Joe Pearce.

Published by Harper Collins (h/b) ISBN: 0745318630 (p/b) ISBN: 0745318649

Joseph Pearce relies heavily upon The Young Hilaire Belloc (Marie Belloc-Lowndes) and The Life of Hilaire Belloc (Robert Speaight) but he has also made use of original research. The derivation of the book’s title Old Thunder, is revealed in the first paragraph. At 4pm on 27th July, 1870, a violent thunderstorm welcomed the infant Belloc into the world. Belloc’s ancestry is impressive. On his father’s side he numbered among his forebears an Irish colonel who had marched with Napoleon, an authoress and translator of distinction and a painter of renown. On his mother’s side he was descended from the great Joseph Priestley, who had revolutionised chemistry by his discovery of oxygen and the nature of combustion. Belloc’s father, Louis-Marie Belloc, was a barrister, and his mother, Elizabeth Parkes, was familiar with all the literary lights of Victorian London, counting among her friends and acquaintances, Thackeray, Trollope, George Sand, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot. How many of Belloc’s great gifts were inherited it is impossible to say, and Pearce does no more than suggest that they might have been, but it is significant that Genesis, generation, gens, genereux and genius share the same root.

Pearce uses the same technique as he employed in Wisdom and Innocence, his biography of G.K.Chesterton. In both books, he examines an aspect of his subject’s work, and by following it through to a conclusion, takes the reader forward, chronologically. So we are introduced to Belloc, knight errant in love, soldier, scholar, traveler, poet, essayist, novelist, historian, biographer, artist, composer, apologist, political philosopher, the epitome of “Renaissance Man”.

Pearce notes, indeed dwells upon, a restlessness in Belloc which a closer examination might reveal to be the source of much of the sorrow and pain in his life. He does not seek to explain it, perhaps because it is beyond explanation. Belloc unaccountably left the Oratory School, where he had been a great success, at the age of seventeen, so throwing up his chance of going on to University. Pearce’s guess is that this rather reckless act was the result of being (kindly) rejected by a young woman, Minna Hope, with who he had fallen in love. Belloc, against the advice of his French relatives, entered the College Stanislas as a naval cadet. He did not like it and after a few months simply walked out in his cadet uniform and returned to London. He next trained as a land agent on a Sussex farm, but, after a contratemps with the farmer, was dismissed. He went to Ireland, walking and sailing. The Irish jaunt over he became apprenticed in an architect’s office. It was during these months in London that he met and became a frequent visitor of Cardinal Manning with whom he met John Burns and other leaders of the London Dock Strike. Architecture however was not for Belloc and he turned to journalism. Through the good offices of his sister, Marie Belloc Lowndes, who worked for the Pall Mall Gazette, W.T. Stead sent him to France, to travel through that country on a bicycle and send back dispatches. Returned to London and journalism he remained dissatisfied, until one day in early summer, 1890, he visited his mother. There were other visitors; An American widow, Mrs. Hogan and her two daughters, Elizabeth and Elodie. Belloc immediately decided that Elodie was the woman he would marry. He had fallen irrevocably in love, and the feeling was reciprocal.

It would be impossible to overstate the all encompassing love of Hilaire and Elodie which overcame the doubts on Elodie’s part (she was half persuaded that she wished to be a nun), the difficulties placed in their way by family, the distance apart when Elodie returned to California, the final sorrow of bereavement, but equally impossible to understate it, for no author or poet has that art. Pearce therefore wisely and without romantic flourish, simply narrates the circumstances, casting rays of light upon them with sparse quotations from the lovers’ letters, but surely this was one of the great love stories of the century? Pearce does reveal that Belloc, although he travelled steerage, did not “work his passage” to New York, and, contrary to popular legend, did not walk across America, but travelled by train. However, rejected by Elodie upon her mother’s insistence, it does seem that he walked all, or most of, the way back.

As in all true faerie stories, Hilaire married his princess, but not before he had completed nine months military service in the army of France, the army, still of Napoleon, and taken his First Class Honours at Oxford , where he was elected President of the Union. Failing to obtain a fellowship he became an extension lecturer and continued to earn money by journalism. Elodie’s vocation having been tried and failed, nothing now prevented their engagement. In 1896 Belloc hastened to America where he found Elodie dangerously ill as the result of a nervous breakdown, and here we have the first incidence of that wanderlust which the contemporary mind will find inexplicable and which, I suspect will leave the contemporary female mind spitting feathers! Belloc, distressed at Elodie’s condition “went to pieces”. Happily she recovered and began to convalesce, so Belloc went off on a “short” walking holiday in the Daiblo mountains! Belloc and Elodie were married in California on 15th June, 1896 and shortly after returned to London where Belloc began to make a name for himself with the publication of two books of verse, Verses and Sonnets and the immensely popular and much reprinted The Bad Child’s Books of Beasts.

In 1901 Belloc determined that he would walk to Rome “in fulfillment of a vow”. His mother opposed the idea, fearing that he would lose his income from journalism. What Elodie thought is not recorded, but he left her in London with their three children and the prospect of several weeks’ separation. The walk culminated in the hugely successful book, The Path to Rome. This was not the end of Belloc’s wanderlust. In 1901 he bought the Nona and sailed her from Holyhead to Littlehampton. The result was another literary masterpiece, The Cruise of the Nona. In May 1902 Belloc spent most of the month in Paris, drinking and talking with students and workmen. Having moved to Slindon in 1903 he frequently spent weekends in London, lecturing or dining with fellow authors and publishers. His years as an M.P. were to add to this burden of travel and absence, as did his long solitary walking tours in Europe and Britain and his voyages in the Nona which were to inspire Esto Pepetua. In 1906 the Bellocs bought “Kingsland” and Elodie appears to have been completely happy, tending her flower garden, cultivating her kitchen garden and rearing her children. The impression from Pearce’s account is that Belloc’s tours were frequent and lengthy and that they must have deducted considerably from Belloc’s seventeen years of marriage. One is left to wonder how much he regretted, how bitterly he begrudged, the time spent apart. Elodie’s untimely death in 1914 resulted in even more wanderings and his five children grew up “wild”, something, Pearce records, which caused Belloc self-reproach in later years.

Pearce makes no attempt at an explanation of Belloc’s absences from the woman he plainly adored, who he could not live without and after whose death he did not fully live. There are however some explanations, if not exhaustive. The walk to Rome, Belloc said, was in fulfillment of a vow, presumably made when he left the barracks at Toul for the last time, for it is surely significant that he journeyed to that town to commence his pilgrimage. All the evidence of Belloc’s life suggests that this was a case of “I could not love thee half so much, loved I not honour more.” It was also rewarding from both the literary and financial point of view. It is possible that Belloc was so secure in the happiness of his love, and that the love was of such depth, that he did not need Elodie to be actually present. She was with him, she was real, always present and alive in his memories and his thoughts wherever he went. There is much to suggest that love had made Belloc a self-sufficient man, needing little else. he did not, as none of us do, foresee the possibility of death.

Travelling, we must remember, was Belloc’s job. He earned his family’s bread by lecturing in towns and cities across the country. He wrote essays, books and dispatches on travel and foreign parts. A travel writer must travel, as must an historian and biographer. Frederick Wilhemsen, in his monograph,Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man, (Sheed and Ward, 1954) makes this very point:

“Belloc’s position absolutely necessitated his emphasis on travel, his minute detection of physical details, his sympathy with verbal tradition…these were all humanistic instruments, rendering him one with the past.”

Wilhemsen goes on to say how Belloc visited the site of a battle on its anniversary, and if the weather was not right, visited it again and again until it was. It must also be remembered that in the task of earning a living there was nothing uncommon in husbands working far from home for long periods, whether they were seamen, soldiers or artisans – “Men must work and women must weep” in fact.

Pearce brings home what many of us have forgotten, the sheer fame of Belloc. He has little to say of Distributism, but during his life, thousands listened to what Belloc had to say. Belloc had a wide following, for his books, for his ideas and for his political philosophy. Distributist thinking was still detectable in books and films until the 1960’s. Pearce concentrates upon those books and poems, which he considers, were better than anyone else has written. He rightly praises “Ha’nacker Mill” for its earth sorrow and “The Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine”, for its technical perfection, but I would have liked more about the content and message of the novels. For example it is improbable that many will have had the opportunity of reading Belinda which Pearce asserts is Belloc’s best, but does not tell us what it is about! However one must admit the difficulty for an author in giving us more literary criticism in a volume which is not specifically a literary biography. Belloc is very difficult to classify. If we think “Shaw” we immediately think, “plays”. If we think “Wells” we immediately think “novels” and more particularly “Science Fiction”, but with Belloc, as with Chesterton, no such easy classification comes to mind; they were poets, novelists, essayists, biographers, short story writers, historians, the list seems endless.

A criticism of Old Thunder must be that it does not give Belloc full credit for his work in the allied cause between the outbreak of war and the death in action of his son, Peter. In the first year of the war Belloc wrote and lectured in defence of the war. He visited the front where he met again not only his old regiment and battery, but even his old gun! The most surprising omission however is that of any reference (apart from a listing in the Bibliography) to The Catholic and the War published in 1940 by the CTS and, therefore, the demi-official response of the Catholic laity. According to Speaight, this monograph, “gave the moral basis of the Allied cause”. The omission is the more surprising since there are powerful passages in the monograph which dispose once and for all of the smears of “anti-Semitism” which Pearce is at some pains to refute. Surely my copy is not the only one extant? If the “anti-Semitism” smear is based, not upon written statements and utterances, but upon antipathy to the Catholic heritage which Belloc defended and the Distributism he advocated, the smears tell us more about those who spew them around than they do about Belloc. But let us turn to the Catholic and the War.

“The Third Reich has treated its Jewish subjects with a contempt for Justice which even if there had been no other action of the kind in other departments would be a sufficient warranty for determining its elimination from Europe…Cruelty to a Jew is as odious as cruelty to any human being, whether that cruelty be moral in the form of insult, or physical…You may hear men saying on every side;’ However, there is one thing I do agree with and that is the way they (The Nazis) have settled the Jews’. Now that attitude is directly immoral. The more danger there is that it will grow the more necessity there is for denouncing it. The action of the enemy toward the Jewish race has been in morals intolerable. Contracts have been broken on all sides, careers destroyed by the hundred and the thousand, individuals have been treated with the most hideous and disgusting cruelty…If no price is paid for such excesses, our civilisation will certainly suffer and suffer permanently. If the men who have committed them go unpunished (and only defeat in war can punish them) then the decline of Europe, already advanced, will proceed to catastrophe”.

Joseph Pearce is obviously a Bellocian enthusiast and his written this book with devotion to his hero. It is a worthy companion volume to his biography of Chesterton.

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