Literary Man

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Hilaire Belloc by A.N. Wilson
    Hamish Hamilton, 398 pp, £12.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 241 11176 5

In the third volume of the Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters George Lyttelton records Hilaire Belloc’s having told him that his mother ‘had seen Napoleon after his return from Elba and he looked un homme rompu’. Whether Napoleon when he landed near Antibes on 1 March 1815 indeed looked rompu historians may have determined: but certainly not with the help of Belloc’s mother, an Englishwoman who was born a little more than fourteen years later. In The Cruise of the Nona, however, Belloc declares that ‘time and again’ in childhood he was told the story of the fall of the Bastille by an eye-witness who was a close friend of his French grandmother. This sufficiently remarkable fact made an enduring impression on him: it was, he declared in 1925, ‘as though some very old person today were to remember having met in childhood a person who had seen John Milton’. But we need not suppose that Lyttelton misunderstood what he was being told. Belloc, he recalls, was busy being ‘great fun’. And mere truth came a poor second to immediate effect with Belloc, whether he was setting out to entertain in company or to demolish an opponent in historical or political controversy.

That anything he recorded of himself is liable to be full of fibs is disadvantageous to a biographer, and A.N. Wilson shows himself adequately aware of the fact. But there is a further hazard. Belloc was ceaselessly sociable and loquacious, and ceaselessly – by the standards of his time – outrageous to the point of being unprintable. There has, as a result, come into existence a considerable body of orally transmitted anecdote about him: a Belloc legend. It was, I think, in 1934 that the Catholic poet Wilfred Rowland Childe told me – clearly speaking of something one would not expect to find in print – that Belloc had the habit of denouncing his children as constantly ‘howling for pearls and caviar’. Since then, the phrase has become famous, and Mr Wilson uses it as a chapter heading, although he has no means of identifying a specific occasion upon which Belloc produced it. This is entirely harmless. But anecdotes of a similarly unknown provenance and of a more damaging sort continue to float around. There are several about Belloc’s behaviour at church services.

From Mr Wilson we learn that when Belloc’s son-in-law, Reginald Jebb, was being received into the Catholic Church, Belloc, at a particularly solemn moment in the service, ‘leaned forward to Father Vincent McNabb, who was conducting the ceremony, and said, in a loud voice: “Excuse me, father, is there a telephone in the sacristy?” ’ And again: ‘At the great Requiem which was offered for Chesterton’s soul in Westminster Cathedral, it was inevitably to Belloc that the newspaper cameras and reporters turned. In the course of the Mass he managed to sell his exclusive obituary of Chesterton to no less than four different editors.’ On the first of these stories Mr Wilson comments, very reasonably, that it ‘suggests an absence of personal piety’. On the second, research might be possible. According to Robert Speaight’s account of Chesterton’s death, the Times printed what Belloc ‘rightly described as a “crapulous” obituary’, but there was a ‘noble tribute’ in the Observer – and it was by Belloc.

Amusing stories, circulating without any assured attributions in a clever or literary society, must always be under some suspicion of the ben trovato. But nothing of the sort can be suggested with any plausibility of some of the verses which, similarly, oral tradition alone assigns to Belloc. And here Mr Wilson prints, it may be for the first time, the following lines:

At the end of Piccadilly is a place
Of habitation for the Jewish race,
Awaiting their regained Jerusalem.
These little huts, they say, suffice for them.
Here Rothschild lives, chief of the tribe abhorr’d
Who tried to put to death Our Blessed Lord.
But, on the third day, as the Gospel shows,
Cheating their machinations, He arose:
In whose commemoration, now and then,
We persecute these curly-headed men.

Only one man in England, we are constrained to feel, could have contrived this. And the feat becomes only the more remarkable when we learn that Belloc, so vehement a Catholic apologist, took rather a poor view of Our Blessed Lord, revering him simply because the Church bade him do so, but judging him a bit of a milksop all the same. That the Bible is ‘a pack of lies... lying as only shameless yids can lie’, is an opinion of Belloc’s vouched for, it seems, by two of his grandsons, Julian Jebb and Dom Philip Jebb OSB.

Nothing about Belloc can be stranger to us today than the depth of his anti-semitism. He was a man who delighted in his own extravagances and inconsistencies, but there was commonly a hint of burlesque in his parading them, and that he was found charming and even lovable by so many intelligent people (a fact that Mr Wilson makes clear) must have stemmed largely from this. He was dead-serious, however, in his detestation of the ‘yids’. How did this unamiable prejudice come about? Mr Wilson tells us that Belloc’s French ancestry derived from a 17th-century Nantes wine-merchant whose name was Moses Belloc or Bloch, and reminds us that Bloch is the name chosen by Proust to mark the unambiguously Jewish family with which the young Marcel tangled for a time, so perhaps during the months that the young Belloc chose to spend as a ranker in the French artillery he was occasionally baited because taken for a Jew. This remote aetiology may be unpersuasive, but it must be admitted that Belloc does seem to have cherished resentments with uncommon tenacity. He grew up in what proved to be a delusory persuasion that he was to inherit a considerable fortune, and the disappointment almost certainly nourished the radicalism of his middle years and his persistent denunciations of the rich. These are traits abundantly documented by Mr Wilson, but one small instance may be added. In The Path to Rome Belloc comes to a little place called Flavigny and records: ‘I saw but one gentleman’s house, and that, I am glad to say, was in disrepair.’ The abruptness and inconsequence of this seems to me to hint – and designedly – at a saving or hedging jocularity. Certainly his conduct in this regard scarcely matched his proclaimed persuasions. He had himself a robust appreciation of pearls and caviar, and he persistently frequented great houses and the society of wealthy people to the neglect of his own family. Some of these associations must occasionally have landed him at an uncomfortably short remove from what he would have called the Anglo-Judaic Plutocracy.

Another of his enduring and famous aversions was to dons, and particularly to the dons of Oxford. He himself, arriving at Balliol a little late and with a useful edge on his contemporaries there in point of maturity and experience of the world, had a brilliant undergraduate career, becoming President of the Union after establishing himself as its best debater for many years. This reputation, and an eventual first class in history, entitled him to compete for a fellowship at All Souls. But the college – one might almost say the club – turned him down. This he never forgave. Visiting Oxford more than forty years later, he believes he sees ‘the bloody dons shuffling along the pavement of that town and stammering and yammering and talking to themselves as they go’. Further, he reflects that: ‘It is curious how the beastliness of dons increases on one’s consciousness as one grows old. When one is young one takes them in one’s stride, like bugs in a continental hotel.’ Here – and yet more plainly in the famous poem beginning

Remote and ineffectual don
That dared attack my Chesterton

– there is an extravagance, a jollity, intended to soften the vituperation. Yet the festering wound was real. It is astonishing and sobering that a man of commanding eminence in his time should thus continue to fret at having been denied what Swinburne calls ‘the laurel of a college or the plaudits of a school’.

If Belloc disliked dons, the present publication has elicited some evidence that dons dislike Belloc. And about Mr Wilson himself – who has, I think, had dealings with donnery – I am left a little unsure. He has written a lively book, with much hard work behind it. He has delved in what appears to be a rather awful Belloc archive in a Catholic college in Massachusetts, and corresponded or conversed with a large number of people (many of them persons of quality) who might have information to give. I judge him first-rate on Belloc’s idiosyncratic theology and on the influence exercised upon his social thinking by Cardinal Manning. But before Mr Wilson’s labour concludes I have a sense of him as rather desperately defending his wicket, with his glance going frequently to the pavilion clock. There are sundry small signs of fatigue, which it is perhaps beneath the dignity of criticism to remark in much detail. And in his concluding paragraphs I feel that Mr Wilson is somewhat at a stand. He says roundly that ‘Belloc is an offensive character to the majority of those who know about him,’ and in the succeeding sentence cites Anthony Powell as declaring: ‘I can’t imagine anyone more odiously bad mannered and charmless.’ But Mr Powell’s impression turns out to have been formed in 1928, when, scarcely down from Oxford and working in a publisher’s office, he had a brief meeting with Belloc in his later fifties – by which time, as Mr Wilson has earlier shown, the number of his devoted friends and admirers was very considerable.

It is almost as if Mr Wilson, having discovered himself as belonging to that disapproving majority from the start, is wondering why he has written a long book about one whose personality he is constrained to admit as far from conducing to edification. He justifies himself, not by exhibiting Belloc’s qualities as a writer, but by rather abruptly announcing him to have been a genius – and a genius essentially on the score of character. Belloc’s genius is ‘wholly apparent in himself, in the loud voice for singing and the keen eyes to see, but above all in the “spouting well of joy within which never yet was dried” ’. This surely comes very close to involvement in contradiction. And Belloc (pace Dr A.L. Rowse, who is brought into the debate) was simply not a genius any way on. As he himself says early in The Cruise of the Nona: ‘We have a tendency today to use words too strong for the occasion, and the word genius is a very strong word.’ But he was a skilled, formidable and sometimes enchanting writer, and I am here reminded of another favourite saying of his recounted to me long ago. Belloc was fond of describing himself as ‘an unsuccessful literary man’. He was indeed unsuccessful in that he was forced to write too much for pay too little to answer his necessities as he conceived them. But a ‘literary man’ he essentially was, and it is as a literary man that he should be celebrated. There is a place in The Path to Rome in which he has come to an exhausted pause just short of the Brienzer Grat – beyond which lies Italy and Roman civilisation. And he records how uncomprehending German-speaking rustics ‘stood round me looking at me patiently in wonder as cows do at trains’. The phrase is a minute touchstone by which to test his art. Mr Wilson has lately been announced as preparing an introduction to a reissue of Belloc’s The Four Men, a work briefly mentioned in the present book as ‘perhaps his masterpiece’. I hope that Mr Wilson, himself an admirable writer, will there address himself to distinguishing the qualities of the essential Belloc.