22 April, 2009

Hilaire Belloc


Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was an Anglo-French writer and historian who became a naturalized British subject in 1902. He was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. He is most notable for his Roman Catholic faith, which had an impact on most of his writing.

Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce.

Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France (next to Versailles and near Paris) to a French father and English mother, and grew up in England. Much of his boyhood was spent in Slindon West Sussex, for which he often felt homesick in later life. This is evidenced in poems such as, "West Sussex Drinking Song", "The South Country", and even the more melancholy, "Ha'nacker Hill".

His mother Elizabeth Rayner Parkes (1829–1925) was also a writer, and a great-granddaughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. In 1867 she married attorney Louis Belloc, son of the French painter Jean-Hilaire Belloc. In 1872, five years after they wed, Louis died, but not before being wiped out financially in a stock market crash. The young widow then brought her son Hilaire, along with his sister, Marie, back to England where he remained, except for his voluntary enlistment as a young man in the French artillery.

After being educated at John Henry Newman's Oratory School Belloc served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. He was powerfully built, with great stamina, and walked extensively in Britain and Europe. While courting his future wife Elodie, whom he first met in 1890, the impecunious Belloc walked a good part of the way from the midwest of the United States to her home in northern California, paying for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry.

After his military service, Belloc proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, as a History scholar. He went on to obtain first class honours in History, and never lost his love for Balliol, as is illustrated by his verse, "Balliol made me, Balliol fed me/ Whatever I had she gave me again".

In the early 1930s, he was given an old Jersey pilot cutter called 'Jersey'. He sailed this for some years around the coasts of England, with the help of younger men. One of whom, Dermod MacCarthy, wrote a book about his time on the water with Belloc, called Sailing with Mr Belloc.

An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc was a noted figure within the University, being President of the Oxford Union, the undergraduate debating society. He went into politics after he became a naturalised British citizen. A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford. This failure may have been caused in part by his producing a small statue of the Virgin and placing it before him on the table during the interview for the fellowship.

From 1906 to 1910 he was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for Salford South, but swiftly became disillusioned with party politics. During one campaign speech he was asked by a heckler if he was a "papist." Retrieving his rosary from his pocket he responded, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. If that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of representing you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the election.

Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, from warfare to poetry and many topics current in his day. He was closely associated with G. K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.

His only period of steady employment was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress of the war. Otherwise he lived by his pen, and often fell short of money.

He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. In 1896, he married Elodie Hogan, an American. They had five children before her 1914 death from influenza. His son Louis was killed in World War I. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home in Guildford, England, until his death on 16 July 1953.

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