Belloc’s Essays

The task of an author is, either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them…. —Johnson, Rambler (No. 3)

No description of the writer’s art more aptly sums up the career of Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). Like Johnson—with whom he has often been compared—he was admired by contemporaries for his skill as an essayist. A.N. Wilson says that Belloc’s writing was like his conversation, which was best when it was spontaneous and could leap effortlessly from one topic to the next.

Belloc’s output can be roughly divided between the pre- and post-World War I period. While critics generally rank his pre-war literature higher, with the essays the opposite is true. It may be that like Dr. Johnson, who embarked on his career as essayist around age 50, a level of maturity is needed to plunge into the depth of memory and experience and pull forth those small polished gems of the essay form. The essays written after the 1920s show Belloc in top form. For beauty of style, for humor, and profound insights, one can recommend such titles as Short Talks With the Dead, A Conversation With A Cat, A Conversation With An Angel, as well as his Silence of the Sea which, for being written as late as 1941, is surprisingly spirited and entertaining.

Belloc’s essay topics are diverse, and one gets a glimpse of Belloc that defies the stereotypes resulting from a limited perusal of his works (mainly his polemics and religious apologetics). In “Advice to a Young Man in the Matter of Wine” he informs us that “if you drink too much you are a fool, and worse. But you will never, as a habit, drink too much red wine.” More importantly, “never warm red wine by putting the bottle before the fire or into hot water. This abominable trick turns red wine into vinegar.” Such admonitions, sometimes useful, sometimes nonsensical, are the hallmark of Belloc’s fireside manner.

Belloc wrote insightful literary portraits, covering such diverse figures as Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and John Henry Newman. Among these essays is a study of James Boswell and his famous Life of Johnson:

There is in Boswell full proof that sincerity is a necessary ingredient to good writing. It is not enough, certainly; most of the tedious stuff is intolerably sincere; but the core of this particular masterpiece is sincerity, and through sincerity it has not only lived, but grown…. Boswell is wholly occupied with that simple, but fundamental, human need—worship. He is absorbed in his devotion. It fills his every interest; it gives edge to all that he hears and sees in connection with his idol (”Boswell,” The Silence of the Sea).

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