A Belloc Novel

Of Belloc’s many farcical novels, Shadowed is one of his best.  Published in 1929, it remains a highly entertaining, light-hearted romp in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse. Belloc pokes fun at the social fads and foibles of his day, many of which are still with us. The protagonist is the hapless Robert Mallard, a shy young heir of an English businessman, who is mistaken for an agent of an insidious eastern power. As a result, Mallard is humorously and mercilessly hounded by sleuths, statesmen (and states women) and business leaders, all eager to get a monopoly on Eremin, fuel for a new type of engine, which in 1979 is to be found in quantities only in the land of West Irania.

“The Parliaments of the Great Powers,” we are told, “had long ago settled down into two sober parties, Communist on the right and Anarchist on the left.” In Belloc’s novel, hitherto revolutionary movements have adopted British middle class social and financial sensibilities alongside their revolutionary rhetoric. Prime Minister Mary Bullard epitomizes the careerist pomposity of European progressive politicians. Britain’s chief adversaries are the Annihilationists, represented by Moscow and West Irania. One of the many people to harass Mallard is the Hon. Arabella Jane Burnett, alias “Balmy Jane.” Says the narrator: “She was of the Brethren, she held Annihilationist views. She suffered for the sufferings of man.” Balmy Jane is the priceless lampoon of upper class radicals who haunt us now as much as they did in Belloc’s day. “If the middle classes regarded her with a mixture of awe for her rank and horror at her speeches, her own lot knew her to be harmless. It is rather chic to have a few reds knocking about.”

One of Mallard’s persistent bugbears is the omniscience of the modern bureaucratic state, as he futilely attempts to flee his pursuers (if only Belloc could see our society).  A hilarious scene occurs near the end of the story when French agent Hippolyte Dubois accosts Mallard. Dubois prides himself on his impeccable impersonation of an English gentleman: “The time is fine. It was but time. We shall have beautiful time for some time. I so hope all times. Is it not so?” And things just get more silly and impossible until the real Annihilationist agent, who looks nothing like his unintentional impostor, arrives belatedly on the scene. Everything reaches a successful conclusion. But not for Balmy Jane, who believes that her political savior—fobbed off with a pension from the British government in return for keeping quiet—has been murdered by secret enemies.

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