Belloc and Historical Fiction

In one of his essays Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953) writes that “the historical novel leaves a more living and permanent picture in the mind of the reader than any other form of history.” At the same time he was aware of the potential weaknesses of the genre. “A man writing an historical novel is trying to do two things at once: to tell an interesting story which, however inaccurate his history may be, can be a very good story all the same; and to get the details of the story accurate.” Seldom can a novel do both. Belloc therefore warns against the temptation to read one’s own time and culture into the past. Verisimilitude is dear to Belloc. He always draws on a wealth of travel and research to add convincing layers of detail to his literary landscape.

Given Belloc’s interest in the past, it is curious that he produced only one full-length historical romance. Written in 1911, The Girondin drew on his extensive French Revolutionary studies of Danton, Robespierre and Marie Antoinette. The main character Boutroux is a member of the unsuccessful Girondin faction which was quashed by the Republicans under Robespierre. Yet for much of the novel, the Revolution figures only obliquely. It is only at the end, when Boutroux is drafted into the army to fight the Royalists, that we are lifted onto the imposing panorama of those terrible days. The plot and setting are engaging though the characterization is noticeably sketchy. Nevertheless, the book is redeemed by Belloc’s realistic depiction of the drama and confusion of battle, in which the protagonist is mortally wounded.

To give another example—in his collection of fictional vignettes, The Eye-Witness (1908), Belloc describes the “unmistakable noise of cavalry upon the march which is not very unlike the noise of the sea when it breaks against a shingle beach the day after a storm.” His portrayal of soldiers in bivouac and on the march undoubtedly draws on his time in the French horse artillery. (Belloc later became a naturalized Englishman; he had a French father and was born in France.) It is true that he never experienced combat first hand, but neither did Stephen Crane when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage. Both men were astute observers, successfully capturing the chaotic, terrifying and exhilarating nature of real fighting as related by veteran soldiers.

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