Hilaire Belloc: Contemporary Reviews

In the years before the internet supplanted old-fashioned book and microfiche research, I had the opportunity to look up some original reviews of works by Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. Here are two of them. I hope that other fans of the author will enjoy them.

The first is a review of his farcical novel Belinda from The Times (December 14, 1928):

Mr. Belloc goes back to the mood of parody, but of parody decked out with gracious ornament. His new book occasionally reminds us in form of Zuleika Dobson or The Happy Hypocrite, but its ebullient humour is not that of those famous fantasies. Belinda, daughter of a richly landed baronet, is an early Victorian heroine, whose love story of tears quickly quenched in splendid marriage is related with the lusciousness that the romantic Victorian novelists of “high life” like to impart to their style. Only, Mr. Belloc has the skill to see that an ornate style, insipid in the hands of a bungler, can be made as attractive as a good piece of baroque architecture in the hands of a master. If we get all the absurdity of which he is master in the angry interview between Belinda and her haughty father on the subject of her love for Horatio Maltravers—”Your heart is plighted?” gasped the baronet. “Are these the terms in which a respectable female…?”—we get real beauty, of a Renaissance quality, in such an episode as Venus’s apparition to bless the lovers in the great park. And Mr. Belloc’s brevity is admirable: the novelists he satirizes were not so wise.

Many readers of Belloc’s historical and religious studies may not realize that he also produced numerous works of fiction (for more background, see my posts The Green Overcoat and A Belloc Novel).

The second piece discusses one of Belloc’s biographies, Charles II: The Last Rally. It is worth noting that the reviewer (The Times, January 30, 1940) takes issue with some of the author’s political and economic theories, which were often a source of controversy. Throughout his life the Anglo-French writer possessed a uniquely “Tory radical” outlook. For additional commentary, readers should reference John P. McCarthy’s study.

Mr. Belloc’s new book is devoted to two theses, both very familiar from his previous works, that the seventeenth-century constitutional struggle in England derived from the resistance of a popular monarchy to the revolutionary encroachment of the money power, and that Catholicism in England survived much longer than is believed by Protestant historians and had the sympathy of a quarter of the population as late as 1685. These two points are assumed, and the story of Charles II, in very broad outline, retold in terms of them.

Mr. Belloc holds that Catholicism was still a formidable political and social force throughout the reign, and that its extinction in the eighteenth century is to be traced to the agitation over the Popish plot in 1678. It might be thought that the Test Act of 1673, which was to last 150 years, was a far more potent influence than that monstrous but ephemeral persecution. But Mr. Belloc’s whole case on this side must stand or fall with the statistical arguments adduced by Mr. Magee a year ago in his book The English Recusants.

The other side of the case, the antithesis between one-man rule and the oligarchy of wealth, obviously contains a great deal of truth. It is powerfully presented by Mr. Belloc, but he over-estimates the element of mere property in making a seventeenth-century magnate, to the neglect of such other ingredients as pedigree, local eminence, public service, and Anglican orthodoxy. Whiggery itself he seems to misunderstand, when he dwells upon the contradiction between in it between the principle of “equality before the law, the flower and product of that mystical doctrine, the equality of man” and the right of wealth to conduct the State. Underlying the latter doctrine was the belief, which Mr. Tawney has shown to derive from Calvinism, that wealth is prima facie evidence of industry, and industry of political and even religious virtue.

As for equality, the equality of man was scarcely a Whig belief. The Whig emphasis was always on liberty, and that not in the abstract but as the sum total of the particular liberties of Englishmen, won in history and maintained by law; and equality before the law was one of these. In saddling the Whigs with general ideas that were foreign to their thought, Mr. Belloc seems sometimes to be reading the English Revolution in terms of the French. Nevertheless, his book is based on imaginative understanding of Charles II’s fight to re-establish monarchy in England, of the kind of monarchy he hoped to establish, and of the nature of its claim to be more representative of the people than was the class from which Parliament was recruited.

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