Magazine article The Spectator

Is Hilaire Belloc out of Date?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is Hilaire Belloc out of Date?

Article excerpt

A. N. Wilson, in his admirable biography, concluded that Belloc was more remarkable as a man than in his writings. No doubt he was, and his case is not unusual. The same has been said often of Dr Johnson and of Byron, while I know people who return frequently to Walter Scott's Journal, fascinated by the man who presents himself there, but who never open any of the Waverley novels.

Likewise Hemingway and Fitzgerald have now been the subjects of more biographies and memoirs than the sum total of the books they themselves wrote, evidence at least of the magnetic influence of their personalities.

Of course there are those of whom the opposite is true: Shakespeare obviously, perhaps Proust, despite all that has been written about the man; Wodehouse certainly. But it is clear that interest in some writers may persist while their works gather dust or are almost all out of print. Even so, it's unlikely we would know anything about them if they hadn't first been admired for what they wrote. If Johnson hadn't been a celebrity, Boswell would not have been attracted to him.

A great deal of Belloc's work is dead, even deservedly dead. Few, perhaps nobody, will now read the four volumes of his History of England or the historical biographies he churned out, repetitiously, in the 1920s and 30s. They all make the same argument, challenging the Protestant or Whig interpretation of English history. For one thing, even if these books were better than they are, the argument is no longer necessary. Much of what Belloc had to say about the class basis of the Reformation and the nature of the Catholic resistance to this revolution has since been said, more authoritatively, by academic historians.

He wrote too much because he was always hard pressed for money, which is a characteristic of literary men, and no good at managing it, which is another. And, because he wrote too much, he sometimes wrote badly, and when he had nothing to say, or nothing that he hadn't said a hundred times before, he would disguise this by raising his voice and shouting; which is also quite common, as anyone who has written a 'why, oh why?' piece can tell you. The less we have to say, or the less original the message, the more vigorously we pound the pulpit to which we have been assigned.

What then survives? The Cautionary Tales certainly; they still delight intelligent children;

adults too, for many lines come often, unbidden, to one's mind. …

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