HILAIRE BELLOC & G.K. CHESTERTON
by Karl Schmude
(CTS, London, reprinted 2008, 52pp, $6.00 each. Available from Freedom Publishing)
The author, Karl Schmude, is the President of the Australian Chesterton Society and a member of the Editorial Board of the international journal Chesterton Review. These booklets, originally published here as Australian Catholic Truth Society pam- phlets in the 1970s, are now in a revised and updated form re-issued by the English Catholic Truth Society. They represent the author's life-long interest and devotion to his subjects.
Those whose memories may go back far enough will remember how these two Catholic writers once bestrode the English literary world like a (double-headed) Colossus. As the author points out, since their respective deaths, Chesterton in 1936, Belloc, after a long and sad decline, in 1953, their fortunes have varied considerably.
Though no longer widely read, Chesterton remains eminently quotable. Belloc, however, from being a dominant figure in the early decades of the 20th century, is now in the 21st almost completely forgotten, un- less it is for his memory occasionally to be recalled and reviled as in a recent book review in The Tablet.
In the case of Belloc, his range was wide, perhaps too wide, for as he said he had to write to provide for his family ('with champagne and caviar'!), but he was a most insightful thinker with an incomparable range of historical empathy.
What has caused Belloc to be seen as outmoded is, of course, the fact that not only was he what would now be considered as a very politically-incorrect Catholic, but especially one who - as indeed the present Pope and his predecessor so clearly see or saw - one who recognised that 'Europe is the Faith.' He foresaw and forewarned, as the popes have lamented, that Europe has lost its Christian, Catholic soul.
Though not explicitly mentioned in this study, one of the most striking instances of Belloc's prophetic vision is that fifty years ago and more he foresaw and warned the world of what might happen if and when Islam awakened. Similarly, 'Chesterton perceived that we were entering a period of history when Western people would not only reject God, but man; not only the supernatural but the natural' (p. 45).
It is ironic that so vigorous a fighter, even polemicist, as Belloc is best remembered for his delightful nursery rhymes, his serious, often poignant poetry and especially his travel-cum-reveries book. The Path to Rome seems to be one title of his never out of print.
Much more might be said and is well said in Karl Schmude's booklet, but now to turn to Chesterton.
A convert, Chesterton came slowly to the fullness of Catholic faith but appropriated its richness so well that it has been said of his Aquinas that he had penetrated the core of Thomism better than many great and renowned theologians; and much the same claim could be made for his St Francis.
As the author points out, Chesterton was first and foremost a journalist. Many of his works were originally articles and/or essays subsequently organised and unified. His, the Georgian Age, was a time when the essay as such, 'gentleman's literature', flourished. Today there seems to be little place for it in our email and blog culture.
Like Belloc, Chesterton lessened his effect by spreading himself too widely. He was poet, gently satiric novelist, essayist and writer of highly-personalised apol- ogetical works for the Catholic faith. Unlike Belloc, Chesterton did not create hostile prejudices, seeming to have been everyone's friend: his geniality, sense of humour and apparent child-likeness deflected ill-natured criticism.
As a poet he is perhaps best remembered for his triumphant Lepanto. Its highly orchestrated rhythms and rhymes would delight everyone, although there are some who might shudder at its apparent triumphalism, especially among today's Catholics.
Chesterton's essays, once found in anthologies for higher school study, provided wit, humour and verbal fireworks as solace for those students not generally sensitive to more subtle literary qualities.
Today not many read Chesterton's novels, yet the Fr Brown series has been adapted to screen versions. One of his most famous, The Man who was Thursday, turns out to be a dazzlingly complicated allegory of the then contemporary ideological currents. On the other hand, his works of literary criticism, most of them focused on the period more immediately before his own, the Victorian Age, are still taken seriously.
In their way each writer may be regarded as saintly: Chesterton for his simplicity combined with rapier-like intellect, and, despite his seeming truculence, Belloc too may similarly be seen, especially for his courage and fortitude in personal suffering, as well as for proclaiming and defending the ever true but unwelcome claims of Catholicism. Had he lived longer he would have suffered even more in seeing the decline of so much else that he loved.
Both booklets represent a distillation of a lifetime's devotion to the writers represented. Indeed, as the author has explained elsewhere, this devotion is part of a cherished family heritage. He also points out that, while today there is a flourishing Chesterton Society and the like, Belloc, if mentioned at all, often appears simply as a foil to his soul-friend.
However, I would give the last word to Belloc, whose lines sum up his life and his work:
This is the Faith that I have held and hold
And this is the Faith in which I wish to die ....