The sound of thunder and laughter: Hilaire Belloc re-considered

The sound of thunder and laughter: Hilaire Belloc re-considered

A.G. Evans

'Old Thunder: a Life of Hilaire Belloc' by Joseph Pearce (HarperCollins, hbk, 318pp, $69.95) can be obtained through AD Books. A. G. Evans is the author of three biographies, the most recent, 'C.Y.W. Connor, His Life and Legacy', published by the UWA Press.

Hilaire Belloc (1874-1953) was born in France during a thunderstorm, which resulted in his mother referring to him as Old Thunder, a description which grew more apposite as the life of this great champion of Catholic Faith unfolded.

Like many other pre-Vatican II Catholic writers, Belloc has suffered more than his fair share of disfavour in recent years.

Apart from a general eclipse in popularity, which afflicts most writers in the years following their death, other probable reasons include his fearless, outspoken defence of his religion, both in his writings and on the public platform, which sits uneasily with the more deferential, ecumenical attitudes of today.

Belloc's historical biographies, which sought to correct the anti-Catholic slant of so much official English history at the time, may be another reason why they are now ignored in most universities, schools and seminaries, to be read only by an admiring few.


The admiring few are still there and far from insignificant as is evidenced by the publication of a new biography by Joseph Pearce, the third to appear since Belloc's death forty-eight years ago. If further proof of Belloc's endurance be needed there are also available numerous shorter studies, anthologies, and reprints of his major works. The International Belloc Society based in England has members in Australia.

Like that of his great friend G.K. Chesterton, with whom he is forever linked, Belloc's verse (more polished and enduring than Chesterton's), and his aphorisms, are widely quoted and admired: "When I am dead, I hope it may be said: 'His sins were scarlet, but his books are read'."

The haunting beauty and craftsmanship of his serious poetry is generally overshadowed by the popularity of his Cautionary Verses. These have long delighted children up to and beyond the age of seventy. The misdeeds of little characters like Matilda who told lies and was burnt to death, and Jim who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion, and many, many more are described with wit, moral wisdom and impish humour and are now firmly established in the pantheon of children's literature.

But if Belloc's light verse was his only claim to fame, a new biography would not have been written. His literary achievements, his intellect, his powerful personality and his contribution to political and religious thought ensure his place in modern history and surely deserve greater recognition by contemporary Catholics.

His political philosophy, inspired by the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, which he and Chesterton called Distributism (alternatively but more awkwardly, distributivism), is generally dismissed as hopelessly impractical by political economists in our age of giantism and global capitalism.

Yet his argument that the concentration of property and production in the hands of the few leads to various forms of slavery has influenced a new generation of political theorists such as E. F. Schumacher; the American, Wendell Berry; and, in Australia, ex-politician and onetime Gough Whitlam aide, Race Mathews.

Mathews argues in his seminal work, Jobs of Our Own (1999), that "Distributism has assumed a new relevance and urgency in the light of the current substantial abdication of former government functions to the vagaries of globalisation, the free market, and largely unfettered competition." Distributism, apparently, is not dead; rather its common-sense ideas persist in different guises.

Belloc was a prophet who, more than fifty years ago, foresaw the evils besetting us today and feared the rapid decline of the Christian West once it had rejected its Christian beginnings.

The author of this latest biography is a convert with a mounting reputation as a major Catholic writer; he already has several biographies to his credit, including the much-praised life of G.K.Chesterton, Wisdom and Innocence (1996). Like the Chesterton, the new Belloc biography is a sympathetic study which helps to restore Belloc's reputation and argues that he was a major force in raising Catholic self-esteem and influence at a time when the Church was struggling to shed its Cinderella-like status in Britain in the closing years of the 19th century.


Belloc was a compulsive traveller; travel was the inspiration of much of his writing, but he was never happier than when he returned to his family. He suffered greatly the loss of his Elodie, his eldest son Louis in World War I, and his younger son, Peter, in World War II. Pearce shows that his heart was broken by these events and that they were the cause of his steady decline into old age and senility.

Belloc's life as a whole was extraordinarily productive: he wrote over a hundred books, including novels, travel, essays, biography, history, poetry and apologetics. That he wrote too much too quickly is a criticism that is difficult to deny and this certainly has blotted his reputation. But his poetry, and the best of his prose - among them, The Path To Rome, Belinda, The Cruise of the Nona, The Four Men and his collection of essays, The Hills and The Sea - are unsurpassed in elegance, in polemic, and in Christian wisdom.

In our sad, mad world of irreligion where orthodox Christianity is battered by criticism and scandal, a return to the high spirits, the fearlessness, and the common sense of Belloc is a rewarding antidote. Reading Joseph Pearce's new biography is recommended as a start.

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