Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc
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Historical records matching Hilaire Belloc
About Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc
<The Times, July 17, 1953>
MASTER OF ENGLISH
A great master of the English language has died at a ripe old age. Through half a century of continuous and enormous creative energy, in poems, essays, biographies, histories, novels, satires, and light verses, Mr. Hilaire Belloc added, year by year, and often several times in one year, to the riches of English prose and verse.
The versatility that made him tackle and triumph in so many forms of writing sprang from a magnificent delight in the things of this world and of the next. Faith, humanist no less than Catholic, was his inspiration as an artist. It gave wings to his imagination and to his sense of comedy. He could laugh louder in print than any man of his day, and he could be tender without lapsing into sentimentality. His relish for controversy, which was a by-product of his riotous pleasure in the causes and the sights and scenes he loved, misled many readers into regarding him as, primarily, a special pleader for his Church and for his highly idiosyncratic opinions on political history. But it is as a pure artist, a man of honourable achievement as an author, that his name will live. The style of the poet and of the prose writer expressed a many-sided man in the round. It was forthright, vivid, sure in instinct for the right word, scornful of cant and cliche, civilized in the eighteenth-century manner without being ponderous.
Blood told in his genius. On his father's side he was the direct descendant of a distinguished officer in Napoleon's armies. Through his mother he could claim Joseph Priestley as an ancestor. He was born at La Celle, St. Cloud, a village between Versailles and St. Germaine, on July 27, 1870. Louis Belloc, his father, was a barrister whose family, of Basque origin, had settled at Nantes some 200 years ago, and owned large sugar plantations in the French Indies. Early in the nineteenth century they were ruined by the British blockade. Belloc's grandfather became a noted painter, and a portrait of his beautiful wife, painted in 1830, hangs in the Louvre. Left fatherless at the age of two, Belloc, and his sister (who became Mrs Belloc Lowndes), were brought up chiefly in England, but they were often in France, knew the language, and were shaped by French modes of thought.
He was educated at the Oratory School under Newman. He served in the French artillery, but as the only son of a widow his period with the Colours was limited to one year. His regiment was stationed at Toul, near the German frontier, and that brief spell left a deep mark on him. In 1892 he went up to Balliol, was elected to a Brackenbury history scholarship, and took a first. President of the Union and prominent at college debating societies, he stood out among his contemporaries as an eloquent - and a violent - orator.
THE EARLY ESSAYS
Some of his finest poetry came out in 1895 in his first book, "Verses and Sonnets". This caused no more stir than do most first volumes of poetry. "The Bad Child's Book of Beasts", which came out in the next year with Lord Basil Blackwood's pictures, at once reached a wide public. "Danton" in 1899 was the forerunner of a long series of historical studies. They were accompanied, over the years, by essays and reflective travel books of which "The Path to Rome" in 1902, enlivened by the author's own drawings and sketches, is the most famous. But others of this genre, notably "Hills and the Sea" and "Esto Perpetua" (both 1906), "The Four Men" (1912), and "The Cruise of the Nona" (the name of his favourite yacht) - in 1915 - were as perfect. When he was about 30 Belloc became naturalized and, in 1904, he was adopted as prospective Liberal candidate for South Salford. He was elected in the landslide of 1906, but he was never at home in the House of Commons.
His fervent individualism, which led him to see Socialism as the begetter of a servile state, made him critical of the Liberal alliance with Labour. The Party Whips found him an awkward back-bencher, and after being elected again at the first General Election of 1910 he did not stand at the second. Instead he joined Cecil Chesterton is writing "The Party System" and followed up this broadside with satirical novels, popularly known as "Chesterbellocs" because they were enlivened by the pencil drawings of G.K.C.
The 1914-18 war brought him fame as a military commentator that did some harm to his reputation. His simplifications were too drastic and his prophecies by no means always correct.
As a historian, his great strength was a warm and unacademic sense of the past that made him write as though he had been alive at the times he was describing. A master of narrative and portraiture, he marred some of his work - and played into the hands of his numerous learned enemies -by inaccuracies of detail and dogmatic over-confident excursions into the polemical and ideological fields he loved - not always wisely. But, even at his most controversial, he stimulated readers, inspiring them with his consciousness that the past is never dead and challenging them to examine the accepted - and transitory - orthodoxies of the universities. Men and battles, clashes of faith and of policy, the small change of vanished ages come alive in his historical studies. His poetry, light verse and essays will be long remembered. By his friends -down to generations born after he achieved fame - he will be cherished in recollection as an inspiring talker, letter-writer and travel companion by land and water. He could -and would - sing French and English songs on the least encouragement and he was at ease in and added richness to any company of any age or rank. His conversation was, sometimes, Rabelaisian, and, often, in its combination of piety and good sense, Johnsonian.
Belloc married in 1896, Elodie Agnes, daughter of John Hogan, of Napa, California. He was never the same after her death in 1914. He leaves one son and two daughters. The eldest son, Louis, was killed flying over the German lines in August, 1918. His youngest son, Peter, died in April, 1941, when serving as a captain in the Royal Marines. He has a surviving son, Hilary, in Canada. His elder daughter, Eleanor, married Mr. Reginald Jebb, MC., and she and her husband have for many years tended her ageing father. The younger daughter, Elizabeth, is unmarried and has published several volumes of lyric poetry.