Belloc, Joseph Hilaire Pierre

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Historian, biographer, essayist, poet, writer of children's literature; b. La Celle'Saint-Cloud, France, July 27, 1870; d. Guildford, England, July 16, 1953. Hilaire (as he always called himself and under which name he wrote) was the son of Louis and Elizabeth Belloc; his only other sibling, Marie, also became a writer. The family moved to England in 1870, but Belloc spent much of his childhood in France. He attended the Edgbaston Oratory School (188087) and matriculated at Oxford in 1892; the previous year, he served his term in the French army. At the Oratory, he was grounded in classics: at Balliol, he read history, was awarded the Brackenbury scholarship, and gained a first class in the History Honours School. Having been unsuccessful in an attempt to secure an expected fellowship, he left Oxford in 1896 for a public career. In the same year, he married Elodie Hogan, a Californian whom he had met in England in 1889. In 1902, Belloc became an English citizen. His wife's death in 1914 left him with the responsibility of rearing their five children.

Belloc's first publication was Verses and Sonnets (1895). This was followed by a series of biographiesDanton (1899), Robespierre (1901), and Marie Antoinette (1909); in 1911, Belloc produced a short work on the French Revolution. His travel and critical essays The Path to Rome (1902) and Averil (1904) aroused considerable interest in his ideas and style. He was a Liberal Member of Parliament (190610) and wrote forcefully on political subjects in such works as The Party System (1911, with Cecil Chesterton), and The Servile State (1912). During World War I, Belloc wrote weekly military comments for the journal Land and Water. His son Louis was killed in action just before the armistice.

From 1920 to 1942, Belloc wrote voluminously and lectured in the U.S. and Europe, arousing as much controversy as admiration. His deep personal convictions led to dogmatism and to a myopic view of Germany and of Protestantism; no spark of ecumenism exists in his flaming apology for the Faith. In his handling of moot questions, his expository prose was not always as convincing as his earlier writings. Equally dubious in Europe and the Faith (1920) are the style and the thesis that "the Church is Europe: and Europe is the Church." Likewise in The Jews (1922), the manner in which he proposed Jewish segregation was as offensive to many of his readers as was the long-standing suspicion that he was anti-Semitic. There is more foundation for the annoyance of readers of The Jews who try to discover whether Belloc means literally what he says.

Scholars received Belloc's four-volume History of England (192531) with coolness. Understandably, they expected documentation of this reinterpretation of history; his personal statement scarcely convinced serious readers that "religion is the determining force of society," and that English institutions do not have Anglo-Saxon origins but instead stem "from known and recorded civilization." The History, some commentators declared, was a good story written with force and lucidity, but it was not genuine history.

Belloc himself doubted that he was a historian. He never doubted that he was a writer, and a good one. He produced more than 150 books: history, essays, fiction, light verse, and poetry. He will be best remembered, it seems, for his poetry. The author of Tarantella and of rousing songs and ballads was a charming troubadour. He is also well known for his verse and mock cautionary tales for children.

After 1942, Belloc continued to write articles, but produced no new books. The death of his son Peter in 1941 was a shock from which he never recovered. After he suffered a stroke in 1942, Belloc's mind was frequently clouded. On July 12, 1953, he fell near an open fire-place and was fatally burned. His simple funeral was held at West Grinstead; a more elaborate memorial service took place later at Westminster Cathedral.

Bibliography: r. speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc (New York 1957), contains the best bibliographical data on primary and secondary sources. m. a. lowndes, I, Too, Have Lived in Arcadia (New York 1942); Young Hilaire Belloc (New York 1956). e. and r. jebb, Testimony to Hilaire Belloc (London 1956). j. b. morton, Hilaire Belloc (New York 1955). h. van thal, ed., Belloc: A Biographical Anthology (New York 1970).

[m. a. hart]