The writer Hilaire Belloc (1870–1953) was a curious combination of things, a Frenchman and an Englishman, the anti-feminist son of feminist pioneers, a political radical and conservative, a Roman Catholic apologist and an author of absurd, violent stories for children. He was a member of Britain's parliament for the Liberal Party from 1906 to 1910, and supported the largely-Catholic economic doctrine of distributism, as well as being an ethno-nationalist. In his writings on religion, he was a strong defender of Roman Catholicism and opponent of Islam, as well as being something of an antisemite; he also proposed a version of intelligent design. Today, his influence persists in fields from radical environmentalism to Islamophobic nationalism, as well as in making children laugh.
He was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, now a suburb of Paris, France. His mother Bessie Rayner Parkes had quite a life story herself, born into radical circles as a great-granddaughter of the scientist and Unitarian preacher Joseph Priestley. She was a leading figure in Victorian feminist circles, editing the pioneering periodical The English Woman's Journal, and a campaigner against slavery in the USA. After being impressed by the charitable work of nuns she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1864, and on a trip to France, she fell in love with Louis Belloc, the son of Irish-French writer and translator Louise Swanton Belloc. They married in 1867 with Hilaire born in 1870. After Louis's death in 1872, the family moved to England. Hilaire's sister Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes was a successful writer of psychological thrillers, notably the Jack the Ripper story The Lodger, which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock and adapted to different media by many other people.
Cautionary Tales for Children (1907) comprises a series of versified stories about naughty children who suffer terrible fates for their disobedience, generally considered to be intended as parodies rather than serious warnings. Among the tales included in the book are:
- "Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion."
- "Algernon: Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father."
- "Rebecca: Who Slammed Doors For Fun And Perished Miserably."
- "Matilda: Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death."
His political beliefs expressed in works such as The Restoration of Politics were (unsurprisingly) unorthodox. They seemed heavily influenced by theology and his concept of human nature according to Catholicism: trying to respect the divine nature of each human being, which is threatened by capitalist instrumentality. The 1889 London Dock Strike had an influence on him, but while he rejected capitalism, he was no socialist.
He became interested in distributism, a doctrine influenced by Vatican teaching and medieval social order, which is nice in theory (lots of small businesses and artisan workers) but it's hard to see how it would work in practice (not everybody can be an artisan maker). Nonetheless, it still appeals to some anti-capitalists and environmentalists.
He was deeply influenced by Charles Maurras, the early-20th century conservative, nationalist, royalist, anti-democratic French writer (who was jailed in 1936 for sending death threats to the Jewish French President Leon Blum, and then imprisoned in Buchenwald by the Nazis). Belloc was also a great admirer of Mussolini, preferring Italian-style fascism to parliamentary democracy, although he was less keen on the Nazis who he considered too north-European.
For Belloc, the Roman Catholic Church was the highest triumph of civilization, and he was a passionate and highly partisan defender of it. He believed that Catholic southern Europe, particularly France, was the pinnacle of human achievement.
He opposed Darwin's theory of evolution, preferring a version of intelligent design. Belloc accepted that the Earth is very old, but suggested that throughout its history, God created new species rather than those species evolving. After HG Wells defended evolutionary theory in his Outline of History, Belloc wrote A Companion to Mr. Wells's "Outline of History" to set out his own beliefs, and in turn HG Wells wrote a pamphlet, Mr Belloc Objects, attacking Belloc's arguments. Wells pointed out the problems posed by the sudden, supernatural appearance of ensouled human beings, evidently raised by beasts without a soul.
He wrote The Great Heresies in 1938, which attacks many things which he considers heretical deviations from the true Catholic Church: Arianism, Islam, Catharism (the Albigensians), Protestantism, and the "Modern Phase". Although he conceded that the Roman church occasionally was in need of reform he was still a fierce defender of Catholicism.
Despite his partisanship, it is not clear how much he actually agreed with the basic tenets of Christianity. His religion often appears rather curious, more influenced by culture than scripture; the Roman church's links with the Roman Empire seemed part of its appeal. He wrote of Jesus Christ: "I revere him because I am instructed to do so by the Church, but personally I find him repellent."
He was very worried about the dangers of Islam, lurking just outside Europe and ready to pounce. In the 21st century, this has led to him being hailed as a prophet by right-wing neoconservative/Islamophobic publications such as The Federalist.
He has been accused of antisemitism, including by Anthony Powell and the Catholic Herald. He was very interested in the Marconi scandal in Britain, which involved some Jewish people and some non-Jews in government corruption, but was transformed by antisemites such as Belloc into a Jewish conspiracy. He also took a keen interest in the Dreyfus affair in France: while almost all the British press, both left and right, were convinced the persecution of the Jewish artillery officer Dreyfus was a flagrant injustice by the horrible French, Belloc took it as evidence of perfidious Jewry. Everything demonstrated to Belloc that Jews could only bring trouble, while his dislike of capitalism often tipped over into a belief that the world was being run by a cabal of Jewish bankers.
In 1922 his book The Jews was published. While superficially nice to Jews, its subject is the superiority of mono-racial society (meaning white nationalism) and the need to get rid of the Jews somewhere, such as Palestine (which the recent Balfour Declaration had suggested as a convenient destination).
As well as his better-known verse, he wrote doggerel such as:
Here Rothschild lives, chief of the tribe abhorred
Who tried to put to death Our Blessed Lord
But on the third day, as the Gospel shows
Cheating their machinations, He arose
In Whose commemoration now and then,
We persecute these curly-headed men.
There's no denying that this is plain antisemitism.
- See the Wikipedia article on Hilaire Belloc.
- The Liberal Environmentalist Nobody Knew Was Catholic, Church Pop, Aug 22, 2014
- Place, Ecology and the Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities, Michael S. Northcott, 2015
- Hilaire Belloc, by A.N. Wilson, Edward Pearce, Commentary, Nov 1984
- Francis Phillips, Catholic Herald, Nov 3, 2017
- "Mr Belloc Objects", Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer, 32:6, pp 16-24 (reprinted from Gardner's introduction to The Battered Silicon Press's edition of Wells's Mr Belloc Objects)
- 80 Years Ago, Hilaire Belloc Predicted Radical Islam’s Re-Emergence Because Of Secularization, Maureen Mullarkey, The Federalist, June 20, 2017
- The Sins of G K Chesterton by Richard Ingrams: Review, Dan Hitchens, The Oldie, Sep 1, 2021
- 50 years ago Belloc's The Jews and Galsworthy's loyalties revealed: English antisemitism in the 1920s, Charlotte Lea Klein, Patterns of Prejudice, Volume 6, 1972 - Issue 2 https://doi.org/10.1080/0031322X.1972.9969055