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Hilaire Belloc Biography | Poet

Photo of Hilaire Belloc
Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc (July 27, 1870–July 16, 1953) was one of the most prolific writers in England during the early twentieth century. His style and personality during later life complemented the nickname he received in childhood, "Old Thunder."

One of Belloc's most famous statements was "the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith"; this sums up his strongly-held, orthodox Roman Catholic views, and the cultural conclusions he drew from them, which were expressed at length in many of his works from the period 1920-1940. These are still cited as exemplary of Catholic apologetics. They have also been criticised, for instance by comparison with the work of Christopher Dawson during the same period.

Recent biographies of Belloc have been written by A. N. Wilson and Joseph Pearce.

Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud France (next to Versailles and near Paris) to a French father and English mother, and grew up in England. He was the brother of the novelist Marie Adelaide Belloc Lowndes. His mother Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) was also a writer, and a great-grand-daughter of the English chemist Joseph Priestley. She married attorney Louis Belloc in 1867. In 1872, five years after they wed, Louis died, but not before being wiped out financially in a stock market crash. The young widow then brought her son Hilaire and Marie back to England where he remained, except for his voluntary enlistment as a young man in the French artillery.

As a young man, Belloc lost his Faith. Then came a spiritual event which he never discussed publicly, an event which returned him to and confirmed him in his Faith for the remainder of his life. Belloc alludes to this return to the faith in a moving passage in "The Cruise of the Nona."

From an early age Belloc knew Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, who was responsible for the conversion of his mother to Roman Catholicism. Manning's involvement in the 1889 London Dock Strike made a major impression on Belloc and his view of politics, according to biographer Robert Speaight. Belloc described this retrospectively in The Cruise of the Nona (1925); he became a trenchant critic both of unbridled capitalism, and of many aspects of socialism.

After being educated at the Oratory School Belloc served his term of military service, as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment near Toul in 1891. He was powerfully built, with great stamina, and walked extensively in Britain and Europe. While courting his future wife Elodie, whom he first met in 1890, the impecunious Belloc walked a good part of the way from the midwest of the United States to her home in northern California, paying for lodging at remote farm houses and ranches by sketching the owners and reciting poetry. He was later a well known yachtsman.

An 1895 graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, Belloc went into politics after he became a naturalised British citizen. At the Oxford Union he held his own in debates with F. E. Smith and John Buchan, the latter a friend. Sir John Simon who was a contemporary at Oxford, described his "...resonant, deep pitched voice..." as making an "...unforgettable impression". A great disappointment in his life was his failure to gain a fellowship at All Souls College in Oxford, after he produced a small statue of the Virgin and placed it before him on the table during the interview.

He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1910, but swiftly became disillusioned with party politics. During one campaign speech he was asked by a heckler if he was a "papist." Retrieving his rosary from his pocket he responded, "Sir, so far as possible I hear Mass each day and I go to my knees and tell these beads each night. It that offends you, then I pray God may spare me the indignity of represnting you in Parliament." The crowd cheered and Belloc won the race.

Belloc wrote on myriad subjects, from warfare to poetry and many topics current in his day. He was closely associated with G. K. Chesterton; George Bernard Shaw coined the term Chesterbelloc for their partnership.

His only period of steady employment was from 1914 to 1920 as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress of the war. Otherwise he lived by his pen, and often felt short of money. He was brilliant, but a poor listener. His larger-than-life personality, and strongly held views, were more acceptable to some in small doses. His setbacks in the academic and political worlds lent asperity to his writing.

Belloc and his wife Elodie had five children before her death from influenza in their 17th year of marriage. He became estranged from Peter, one of his sons, who was subsequently killed in action in World War I; Peter's death was a blow from which he did not recover. He suffered a stroke in 1941, and never recovered from its effects. He lived quietly at home until his death in 1953.

His estate was probated at 7,451 pounds sterling.

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