Encountered in the right circumstances, Belloc’s prose can become a lifelong addiction. Fortunately, the craving can be as readily satisfied as a thirst (if that is the right word) for cocaine in Hollywood. He wrote so much that one cannot easily run out, and the best of his works (Hills and the Sea, The Cruise of the “Nona,” and The Path to Rome, for my money) can be reread endlessly.

I like Belloc for two reasons. First, he was simply one of the very best writers of English nonfiction prose in our century, which is another way of saying that he was a virile, independent personality which expressed itself—archaically—through the written word. Secondly, Belloc was one of that tiny handful of courageous souls (like the Southern Agrarians on this side of the water) who have perceived that the spirit and freedom of the West have always been embodied, not in its kings, popes, politicians, and millionaires, nor in its oppressed proletariat, but in its gentry and yeomanry. Thus, in The Servile State and in his iconoclastic histories and biographies (which so delightfully irritated pedants, positivists, Whigs, and other enemies of humanity), he kept alive the tradition of a middle way. Through the labor and eloquence of Belloc and a few others, a small beleaguered breathing space has been preserved for mankind between the clashing behemoths of capitalist and socialist consolidation.

Belloc also attracts readers as a de fender of the Roman Catholic faith, though I am not qualified to evaluate his success in that effort. In the opinion of A. N. Wilson, Belloc the apologist was always an embarrassment to the official keepers of the faith, and has grown more so. He was much less satisfactory in this role than Chesterton, though Chesterton, as Wilson argues persuasively, was intellectually the junior partner of the famous team.

Wilson, author previously of good biographies of Milton and Sir Walter Scott, has provided admirers of Belloc with what ought to become the definitive life. Previous biographies have lacked chronological and emotional distance. Wilson has had access to Belloc’s kin and acquaintances and to papers in private Possession, and he has had the benefit of just the right historical perspective (Belloc died in 1953). He approaches his subject with an old fashioned and very English stance, which can best be characterized as sympathetic realism—the best possible vantage point for biography. Glossing over none of the doubtful spots in the public or private man, he yet has a clear appreciation of Belloc’s virtues and a clear understanding of the central themes of a remarkable life.


[Hilaire Belloc: A Biography, by A. N. Wilson; New York: Atheneum]