Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Chesterton and Belloc

It was about twelve years ago. I had converted from Lutheranism three years earlier after falling in love with Chesterton, Belloc, Muggeridge, Dawson, and others about five years earlier (it took about three years for their prose to work). My father had accepted my conversion, and he liked the fact that I was reading a lot of Chesterton.

Then one day I mentioned Belloc. My dad replied that he didn’t care for him, saying Belloc was abrasive, or something to that effect. I admitted to my father that Belloc didn’t have a lot of patience for non-Catholics, and my dad said, “Which is good, because I have little patience for him.”

And that’s where Belloc sits with many. Ignored and neglected.

He rubbed people the wrong way while he was alive, too. His nasty wars with H.G. Wells are legendary, but even before the nastiness started, Wells didn’t care for him. Wells cherished Chesterton’s company, saying he desired to “drink limitless old October from handsome flagons” with him. But not with Belloc. “Chesterton often – but never by any chance Belloc. Belloc I admire beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan viciousness about Belloc that bars him.”

“Partisan viciousness.” I think my father would agree with Wells on that one.

Yet the vicious Belloc also had a good side and many good friends . . . including Chesterton, one of the kindest literary souls to grace the written page.

Chesterton is loved by all, including non-Catholics, but Belloc isn’t. Yet the overlap in their ideas is immense. In fact, many people, including G.B. Shaw and C.S. Lewis, said Belloc influenced Chesterton immensely (both Shaw and Lewis, incidentally, disapproved of the influence). In the words of Frank Sheed, writing about the Catholic Literary Revival in the twentieth century: “There was Chesterton, of course, but then Belloc had so much to do with the making of Chesterton and Chesterton not much with the making of Belloc.”

Those are significant words, spoken by a man who knows of what he speaks. It’s almost as though Chesterton was an intellectual hack and merely rode Belloc’s genius.

But that would be a gross mistake. Belloc influenced Chesterton, yes, but in the way water influences a flower. Belloc’s ideas nourished Chesterton and gave him direction, but it was Chesterton’s unique brilliance that allowed the flower to bloom in a way that would influence millions.


A few heavyweights on the Chesterbelloc:

Robert Royal in 1985 National Review.
Joseph Sobran.
Ralph McInerny.


Nick Milne said...

There's a nice passage from J.B. Morton's Hilaire Belloc that would be worth adding. It is a description of Christmas at Belloc's medieval house at King's Land:

"It was the custom of the house to hear the three masses in the chapen above the dining room, but this year Father Vincent McNabb was unable to come, so we were to go to West Grinstead for the midnight Mass. But before this there was much to be done. Soon after darkness had fallen on Christmas Eve the children of the village arrived, with their parents and relatives, and plentiful food and drink were provided for them. They were entertained by a magic lantern, after which they were brought to the hall, where there was a tall Christmas tree, with little coloured candles and presents among its branches. Each child was given a small present, and then a sixpence. After this, they all sang songs and played games - the traditional games of this part of Sussex. When they grew tired of this, they were taken to the Crib, and gathered round it, they, their parents and the rest of us sang carols. A large jovial man with a tremendous voice led the singing and I was told that he was the miller.

When the children had gone we had a collation, and then drove to West Grinstead, with Belloc himself at the wheel of the Ford, wearing a bowler hat. As we went along the frosty lanes we sang the Adeste Fideles in chorus."

It's a shame how violently disagreeing with a man makes one question his motives and character, whereas simply observing him would bring one closer to the truth. I'd imagine Wells and Shaw were seldom - if ever - invited to such Christmas events, and if they were, I doubt they would have gone. Too bad for them, and, potentially, for us.

yegreat2 said...

I'm posting this five years after the fact, but I was wondering if you could help me with a Lewis quote concerning Belloc. I remember having read Lewis say somewhere that "Belloc was an evil influence on Chesterton." Since having read and repeated that in a few conversations, I have been unable to cite the original source. If you know of it, I'd appreciate your help. Thanks.