Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was born in 1870 in La Celle-Saint-Cloud, near Paris, of a French father and an English mother. He was called Hilaire after his grandfather, a celebrated painter. His father died when he was a baby. When he was eight years old, his mother suffered financial reverses, and they moved to England. His home in Sussex would become a major influence in his life. He wrote his first poem when he was eight years old. In 1882, he was sent to the Oratory School at Edgbaston, a boarding school. While he did not like school, he nevertheless learned the classics, took parts in Latin plays, and won a prize in his last year. After leaving school, he considered joining the French navy, since he loved sailing, but he studied for only a term at the Collège Stanislas at Paris before finding it too restrictive. He was then apprenticed to a farmer to learn to be a land agent, but that did not work out either. He then turned to journalism and edited a weekly paper called The Lamp, in which some of his early poems appeared. Other early poems appeared in The Irish Monthly and Merrie England.
In 1889, he fell in love with Elodie Hogan, an Irish American visiting Europe with her family and whom he met at his mother’s house. Belloc wanted to marry her, but she returned to California. He followed her to the United States in 1890 and made his way westward laboriously, often on foot, selling sketches to pay his way. Elodie’s mother did not favor the marriage, and Elodie considered becoming a nun. The young woman persuaded Belloc to take the military training required of all French citizens. When he returned east, she sent him a letter refusing his proposal. He did join the Battery of the Eighth Regiment of Artillery at Toul, serving from November, 1891, to August, 1892, and very much enjoyed military life.
Although Catholics were not yet formally permitted to attend Oxford or Cambridge, Belloc became a student at Balliol College, Oxford, helped financially by his sister and her husband-to-be. In October, 1892, he received a history scholarship. During his three years at Oxford, he received the Brackenbury Prize for history, took a brilliant first, became president of the Union, and walked from Oxford to London in record time. He was deeply disappointed, however, that he did not receive a history fellowship, especially since it was awarded to another Catholic for the first time since the Reformation.
Elodie entered a convent but soon left, suffering from physical and nervous disorders. In 1896, Belloc went again to California, where they were married on June 16 despite Elodie’s mother’s objections; Belloc also did some lecturing while he was in the United States. The couple then lived in Oxford, where Belloc published his first collection of poems. He earned money by tutoring, giving University Extension lectures, and writing books, including The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. He wrote political articles and gave speeches for Liberal candidates. He wanted to apply for the professorship of history at Glasgow University, but that university did not favor a Catholic and prevailed upon Elodie to discourage him from applying.
In 1902, Belloc became an English citizen, and in 1906, he entered Parliament as the Liberal member from South Salford. Although he saw the House of Commons as a place of corruption and hypocrisy, he was reelected as an Independent.
He founded a weekly review, The Eye Witness. He moved from Oxford to Cheyne Walk and then in 1906 to King’s Land, a house in Sussex near Horsham, where he enjoyed his four children and his many friends, including the Chesterton brothers. His wife, whose literary judgment he greatly respected, died at age forty-three in 1914, and ever after he dressed in black and used black-bordered stationery. He traveled frequently to the Continent to study the scenes of his historical works. Unable to get an active appointment in World War I, he spent some time writing articles concerning the war.
He became ill in 1941 after his youngest son died in military service, and he had a stroke at the beginning of the next year, from which he recovered slowly. He died on July 16, 1953, just short of his eighty-third year.
One of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, Joseph Hilaire Pierre Belloc (BEHL-ahk) was the son of a French father and an English mother. After his early childhood in France, he was sent to Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Oratory School in England. After serving in the French military service, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1895 with first-class honors in history. He remained in England most of his life and became a British subject in 1903.
Belloc began writing poems and essays at an early age. His first two books, volumes of children’s poetry, Verses and Sonnets and The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, were published in 1896, the same year he married Elodie Hogan. In 1899 he published the first of his biographies, Danton. Always interested in politics, he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal from South Salford in 1906 and again in 1910. He abandoned active politics to begin, with two lifelong friends, G. K. Chesterton and Cecil Chesterton, a new political review called Eye-Witness, which first appeared in 1911. In the review they attacked the English governmental system and promoted ideas for a unified Europe. (Belloc always revered Napoleon for his effort to create a unified Europe.)
Besides his ties to France and to the Continent, Belloc was an ardent Roman Catholic. For thirty years or more he and G. K. Chesterton worked to argue the merits of Roman Catholicism to the intellectuals of England. Belloc began his intellectual crusade with The Path to Rome, an account of a walking trip he took from Toul, in northern France, through Switzerland and northern Italy to Rome. In this book he tried to demonstrate the importance and relevance of the Catholic faith. His view of history, in his many biographies and historical works, was strongly infused with a Roman Catholic point of view. Belloc treated the Reformation as an unfortunate accident and the Enlightenment as a serious mistake, but he venerated the Middle Ages. His four-volume A History of England was written to correct the biased and inaccurate portrayals given by most British historians. In spite of his proselytizing, Belloc pleaded his case with extraordinary knowledge and charm, as well as humor; he once claimed that the fact that most British public lavatories were built underground could be attributed to the ultimate effects of the Reformation.
Belloc’s lighter side was usually expressed in his verse, especially in his humorous poems for children. His prose style was distinguished by enormous clarity and lucidity; despite a total output of 153 books, he took pains with every sentence and word. He was interested in the derivations of words and in the many connections between French and English.
Belloc was also one of the most provocative essayists of the first half of the twentieth century. His home in the English countryside was often full of young intellectual visitors. His writing and his conversation covered the full range of political, social, and religious experience, and he stood out as one of the most vigorous, energetic, and lucid minds of his age, even though many of his doctrines and ideas were not followed by the young intellectuals who succeeded him.