Invisible Ink: No 170 - Hilaire Belloc
Saturday 27 April 2013
One of the residents of Chelsea's illustrious Cheyne Walk, along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James McNeill Whistler, George Eliot and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Anglo-French poet, essayist and historian Hilaire Belloc was born in 1870, and famously said: "When I am dead, I hope it may be said: His sins were scarlet, but his books were read."
During the early part of the 20th-century he was one of the nation's most prolific writers, but virtually none of his work is read any more (except … but we'll come to that later). Output has little to do with longevity, as readers of this column have learned, and while Belloc wrote a lot, much of it now seems contentious, obsessed with Catholicism, militaristic, judgemental, and simply wrong-headed. He particularly took against H G Wells, with whom he had a pretty vicious, long-running feud.
So much about Belloc is contradictory; energetic, pugnacious, and powerfully built, he wrote delicate religious poetry and loved pastoral pursuits, but was also opinionated and highly critical in political and economic affairs; a borderline bigot who vociferously condemned bigotry in others. Much of his writing would now be considered ephemeral, but is of historical interest. Some unspecified event occurred to bring a powerful return of Catholic faith to Belloc, and he reserved much of his bile for Anglicanism, Judaism, and Islam, inspiring admiration and hatred in fairly equal proportion. Belloc's belligerent and bullish views became popular in wartime, possibly allowing him more prominence than he deserved. Given that this committed, difficult man eventually became a successful novelist and historical biographer, it's ironic that he is most remembered for something much simpler, his Cautionary Tales for Children (with memorable illustrations by "BTB" – Basil Temple Blackwood).
Even now, a certain generation of readers (myself included) can recite at least one of these vicious little moralistic ditties by heart, described by the author as being "designed for the admonition of children between the ages of eight and 14 years". The most popular is the story of "Matilda Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death", although it's hard not to love "Lord Lundy, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career" and "Henry King, Who chewed bits of string, and was early cut off in Dreadful agonies" because the string "tied itself in ugly knots inside". And so a zealous, angry, reformist is remembered for a tiny children's book; a lesson for us all.
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Marijuana use by teenagers does not result in a lower IQ or worse exam results, study finds
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 Jimmy Carr's controversial Oscar Pistorius joke goes too far at the Q Awards
- 5 NHS staff banned from drinking tea or coffee on the job because it looks like they're not working hard enough
MOBO Awards 2014: Jess Glynne hits back at 'ridiculous' criticism of nominated white artists
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - review: Silly, sensational and sensitive
The Apprentice 2014: Nurun Ahmed and Lindsay Booth fired in double elimination
MOBO Awards 2014: Sam Smith sweeps the board with four gongs
The Apprentice, episode 3 - review: Lord Sugar hacks away at the deadwood with double elimination
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters