I had expected to like Hillaire Belloc. It was a profound disappointment, therefore, to learn from A N Wilson’s biography that he was a frightful anti-semite who neglected his wife and thought the world owed him a living. Mind you, one cannot fail to be impressed that he managed to walk the 58 miles from Oxford to London in just eleven and a half hours. His literary output was also impressive, although mainly in terms of quantity rather than quality. His mother lost the family fortune, partly through converting to Roman Catholicism and partly due to entrusting a stockbroker lodger with £12K. Undeterred, Belloc still imagined he was going to inherit great wealth and become an idle gentleman. Paradoxically, he styled himself as a Radical and was elected to Parliament as such by the good people of Salford. However, his stance seemed to be motivated more by envy of the rich, rather than a genuine commitment to social change. He soon resigned his seat, proclaiming that Parliament was boring and undemocratic, and shocked that the country appeared to be run by an oligarchy who were concerned only to protect the interests of bankers. Not much has changed there, then.
Although much about the man himself is distasteful, even taking into account the prevailing attitudes of the day, the biography is a superb examination of a particularly fertile period of history (1870-1953), and Wilson’s treatment of the religious, social and political issues is masterly. This is not surprising, given he also covered this era brilliantly in The Victorians and After the Victorians. His attention to historical detail helps illuminate the often confusing thoughts of Belloc, for whom ignorance of a subject was no barrier to writing about it. An extraordinary man and an extraordinary age.