Remembering Belloc by James V. Schall, S.J. (St. Augustine’s Press. 2013)
Although readers of The Imaginative Conservative will presumably need no introduction to Hilaire Belloc, the subject of this new volume by the irrepressible Father James Schall, it will be well to at least remind ourselves of why Belloc is worth remembering.
Born at La Celle Saint Cloud, twelve miles from Paris, on 27 July 1870, Belloc’s birth coincided with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. The family home was evacuated a few weeks later as the Bellocs fled to Paris en route to England, escaping the advancing Prussian army. Educated in the benevolent shadow of the aging Cardinal Newman at the Oratory School in Birmingham and at Balliol College, Oxford, from which he graduated with a First Class Honours degree in History, Belloc would become one of the most prolific, versatile, and controversial authors of the twentieth century. Less known today than his talents merit, his influence, considerable in his own day, seems to have waned. There is, however, some sign of a renewal of interest in his life and work, due in part to his association with G.K. Chesterton, whose own star appears to be very much in the ascendant.
Considering the unjustified neglect of Belloc and the more recent renewal of interest, Fr. Schall’s book, remembering the man and his genius, is most welcome. It is, however, important to recognize what this book isn’t. It is not a definitive study of Belloc’s legacy in any of the many areas in which he excelled. Those seeking for an in-depth study of his work as an historian will be disappointed, as will those seeking definitive discussions of his brief but explosive political career, or his importance as a poet or as a Catholic apologist. This is not a definitive study of any aspect of Belloc’s considerable legacy, still less is it a biography of him. It is a collection of Fr. Schall’s musings on all things Bellocian, offering the reader the perspective of a highly respected and venerable scholar who has spent a lifetime of engagement with Belloc’s works and the ideas that they contain.
Fr. Schall on Belloc is akin to Chesterton on Aquinas. One does not read Chesterton’s volume on the Angelic Doctor solely or even primarily to learn about Aquinas but to be delighted and enlightened by the genius of Chesterton’s own thoughts on Aquinas. Similarly, one should not read this book solely or primarily to learn about Belloc but to be delighted and enlightened by Fr. Schall’s thoughts on Belloc.
In this engaging volume, Fr. Schall wanders through all things Bellocian, rambling off in odd directions and on strange tangents, much as Belloc wandered through Europe or Sussex, diverting us delightfully with his digressions. Much as Chesterton’s Rolling English Road takes us to Paradise by way of Kensal Green, Schall’s rolling Bellocian ramblings take us on the rolling road to Rome along which the vines of veritas are plucked and the wine of wit and wisdom are drank with all due decorum and merriment. This book is not for the self-appointed purist or the fastidious pedant, any more than Belloc is for the pedant or the purist, or, for that matter, the puritan. Fr. Schall on Belloc is a marriage of minds made in heaven. This book is an invitation to the wedding. Accept the invitation. Buy the book!