I remember some friends of mine telling me how they went down to Horsham, in Sussex, to see Hilaire Belloc. They found him in the cellar, seated astraddle of a gigantic wine-cask just arrived from France, about to proceed upon the delicate (and congenial) task of bottling the wine. He greeted them like jovial Silenus, and with competitive shouts of laughter the fun went forward. The wine was strained, bottled, sealed, labelled, and binned, the master of the vintage initiating his young visitors into the rite with bubbling and infectious gaiety–improvising verses, shouting with merriment, full of an energy and vivacity almost inconceivable to Saxon phlegm. My friends have always remembered it as one of the most diverting afternoons of their lives; and after the bottling was done and all hands thoroughly tired, he took them a swinging tramp across the Sussex Downs, talking hard all the way.
That is the Belloc we all know and love: vigorous, Gallic, bursting with energy, hospitality, and wit: the enfant terrible of English letters for the past fifteen years. Mr. Joyce Kilmer’s edition of Belloc’s verses is very welcome.[C] His introduction is charming: the tribute of an understanding lover. Perhaps he labours a little in proving that Belloc is essentially a poet rather than a master of prose; perhaps too some of his judgments of Pater, Hardy, Scott, and others of whom one has heard, are precipitate and smack a little of the lecture circuit: but there is much to be grateful for in his affectionate and thoughtful tribute. Perhaps we do not enough realize how outstanding and how engaging a figure Mr. Belloc is.
[Footnote C: Verses by Hilaire Belloc; with an introduction by Joyce Kilmer. New York: Laurence J. Gomme, 1916.]
Hilaire Belloc is of soldierly, artistic, and lettered blood. Four of his great-uncles were generals under Napoleon. The father of his grandmother fought under Soult at Corunna. A brother of his grandmother was wounded at Waterloo.
His grandmother, Louise Marie Swanton, who died in 1890, lived both in France and England, and was famous as the translator into French of Moore’s “Life of Byron,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and works by Dickens and Mrs. Gaskell. She married Hilaire Belloc, an artist, whose pictures are in the Louvre and many French museums; his tomb may be seen in Pere la Chaise. Their son was Louis Swanton Belloc, a lawyer, who married an English wife.
The only son of this couple was the present Hilaire Belloc, born at Lacelle St. Cloud, July 27, 1870–the “Terrible Year” it was called–until 1914.
Louis Belloc died in 1872, and as a very small child Hilaire went to live in Sussex, the gracious shire which both he and Rudyard Kipling have so often and so thrillingly commemorated. Slindon, near Arundel, became his home, the rolling hills, clean little rivers, and picturesque villages of the South Downs moulded his boyish thoughts.
In 1883 he went to the famous Catholic school at Edgbaston. Mr. Thomas Seccombe, in a recent article on Belloc (from which I dip a number of biographical facts), quotes a description of him at this period:
“I remember very well Belloc coming to the Oratory School–some time in ’83, I suppose. He was a small, squat person, of the shaggy kind, with a clever face and sharp, bright eyes. Being amongst English boys, his instinctive combativeness made him assume a decidedly French pose, and this no doubt brought on him many a gibe, which, we may be equally sure, he was well able to return. I was amongst the older boys, saw little of him. But I recollect finding him cine day studying a high wall (of the old Oratory Church, since pulled down). It turned out that he was calculating its exact height by some cryptic mathematical process which he proceeded to explain. I concealed my awe, and did not tell him that I understood nothing of his terms, his explanations, or deductions; it would have been unsuitable for a big fellow to be taught by a ‘brat.’ In those days the boys used to act Latin plays of Terence, which enjoyed a certain celebrity, and from his first year Belloc was remarkable. His rendering of the impudent servant maid was the inauguration of a series of triumphs during his whole school career.”