Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







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12 jan 2013

Review of Joseph Pearce, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (Ignatius, 2002) 352 pp.

Edward Peters, Review of J. Pearce, Old Thunder: a Life of Hilaire Belloc (2002), in Catholic World Report (Nov 2002) 62-63.




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They are happy people who can enjoy the feeling of being torn between the choice of reading a good book on history or one of literature. These two fields, one of fact the other of fiction but, if worthy of their categories, both centered on truth, are, I believe, the last two bastions of pleasured print in a world dominated by electronic media or purely practical and professional publications. For these readers, I suggest, no single sub-genre so satisfies the hunger to read and to read for love of reading than a fine work of literary biography.


To be sure, in the striking figure of the Catholic controversialist Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) one encounters simultaneously a great historian, a great poet, a great essayist, and a great social critic. It requires a biographer of considerable skill, then, to keep a figure such as Belloc from simply rampaging across the pages. In Joseph Pearce’s well-channeled biography of Belloc, though, “Old Thunder”, as he was called even in infancy, once more roars and weeps, sings and prays as he did throughout a long life crowded with publicity and dogged by cruel loneliness.


Joseph Pearce, writer in residence at Ave Maria College in Michigan, is the premier literary biographer in the world today. I would say “Catholic” literary biographer given Pearce’s well-received biographies of Chesterton, Tolkein, Wilde, and of course Belloc, but that would leave out his lives of Solzhenitsyn and Lewis, and host of shorter but important studies of Catholic and non-Catholic authors. So let’s just leave it at “literary biographer” and be grateful that this one-man literary invasion from Britain, who looks as if he’d rather play rugby than teach poetry, has chosen to apply his enormous research and writing skills in presenting and analyzing some of those most important literary talents of the 20th century.


And what a talent Hilaire Belloc was.


A story told among Bellocians (but not related in Pearce’s biography, perhaps because it would veer too closely to hagiography, which Pearce definitely avoids) describes an exchange with a young draftee assigned to drive Belloc, then a war-correspondent, around French battle fields during World War One. “Who,” the driver eventually asked his famous passenger, “is the greatest writer of prose in English today?” Belloc thought for a while, and answered, “I am.” Innocently, the driver then asked “And, of poetry, sir?” Belloc was silent for a moment, and then replied “I am.” Good evidence, if not perhaps proof, could be adduced for both replies.


Hilaire Belloc was, simply put, a giant of English and Catholic letters during an age when giants of English, and eventually Catholic, letters abounded. I would compare those decades, I hope without hubris, to the first few centuries of the Christian era when Latin and Greek Fathers, in what some have called that prolongation of the gift of Pentecost, poured forth works that have kept the world busy studying for hundreds of years. Something like that, I suggest was going on in England during the semi-century from 1890 to 1940, perhaps in prolongation of the works of the Holy Spirit at Vatican I (1869-1870). Belloc was personally known by, professionally respected by, and contributed at least to some degree to the formation of every other significant figure of English Catholic letters in those heady days. Nearly the same can be said of his place in English literature at large, though with more than a few of these men he debated and disagreed, not infrequently tempestuously. Certainly, most of the materials he directly produced or helped to influence will be worthy of serious study for decades, and centuries, to come, because, whether Belloc was writing poetry or history, novels or essays, he was pursuing a truth.


Few people will read the biography of a literary figure who are not already familiar with some of the author’s works. Pearce’s book lends itself to being something of a vademecum should one desire to pause and linger over Belloc’s own texts, be they poetic, historical, or controversial. Certainly I found myself pulling unread, or half-remembered, Belloc texts from the shelves and rereading them in light of Pearce’s crisp narration of just how the work fit into the man’s life. For that matter, Pearce’s study reads well alongside other Belloc biographies, notably Speaight of course, whom Pearce references often, or more topical studies, such as John McCarthy’s Hilaire Belloc: Edwardian Radical (1978).


Of course, while someone like Belloc could have functioned in the proverbial vacuum, in fact he did not. His interactions with Gilbert Keith Chesterton were legendary even in their own time and the more one knows about Chesterton (perhaps through reading Pearce’s excellent GKC biography, Wisdom and Innocence) the more one has, if not the contrast between the two men well in hand, at least their complementarity. The same could be said for being aware of the works of Baring, Shaw, Knox, Waugh, Hollis, and so on.


But beyond that, Pearce’s study of Belloc would, I think, serve well as an useful overview for those who know Belloc only by name, or at most by reputation. What matters it whether Belloc was a Frenchman with an English mother, or an Englishman with French father;  was Belloc a Catholic capitalist, a radical liberal, or a Christian socialist; was he anti-Semitic or a friend of the Jews in their darkest hours; was he Edwardian England’s finest essayist or poet, or neither, or both? Pearce offers dispassionate and informed analysis of each of these points, letting Belloc, his works, and his immediate contemporaries speak as much as possible.  But whether one is a Belloc novice or master, Pearce’s biography of this literary genius is a marvelous occasion to move easily from history to literature and back again, soothing that anxious tension from which a happy few suffer.