Hilaire Belloc: the Poet, the Author, and the Humorist

Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, and Maurice Baring were a literary tour de force that in many ways were the culmination of the Catholic revival begun by the series’ earlier subjects. These three authors were close friends and collaborators who generated some of the best titles and works of the era. While the first two have surged in popularity since the time they were first published, the last has tragically declined into obscurity. Nevertheless, the British Catholic Authors Collection in the Burns Library contains considerable amounts of material on all three of the authors, which will be discussed in this and previous posts.

The Anglo-French writer Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was born in Celle Saint-Cloud, France, on July 27, 1870. His mother was an English citizen, and the family moved to England when Belloc’s French father died in 1872. Due to this move he often was called by the Anglicized form of his name, Hilary. He would later give this name to his son. Nevertheless his legal name was Hilaire, and he often chose to sign documents with this name or simply the initial. Thus, for simplicity’s sake our collection use the spelling Hilaire.

Hilaire Belloc attended the Birmingham Oratory School (founded by John Henry Newman) from 1880-1887, and had some contact with the aging Newman. After Belloc finished school, he returned to France to complete his compulsory military service to maintain his French citizenship. From 1893 to 1896 he attended Balliol College, Oxford, graduating with first class honors in modern history. Also in 1896 he married an American, Elodie Hogan, with whom he had five children – three sons and two daughters.

Belloc began his literary career with Verses and Sonnets (1895), and he always thought his poetry was his best writing. Next he published The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896), a collection of nonsense verse that was so popular it sold out in four days and continues to stay in print. Belloc also worked a series of biographies that included Danton (1899) and Robespierre (1901). In 1902 Belloc published Path to Rome, perhaps his most representative work for its combination of his love for travel and his ardent Roman Catholicism, in it he recounts his journey on foot from Toul, France, to Rome, Italy.

The Title Page and some of Belloc's sketches in The Path to Rome

The title page and some of Belloc’s sketches in The Path to Rome, D919 .B44 1902b, British Catholic Authors Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Original illustrations by Belloc for the Path to Rome

Original illustrations by Belloc for The Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc Collection, MS2005-03, Box 130, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. (Note that the top right sketch would be used as the image for the title of chapter one, as seen in the image above)

In 1902 Belloc became a British subject, and in 1906 he was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Liberal Party representing South Salford, a seat he held until 1910. He left his political career to pursue journalism, founding the political journal, New Witness, with G.K. Chesterton and Cecil Chesterton, the former’s younger brother. Belloc also served as editor of Land and Water, a journal devoted to the progress and aftermath of the First World War, from 1914 to 1920.

Belloc is one of the few writers in the British Catholic Author’s Collection who was born Catholic. He was active at a time when Catholics in England were just beginning to take advantage of the repeal of some of the anti-Catholic laws; he was an aggressive and even heroic champion of Catholic causes. Belloc was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 1934 by Pope Pius XI. That same year, he was also awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Oxford University.

Belloc published prolifically over the course of his life. He wrote more than 150 books of essays, fiction, history, biography, and poetry, as well as hundreds of articles for newspapers and periodicals. He continued to travel extensively until suffering a stroke in 1942. On July 12, 1953, Belloc accidentally fell into his fireplace while sleeping beside it. He was badly burned and died soon afterward, on July 16, 1953.

The Hilaire Belloc Papers contain correspondence to and from Hilaire Belloc dating from the 1880’s to the 1950’s. The correspondence relates to Belloc’s personal and professional life. It includes letters to and from publishers, literary agents and newspapers, people prominent in politics and literature, and family and friends. Among the renowned literary figures are J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton, Edmund Gosse, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats. There are approximately 160,000 letters in the collection. Detailed guides are available online:

On of the many letters exchanged by Belloc and G. K. Chesterson

One of the many letters exchanged by Belloc and G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc Collection, MS2005-03, Box 34, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In addition to correspondence The Hilaire Belloc Collection contains the published and unpublished writings , including manuscripts, typescripts, proofs, galleys, and reprints of various articles, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, prose, notes, and Belloc’s personal library. Among the other publications in this collection are a series of reviews of Belloc’s books and articles, commentary on Belloc’s politics, parliamentary materials saved by Belloc, and printed materials including book notices, lecture notices, syllabi, speeches, news clippings, leaflets, advertisements, and weekly journals.

The collection also contains visual materials, including artwork and photographs, such as illustrations for Belloc’s New Cautionary Tales drawn by Nicolas Bentley and photographic portraits of Belloc, family members, friends, and associates. There are images of Belloc’s King’s Land Estate, photo albums, and sailing and ship photographs. Also included in the visual materials are a photograph of Sir James Dunn’s painted portrait of Hilaire Belloc, Maurice Baring, and G.K. Chesterton, entitled Conversation Piece, and over 1,000 printed maps.

Orginal sketches for New Cautionary Tales

Some of the original illustrations for New Cautionary Tales for Children, Hilaire Belloc Collection, MS2005-03, Box 128-30, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Of particular note in this collection are an unpublished autobiography dictated by Belloc (circa 1936) and some sound recordings of Belloc’s songs, including a phonograph entitled The Authentic Voice of Hilaire Belloc Singing with Ian Wallace, pressed circa 1970.

The remainder of the materials in this collection includes financial records, typescript diaries (1906-1917), memoranda and agenda (1904-1942), and approximately 30 manuscript diaries by Hilaire Belloc, Elodie Hogan Belloc, and Elizabeth Hogan (Elodie’s mother). Among the miscellaneous materials rounding out the collection are scrapbooks, materials found in scrapbooks, and an array of manuscript, published, and printed materials, such as unposted postcards and an honors certificate and two honorary degrees bestowed on Belloc (1887, 1920, and 1929 respectively).

The principal part of the Belloc Collection was purchased in 1980, and over the years it has been supplemented by several additional purchases. These include some papers, especially correspondence, of Belloc’s mother, Bessie Rayner Parkes Belloc, Hilaire’s son Hilary, and other members of his family.

  • David E. Horn, Burns Library, Boston College
  • Edited and revised by Chad M. Landrum, M.A. student in the History Department & former Burns Library Reading Room Assistant
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