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Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc [Hardcover]

Joseph Pearce
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

15 July 2002

A major new biography of this much revered and reviled figure, who remains one of the most important Christian writers of the 20th century.

One of the most prolific and thought-provoking writers of his age, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) still has a lasting effect on Britain. Well known for his literary collaboration and friendship with G.K. Chesterton, Belloc continues to fascinate, both as a social commentator and a master of finely crafted prose and verse.

As President of the Oxford Union, he immersed himself in historical studies and championed Catholicism. Later, as a Liberal Member of Parliament, he became disillusioned with party politics, expressing his sentiments about both Socialism and Capitalism in his novels and pamphlets. He was and is admired for his understanding of modern England.

His romantic and solitary character is found in his verse, and in the powerful love story of his long courtship of Elodie Hogan and his desolation after her death.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (15 July 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0002740958
  • ISBN-13: 978-0002740951
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 16.4 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 718,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Back Cover

Hilaire Belloc is one of the most important, revered and reviled writers of the twentieth century. A social commentator, a master of finely created prose and a poet of great wit, he continues to fascinate. Joseph Pearce examines the lasting impact of this prolific writer and social commentator on British intellectual life.

As president of the Oxford Union, he immersed himself in historical studies and championed Catholicism. Later, as a Liberal MP, he became disillusioned with party politics, expressing his sentiments about both socialism and capitalism in his novels and pamphlets. Considered one of the most important Christian writers of the twentieth century, admired for his understanding of modern England and in the company of men like Sassoon, G.K Chesterton and Waugh, Belloc's fascinating character is wonderfully brought to light in all his whimsicality. Opening up the personality for the reader is the story of his long courtship of Elodie Hogan that overcame all sorts of hurdles, including her brief stint in a convent, and his desolation after her death.

With access to previously unpublished material in the form of Belloc's letters and photographs, Joseph Pearce's major new biography uncovers a romantic, complex and solitary character.

About the Author

Joseph Pearce is the author of many books, including Small is Still Beautiful, Solzhenitsyn, and Tolkien: Man and Myth.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Prophet for our times? 22 Mar 2011
A solid introduction to the life of a remarkable man.

Belloc is neglected in our time because our failing culture does not know how to handle such a fearless man and communicator. They would prefer to ignore him. On the other hand, he is now beginning to be recognized as a "prophet for our times." He lived a very long life, from 1870 to 1953. He was a student of Blessed John Henry Newman, a friend of Winston Churchill, a Member of Parliament, and a novelist, poet, war historian, biographer, journalist, commentator, explorer, debater and BBC Radio commentator. Had he been born 10 years later no doubt he would have used television as a medium to get his messages out to the public.

Belloc was a man who wrote the cleanest limpid English, even admired by Ernest Hemingway, who clearly imitated him. He may be ignored in some places, but his fame is resurrecting. Look at how many of his books are still in print, some of them over 100 years old.He was also a man who knew how to love and love deeply, including his American wife whom he pursued from England over the Atlantic, making his way to California to ask her hand. For such an active man, Belloc was nonetheless a man both of vision and of contemplation. He was so often alone in his sailing, pilgrimages, travels and mountain climbing. He saw God and his works in everything and everywhere. He knew that it would always be a battle to defend the good things: "But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the faith is at hand I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning."

At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Timely Old Thunder 20 May 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an excellent biography of a fascinating figure. Full of absorbing detail, not just about the obvious relationships (eg Chesterton) but also the improbable ones: such as the time Henry James came to tea...

It makes me want to go and buy and read more Belloc, which I undoubtedly will, as he comes across as such a larger-than-life character; and not one that is easy to categorise.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating reading 16 Mar 2003
By Meredith - Published on
I am 17 years old, and I had just discovered Belloc (in The Path to Rome - lucky me!) when my grandma gave me this biography for Christmas. So it was all news to me; I've never read another biography of him. I loved all the quotes and anecdotes, and the prose is outstanding. It was often very sad, especially towards the end...
Here I have to say something about the reviewer who gave it two stars. I understand his feelings, I think, but his view of history is somewhat distorted: I'm sure he'd agree that the Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation were even more energetic with "intelligence and activity" than the Catholic Revival - with all of the saints, missionaries, scholars, artists and composers who worked to bring Europe and all the world to Christ. That said, the Catholic revival (literary and otherwise) was a unique and exhilarating period in the Church. It was not a "last twitching" before a "long decline" - the revival began in the early 19th century and continued about 60 years into the 20th. The decline was not long and slow but sudden and catastrophic - it has been going about 35 years. Every empirically measurable statistic in the 20th cen. Church - Mass attendance, vocations, converts, belief in key doctrines, etc. - shows either a high, constant rate or a steady upward trend - until the 1960's, when there is a sudden, almost exponential drop. The Church just hits a wall. It can't be wholy blamed on "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll"; there is no equivalent collapse in Protestant denominations. Everything was just different after the council and the new Mass and all that. It's a good thing that Belloc didn't have to see this - it would have broken his heart. On the other hand, we need his fighting spirit now more than ever...
The "atmosphere of English Catholicism". I think Pearse does convey some of this. What struck me when I began to read English Catholic literature was this overpowering sense of elegy, and an awareness of injustice past and present that was almost too painful to read - but all of it balanced by levity and satire and soldierly faith. It was quite intoxicating to someone young and idealistic, and unaccustomed to it. It is found in many writers - you could almost tell that JRR Tolkien was an English Catholic just by reading "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Silmarilion". It even turns up in Chesterton's detective stories...
I think that Pearse does give us some of this atmosphere, but he is not really relating Belloc to the post-conciliar Church. A lot of Catholic authors today just don't want to think about this disparity - Pearse included? I hope not. Anyway, this is a very enjoyable biography with many stories of Belloc's life - his travels to Rome and America, his exploits in Parliament (with excerpts from his very provocative speeches!) his friendships with Chesterton and Maurice Baring... I still wish that Pearse would put photographs in his books through. Oh well.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Old Thunder - Evangelical Catholicism 6 Jan 2003
By david l archer - Published on
For Catholic Converts, "Old Thunder" is a must read. I am certain it is not the most well researched nor scholarly work on Belloc or the period of Catholic literary rennasaince. But as an introduction to the period and the players it is an excellent book.
Historians and biographers such as Joseph Pearce seem to be held in low regard by their peers. Nonetheless, in bringing charaters such as Belloc to the less well read they are invaluable.
The value of this book is also multiplied by Mr. Pearce's prose. Few writers of non-fiction are so preasurable to read. Old Thunder is an extraordinary biography.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No One Can Top Pearce On Belloc 22 Feb 2003
By Hunter Baker - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Joseph Pearce has carved out a niche for himself as the primary biographer of Catholic Literary Greats. His volumes on Chesterton, Tolkien, and other literary figures are well worth reading. Although he has written of Hillaire Belloc in many of his other works, "Old Thunder" finally gives Belloc his due. The man who is remembered by many as a writer of children's verse is revealed to us as a powerhouse of journalism, fiction, and poetry. At the same time, we see a man of intense Catholic piety and devotion making his way through struggles with finances and the early loss of his greatly beloved wife.
If you enjoy literary biography, you'll find Pearce is a master. Jump in with "Old Thunder" and make the rounds through all of Pearce's work.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Much-Needed Book 27 Sep 2002
By A Customer - Published on
An interesting, engaging, and important read for all orthodox Roman Catholics. Hilaire Belloc was, in his day, an incomparable Defender of the Faith; he continues, almost 50 years after his death, to instruct and inspire, and is worthy of emulation.
The book is well-written and well-researched. It's occasionally a bit too much by-the-numbers, and declines somewhat toward the end, mirroring the decline of Belloc (one gets the impression that Joseph Pearce began to lose interest in Belloc as his subject's life entered its final and least interesting phase).
I think that, overall, Old Thunder would be pleased with "Old Thunder".
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Pearce could write a brilliant biography introducing another appreciative generation to Hilaire Belloc ..." 28 Sep 2012
By Malcolm Cameron - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc
by Joseph Pearce

"Tarantella", "The Path to Rome", "Drinking Song: On the Excellence of Burgundy Wine", "The Four Men: A Farrago". These, and others, are Hilaire Belloc's works that have stood the test of time from 1902 or so to 2012. "Tarantella" is a dance among "the fleas tease in the High Pyrenees"; "The Path to Rome" was Belloc's favorite; "The Drinking Song" is an enjoyable poem; "The Four Men" is a travelogue around Sussex by Grizzlebeard, The Poet, The Sailor and Myself over five days in 1902 similar to the recent BBC shows "The Trip" and "Three Men in a Boat".

Likewise much of Belloc's "baggage" has not survived the test of time. The "baggage" concerns the Capitalism, Socialism and his own third way of Distributism, his writings on religion and The Jews and to a lesser extent his Catholicism. This was "the agenda" of 1902 not really Belloc as such. Even his "Cautionary Tales for Children" are too morbid for modern children.

So where does this leave a biographer? Would a biography of Isaac Newton emphasize his work on astrology? Or a biography of John Napier emphasize his "A Plaine discovery of the Whole Revelation of St John" not his discovery of logarithms? So should the author of this biography jettison the baggage? Or does this jettison too much of Belloc's diverse life and his 153 books? At the very least it could be relegated to background and footnotes.

Joseph Pearce in "Old Thunder" only gives "Tarantella" three passing references while treating "The Path to Rome" adequately - although a route map and a few photographs would be of value. The book does not recommend other poems and writings that appeal today being the reason that Belloc is remembered. A biography should give space proportional to memorable achievements not equal weight to each day in the subject's life.

The other reviewers see an historical Hilaire Belloc only as a champion of Roman Catholicism. Whereas, reading Belloc one gets a very different impression of the author and his achievements. Such quotes as:

"But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino"
"May all good fellows that here agree
Drink Audit Ale in heaven with me"

show Belloc's academic fun, and light humor. "The Path To Rome" ends amusingly with poem "The End of the Road" although as a travelogue it does not compare with Charles Dickens "Pictures from Italy" traveling from London to Florence in 1844. Belloc has been described as "a teleological being suddenly behaving in an atelological manner" borrowing one of Belloc's many ill-defined words. Perhaps the modern Catholic Church needs to be Bellocified.

The title "Old Thunder" is an accurate two-word description of Belloc but it does not come out enough in the book. This is a pity as Belloc is well worth the effort, and is available free on the Internet. Pearce could write a brilliant biography introducing another appreciative generation to Hilaire Belloc but he does not do it here.

Malcolm Cameron
28 September 2012
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