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26 May 2021

From the NS archive: Mr Belloc on the Holy Land

22 February 1936: Leonard Woolf on Hilaire Belloc’s The Battle Ground.

By Leonard Woolf

Reviewing HG Wells’s “The Outline of History” in 1926, the British-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc wrote that the book suffered from a “blind acceptation of textbooks… which is to the Catholic mind almost incomprehensible”. Ten years later, similar themes animate this cutting review of Belloc’s own history book, “The Battle Ground”. Leonard Woolf, the British writer and husband of Virginia Woolf, writes that Belloc’s biblically orientated history of Syria and Palestine was ruined by his “embitterment” towards other scholars. Woolf regrets that Belloc “nags ­and nags and nags at them as though they were all frauds, ninnies, or imbeciles” to the extent that any good history in the book is lost.

***

This book, like nearly all of Mr Belloc’s, leaves us with a feeling of sadness and frustration. He has always had powers of writing, historical imagination and a grim sense of humour, which, if they were controlled and directed by even the dimmest appreciation of objectivity and truth, would have made him a considerable writer and historian. Even as it is, he again and again stirs one’s interest and, if one can shut one’s ears to his perpetual nagging at someone or something, one’s imagination to capture something new and strange out of the past. In this book there are flashes of the kind, in the chapter on Assyria, in the story of Greece which never grows stale, and the strange historical interlude of the Maccabees.

Yet the book, as a whole, is profoundly depressing. The main reason is that Mr Belloc continually perverts his great gifts for little purposes unworthy of him and of them. Take first the very serious question of the relation between the historian and the Christian or Roman Catholic when united in the same body. If a man really believed the dogmas and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and – what is almost more important – understood the implications of that belief, his interpretation of history would be very seriously affected. But not particularly, as Mr Belloc seems to assume, his interpretation of the history of Syria. If God’s “design” really does determine human history, it has determined it presumably no less and no more in Timbuktu than in Jerusalem. The question is raised from the very first words in Mr Belloc’s preface, but is never seriously faced or discussed by him. Ninety per cent of his history might have been written by an atheist without any reference to or conception of God’s design in it. And design is brought into the other ten per cent more often than not in order that Mr Belloc may nag at a class of persons whom Mr Belloc dislikes. It begins already in the preface, which is trivial and silly, unless Mr Belloc intended to write a comic history of Syria, which he has certainly not done. The most prejudiced agnostic is well aware that dozens of people who hold Mr Belloc’s beliefs have written admirable histories of the Jews, Syria, Greece and Rome in which the truth of those beliefs is assumed. What, then, is the point in the humour which laboriously pretends that people will be shocked to hear that Mr Belloc is a Roman Catholic?­

What is shocking is not that Mr Belloc is a Roman Catholic, but that he takes so trivial a view of the fact and uses his great gifts for such trivial purposes. We referred above to the fact of his continual nagging at persons whom he does not like. In that fact may, probably, be discovered the cause of his having failed to become, as he might have become, a considerable writer and historian. Even now, in the rare moments when he can forget to hate the insignificant Mr A or the quite unimportant Mr B and can let his mind or imagination play disinterestedly upon some fact or problem which he takes pleasure in contemplating – and not because of the pleasure he feels from knowing that his pleasure will give pain to the insignificant Mr A or the unimportant Mr B – then it is still possible to realise what he and we have lost by the embitterment of Mr Belloc.

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And unfortunately, of course he does his best to rub this fact in positively as well as negatively. In his present book the nagging is so perverse, so wearisome and so depressing. There is, for instance, a class of persons against whom, for some reason or other, he has conceived a very special grudge. They are the “learned” or “scientific” scholars, archaeologists, textual critics, historians upon whose researches and labours three-quarters of what pass as history today is based. Now it is almost certainly true that a large number of these persons are pedants and a certain number them pompous frauds, that much which is accepted as truth is really hypothesis based upon an infinite series of hypotheses, that a good deal of scientific history is scientific and historical mumbo-jumbo. But there is also no doubt that there is a large residuum of most important knowledge which the world gained from the work of these men. If Mr Belloc had written his book in the middle of the 18th century, it would have been utterly different from what it is today, different not only in its attitude towards history and historical fact, but also in its contents, in the historical facts which he presents as the truth to his readers. The difference in Mr Belloc’s attitude, the very facts which he presents as true are directly due to the work of these men.

Yet he nags ­and nags and nags at them as though they were all frauds, ninnies, or imbeciles and that all that had ever been written by them was lies, until the reader can no longer keep his attention upon the history of Syria owing to the insistent problem of Mr Belloc’s grudge against the “learned”.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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