Today the title of “man of letters” is an informal label usually applied to writers, scholars, or people with broad knowledge. In the Victorian era, however, the phrase had a more specific meaning. In those days it referred to the public intellectual who wrote works that usually addressed issues of contemporary interest or concern. These authors often ranged across a variety of subjects and genres, sometimes gaining renown as authors of both fictional and nonfictional works, which was a testament both to their literary skill and the reading public’s broad-minded views towards their authority.
Hilaire Belloc can be counted among their number. Over the course of half a century he wrote dozens of books, an output that ranged from children’s verses and novels to travelogues and works of history. Many of those latter works (particularly the ones about the Reformation) were heavily influenced by Belloc’s Catholic faith, which has led him to be pigeonholed as a “Catholic historian.” Whether this is fair or not, given how prominently he wore his faith I doubt it bothered him all that much.
One consequence of this identification is that Catholic presses have ensured that most of Belloc’s works remain in print. Among them is his short 1933 biography of William the Conqueror, and when I started it I quickly came to appreciate Belloc’s skills as a writer. It’s an incredibly fluid narrative, which it needs to be as Belloc wrote it not as a chapter-by-chapter account but as a single unbroken work – more of an extended essay than a subdivided biographical study. It’s difficult to see where such chapter divisions could have been inserted, as the text transitions smoothly from topic to topic with nary the need for a break.
Belloc’s book also stands out as the most biographically-focused study of William of any that I have read so far. While not neglecting the context (especially when it comes to Church-related matters), Belloc concentrates his narrative on the details of William’s life. The contrast with the other William biographies that I have read is striking: there is little explanation of Norman feudalism or the French politics that were the preeminent concerns of William’s early years, as Belloc concentrates primarily on relating the basic facts of William’s early life.
Whereas William’s French background is largely unexplored, the English context receives more substantial attention. Here he focuses on the validity of William’s claims to the English throne, arguing for its superiority over that of Harold. A lot of his analysis is dated, as is his depiction of Edward the Confessor, which comes close to the “holy fool” depictions of medieval hagiography. Had I not read Stenton’s book I wouldn’t have known how dated Belloc’s take was even then. He is equally credulous in accepting the greatly exaggerated figures for both the size of William’s invasion force and the contingents at the battle of Hastings, which had been contested by historians long before Belloc put pen to paper.
Belloc concludes his book with a potted description of William’s two decades on the throne that leaves out much detail. In this it’s reflective of the book as a whole: a smooth description of William’s life, but ultimately a lacking one in providing a sense of his policies as England’s ruler or the context in which events took place. While one of the most readable books that I have yet encountered for this project, this only goes so far towards mitigating the deficiencies in Belloc’s work. Other William biographers may not come up to his standards in terms of providing a readable narrative, but the accuracy and utility of their accounts far surpass those of Belloc’s shallow and ultimately unsatisfying text.