Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea was published in 1906. It is a collection of his journalism from that era in periodicals long since gone. Luckily for us, his writing remains.
These 38 essays are a mix of reflection and philosophy, personal memoir, and travel writing—some with English settings, some foreign. In fact, the geography with which this travel writing is concerned is mostly the Pyrenees and a small corner of East Anglia. The Franco-Spanish tales tell of high mountains and deep valleys dotted with isolated villages as strange in some ways as they are unique. There are also a number of memorable pieces relating to his time in the French military, visits to the deserts of Africa, dropping anchor at harbors around the North Sea. The English writings are more pastoral, more settled, less dramatic—that is when the author is on land. Another element to the English essays is the sea; Belloc was an inveterate sailor. Perhaps his best-known work regarding his love of the sea came two decades later with The Cruise of the Nona. Some of the pieces in Hills and the Sea are precursors to that classic.
Nevertheless, whether the hard rock of the Pyrenees in the mid-day sun or the damp fog of mornings on a still North Sea, Belloc’s ability to conjure up the physicality of what he wrote is remarkable. But then, he was one of those truly gifted writers able to turn his pen to almost any subject and still interest the reader. His literary horizons, like the seas he sailed on, knew no limits. He wrote poems as easily as polemics, histories as frequently as fiction, biographies, political tracts, essays on economics. He wrote about everything under the sun, and about much beyond it.
Hills and the Sea contains some of Belloc’s earliest essays in what was to be a long literary career; he died on 16 July 1953. On surveying his oeuvre, it is impossible to pick out the ‘best’ of anything—favorites, yes, the best, no. There is simply too much of everything, and most of it is of a quality that surpasses excellent. Like the mind of the man who created it, the body of his work is too large, too wide-ranging, too brilliant. Like the travels over the seas and across mountains and plains that he recounts in Hills and the Sea, his imagination ranges over vast distances and soars to great heights in these pages. As a result, his writing is as wonderful to behold by the reader as the nature he describes throughout this volume.
That said, found in these pages is another noticeable quality. Whether sheltering from a storm on a mountainside or, at sea, watching as a tempest comes slowly towards him, there is immediacy in his writing, and, with it, a strange intimacy—his most personal thoughts and feelings are communicated to us as if to a close friend. As the pages of Hills and the Sea are turned it is as if the words on them were written only for that moment, to be read only by that reader: a rare gift indeed.
Belloc writes beautifully. It is not the “beauty” of writing trying to impress; it is never ostentatious. There is an altogether more subtle shading that springs from a deeper source. It comes from the writer’s heart not merely his head. The essay entitled Delft is a good example of this. Read it closely. It is deceptively simple, helped no doubt by how brief it is, and with a subject matter that appears to be of mild interest. It is a master class, however, in how to write of place and what is there—both seen and unseen. Or, take A Family of the Fens, a penetrating analysis of centuries of English history, both political and economic, told through the simple observation of one family’s legacy in an obscure rural location. Then there is the The Inn of Margeride, an exquisitely crafted piece packed full of incident and meditation; here Belloc turns the apparently mundane into something translucent.
Throughout his essays, Belloc is an erudite companion. But his learning is less academic than a wisdom acquired from the ways of the world and his observation of man and nature. Lest we forget: this is a man who enlisted in the French army; who walked across America to be reunited with a woman he had briefly met in London and whom he subsequently wed; who was elected to Parliament; who debated in public with other contemporary literati on the truths of his Catholic faith, and much else besides. This is a man who loved intensely; who lost his young wife early in their marriage and who, for many a night thereafter upon retiring, would pause to place a kiss on the door to her room; in 1918, four years after that loss, he lost a son in the First World War; the last years of his life were crippled by illness. He knew suffering but accepted it as part of humanity’s lot. He had many friends, some notable; he made enemies. He was a man of strong beliefs—religious, political, economic. He said what had to be said. He seized what life offered and lived it to the full. A keen walker, as in his ambulatory adventures, so too in his life, he kept going to the end, regardless of the prevailing wind or accompanying hail, rough terrain or smooth, in company or alone… He kept on.
It is strange to think that Belloc was still alive in the 1950s. A man born in the reign of Victoria was to live until a new Elizabethan era commenced. His last years were marred by the stroke he suffered in 1941. He spent most of those last days at his beloved home, King’s Land, in Sussex, surrounded by memories and his own books. At the end, it is said that he read little else but his own writings. At first, that appears an odd thing, but then on reflection one understands. His compositions are all memoir of a sort. By then old, frail and disabled, it was through these that he was once more young, virile, impetuous; the man who set out to walk to Rome, who sailed the seas regardless of weather, who loved and lost, but, who, most of all, had fully embraced the gift of life. The elderly are often left with little else but memories; Belloc had the benefit of his in written form.
Hills and the Sea comes at the start of a career. It is a young writer making his mark; it is the voice of a young man on the cusp of life feeling all its potential, and also his own. A sense of adventure pervades these essays. In the end, however, they are not so much about rocks and water as about life and death. There is danger within these pages, elements that cannot, will not, be tamed. Belloc faces them with the bravery of one who has chosen to live. There is something else besides. An awareness of how everything—life and all creation—comes from one source and returns there. There is a sense of history, of place, and one’s part in the moment given. There is also an awareness of the mysterious nature of much around us and, of the supernatural perceived on occasion in a myriad of unexpected ways.
There is a recurring scene in these essays. It opens with the author sitting in a deserted village inn. While there, he has a vision of all the history of Europe and, with it, a glimpse of a deeper history still—not simply the musings of a writer, but something more akin to the mind of a mystic. Perhaps, alone and incapacitated, during those final dark Sussex nights, it was this sense of the transcendent that Belloc, soon to die, was searching for in the pages of his earlier works, holding as they did the hopes of his younger self, now come full circle, to point to the last great Hope of the older man.
(Photo credit: Cahill Photography.)