Hilaire Belloc’s Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (1928)

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                                29 June 2019

The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

Hilaire Belloc’s Arrival Afoot in Rome (in 1901)

Epigraph

“’I have told you,’ he [Sir Robert Montgomery, Belinda’s father,] said, that ‘I know—I understand—the affections of youth….I married late: you have a father too much advanced in years for your opening life. Your mother, who is now a saint in Heaven, you never knew. But I myself, long before your age [now eighteen], had among my companions one to whom the deepest of human affections was far, far from unknown.’” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publication, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 First Edition), page 31—my emphasis added)

***

“Such, gentle reader, were the loves of Belinda and Horatio; tried as by fire, torn asunder, rejoined, they attained at last to wedded felicity under an ancestral roof, until, after the brief accidents of this our mortality, they were united forever in Paradise.” (Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age, page 130)

***

Over the last few weeks, my wife and I have eagerly attempted to introduce our daughter (11) once again to some unmistakably challenging examples of excellent literature: such as Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 historical novel of the early seventeenth century, The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi). We are now gratefully reading that book aloud together—along with our young son (8)—especially some of the extended central passages of that eloquent and memorable novel—with my wife herself now expressively and adroitly doing the reading. We are doing this, in part, so as to prepare an excited Isabella for her own reading soon of the entire demanding 500-page novel, now from the beginning.

Moreover, I have also thought that Isabella would thereby then be ready to read another, but shorter (130-page), nineteenth-century historical novel of purity (with its frequently gracious and expressed affections, as well as with some passionate robustness and youthfulness and vividly “chivalrous daring”). That is to say, Hilaire Belloc’ own cherished 1928 novel, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age.1

Hilaire Belloc especially cherished this carefully constructed and nuanced romantic tale; a tale of protective and attentive affection and the fidelity of faithful memory. (He had slowly composed and refined his gradually forming novel for some five years, between 1923 and 1928, and only then did he consent to publish his completed text.)

Set in England and France, the resultant Tale of Affection now tells us, in large part, about a young man of twenty-three and a young woman of eighteen, two neighbors who, having a common boundary between their spacious properties, had once been childhood playmates. But this Horatio and Belinda have just discovered in their unexpected outdoor meeting something deeper and more enduring. Something that touches and soon profoundly affects their faithfully plighted hearts.

However, this developing bond and its likely fuller maturation unto marriage displeases several persons, some of them in Belinda’s own family (to include her father) and some of them truly vulnerable men and already in deep debt and deceitful suitors of Belinda, such as Sir Henry Portly of Molcombe Abbey (43) and his intrusively malicious litigious agent, such as sly Lawyer Fox of Bath.

Because of certain customary limitations and strict prohibitions made by Belinda’s father, Sir Robert Montgomery, which were to be applied while he is to be away from Wiltshire for two important weeks in London, Belinda and Horatio are thwarted. They are not permitted to be with each other, but they could only write letters to each other. However, and fatefully, these four actually written letters of deep affection were intentionally blocked from their delivery—because of the malicious interdiction of a complicit lonely spinster woman.

Leaving Belinda, Horatio first goes apart from home on horseback, thinking that Belinda herself has rejected him and his sincere love. He intends to go permanently abroad to the main continent of Europe (to France at first). However, as it turns out, Horatio shows, now as a wandering pauper in France, much more of his virtuous moral character. With “chivalrous daring,” he even rescues from a gang of robbers by night a distinguished noble French woman who originally had come from England many years ago. Because he had been wounded in the rescue, he was taken by the widowed Marquise to her nearby Château and it was proposed to him, quite firmly, to remain there himself until he had fully healed. (The widow’s name, we gradually discover, was Esmeralda de la Ferronnière and she had been in retirement since about 1824, the year of death of the French King, Louis XVIII, when her own husband, the Marquis, also died.)

Not long after Horatio’s nighttime escorted arrival at the Château, Sir Robert Montgomery himself, along with Belinda and their whole entourage, came to seek a rescue themselves, after one of their three carriages (especially a smaller chaise) broke down and gravely wounded their lead horse.

When Robert Montgomery heard from one of the servants the spoken name of the Marquise of the Château, he was stunned. Thus began many memories from his own youth and his germinating affections, as well. This helped him better understand Belinda’s own plighted heart and “long fidelity,” as well as her special sufferings recently (which was why her father decided to take her on a refreshing tour to continental Europe). Self-knowledge grew and was expressed—though sometimes with restraint—also to the once-beloved and still cherished Marquise de la Ferronnière herself, who had her own cherished memories of deep affection and Robert’s own “long fidelity” (116).

Most movingly, Horatio and Belinda met again and understood the belatedly revealed reasons for their earlier and painful misperceptions of each other, especially as to why their own very affectionate love-letters were not received and then reciprocated. The honorable character of Horatio grew in the eyes of Sir Robert and Esmeralda, as well as of Belinda—and that much-tested young couple was now at last permitted to marry there in France. Belinda and Horatio prepared for their wedding and soon were bound in sacred matrimony by Reverend John Atkins, their accompanying Anglican vicar and Belinda’s own tutor, especially in intimate matters of religion. Then would soon come the return to England of the whole extended company, to include Marquise Esmerelda herself, where she would dwell for long portions of the year. For, the two Wiltshire estates of Halston and Marsden would now “eventually unite in their common patronage the two livings” (129) and then invite a beloved friend and companion of long ago to dwell there, even permanently, but in a companionship of fittingly gracious, respectful purity and thus “without peril.” (125).

In an earlier passage, Belloc—or rather the Narrator—deftly reveals part of the novel’s fertile theme:

They err who pretend that the years, though they may obscure, can eliminate a primal passion. The soul is immortal. If once it suffer the imprint of that one emotion [love] which links time with eternity, the imperishable mark remains. The flood will return in full, unconquerable might, provoked by a tone, a scent, a glance, a name. This man [Sir Robert Montgomery], so far advanced in the business of living, already conscious of the grave, had suffered a resurrection from the dead. He had heard the name of Ferronnière…. He heard a voice, he rose and trembled, the great doors were ceremoniously opened, and the woman appeared. (114)

Let us also briefly try to present the comparable courtesy and purity of youth, now that we have hopefully been touched by the gracious conduct and sentiments of Sir Robert and his affectionate companion of long ago, Marquise Esmeralda. We shall introduce the unexpected meeting of Belinda and Horatio out of doors, each of them walking near or along a stream that forms part of the boundary between their own individual family estates. First, we consider Belloc’s presentation of the awakening and subsequent wandering walk afield of Belinda “close on noon” (13):

She woke, indeed, to the day and place, yet these were changed as though now infused with wonder….So, dreaming in full wakefulness, the girl…wandered under the high sun across the lawn…toward a dense wood of pines; there she proposed to rest awhile in the shade, and commune with a little brook which eddied clear under a plank thrown across its waters, and ran with a happy murmur to join the Avon near at hand. The stream formed part of the boundary…and…[she] turned her feet toward that spot….

Upon the farther bank, in the neighbouring park from which the stream divided her, a sandy slope…led up by a narrow path…to a great grove which hid the old and ruinous house of Halston beyond [i.e., Horatio’s home]. Thence, at the same hour, with high noon past, and the more powerful sun distilling every savour from grass and leaf and earth, Horatio sauntered out, bound no whither, filled with the power of summer which grew to harvest all around….The grove summoned him to its recesses; he received the influence of the great beeches and their shade as though the half darkness were alive. He came out into the further blinding light, and the sound of the stream below beckoned him insensibly down the path to the water between the wealths of fern.

She saw him as he came through the bracken, with active carriage, with uplifted face. It seemed to her that there was something there inspired; and her imagination put courage and adventure into his advance, as though he were setting out on a quest. He turned a corner of the path to cross the rustic bridge, and was aware of one [who is] scarcely known yet deeply known, whose airy figure among the solemn pines arrested all his being. When he had approached and discovered her face, it was not the familiar feature of a friend, but Radiance personate. In him, for her, [there] approached a god.

The moment was magical. It was as though some music had transformed the world….But in the heart of the high wood a Presence, shining in a shaft of light, triumphantly let fly the arrow from the bow. (13-16—my emphasis added)

To appreciate more fully the personal qualities and religious-philosophical orientation of Belloc’s chosen Narrator of this Tale of Affection, we may now consider the way he is presented to us at the outset, especially on the first two pages. We may thereby notice what is there, but also what is not there—such as the absence of the Catholic Faith and of a fair presentation of earlier Catholic History:

Within the [Anglican] parish, and adjoining the village, of Marlden, in a stately mansion known as The Towers, whose ample lawn sweeps down in smooth luxuriance to the pellucid waters of the Avon, resided a gentleman respected throughout the County of Wiltshire as Sir Robert Montgomery….

The baronet (for such was his rank) enjoyed the esteem of his equals, the respectful affection of his inferiors, and the devotion of an only daughter, an only child, upon whom her mother (long dead) had bestowed the pleasing name of Belinda.

That devotion of the widowed father repaid with a particular and careful attention, the dignity of which could hardly veil his deep, his doting fondness. No expense was spared in providing Belinda’s earliest years with a solid grounding in the rudiments of polite learning, while, as her girlhood blossomed into riper charms, a further selection of instructors drawn from both sexes perfected her in Italian, French, the art of painting in water-colours, every department of deportment, and the pianoforte.

Thus did Belinda Montgomery, as she entered her eighteenth year, unite every refinement of culture to beauty of an entrancing mould; a mind naturally apt and generous, trained to its fullest powers, informed a frame of surpassing grace, and the whole was inspired by a soul wherein had been firmly planted the precepts of our sublime religion. (1-2—my emphasis added)

We may now wonder about the meaning of the “our” in “our sublime religion.” (2) Who is it, for example, who largely conducted Belinda’s own formative religious education?

We shall fittingly now meet at least one of her teachers, “the Reverend John Atkins,” (2) who will also be the one who later marries Belinda and Horatio. But the Narrator presents now the matter of Belinda’s deeper religious formation:

To this last and awful matter the good vicar of the parish, the Reverend John Atkins, had applied himself with constant zeal. His living (of which Sir Robert was patron) did not so completely engross his time as to forbid him the hours required for the young lady’s spiritual education: nor were the emoluments of such a task ungrateful to one whose humble needs were but narrowly met by the tithe and glebe of the parish.

Under such guidance Belinda grasped in turn the nature and attributes of her Creator, the scheme of the Atonement, the promise of a blessed Heaven, the menace of a dreadful Hell, the original institution of Episcopacy; and the errors of Rome upon the one hand, of dissent upon the other. The Book of Common Prayer was her constant companion, and on the richly inlaid table of her private boudoir lay open, for daily consultation, the Holy Bible. (2—my emphasis added)

Near the end of Belloc’s presented Tale, we see not only some of the more comic elements in Reverend Atkins’ beliefs and words and professional conduct; but also some of his deeply warm affection and good-hearted sentimentalism:

In the room which had been set aside for the chapel of the [marriage] ceremony,… the household was assembled, the Reverend Mr. Atkins vested and prepared. He had required, he had demanded, he had obtained, a glass of port wine and a biscuit, which was his invariable custom to consume before a Celebration, in protest against the Romish novelties of certain [Anglican] colleagues. As, with practiced intonation, he recited the profound phrases of the Marriage Service, the Marquise, who had missed for so long the beautiful Liturgy of her youth, was deeply moved; while old Fanchette, the only French domestic not a Papist and, therefore, privileged to attend, was equally affected by the sacred scene, though, being ignorant of the English tongue (a Huguenot [Calvinist] from the Vaudois), she could do no more than reverently follow the rhythms of the sacred office.

Averse though he was to the extempore usage of the Caledonian Communion [the Scotttish, and perhaps Calvinist Rite?], Mr. Atkins did not forbear to add at the end of his ministration a short but heartfelt prayer of his own for the young people [Belinda and Horatio] who would eventually unite in their combined patronage the two livings of Halston and Marlden. Tears stood in the eyes of the good old man as he alluded with a native delicacy to the possibility of offspring. Himself a celibate,…the more pathetically did he extend both hands in benediction over the bowed heads of the kneeling couple, while his uplifted eyes sought Heaven in a prayer for their fruitful happiness. (129-130—my emphasis added)

CODA

The reader of this tale of affection and purity will also gratefully find many memorable displays of Hilaire Belloc’s capacious versatility and depictions of lapses of true and chivalrous nobility. For example: Sir Robert Montgomery’s unexpected outburst and eloquent diatribe against the perceived character of Horatio Maltravers and his lineage (25); the presentation on the debt bondage of certain gentry and the cold manipulations of the financial oligarchs (to include the looting of the monasteries, both historically and now) (41-46); Horatio’s hospitable welcome at an inn and the special gift of his horse, Crusader (66-71); the voyage by ship from Dover to France (71-72); the Marquise’s rescue (78).

In the presence of his daughter Belinda, Sir Robert Montgomery passionately rejected her own choice, demeaned her beloved, and had an astonishing outburst at last, full of Shakespearean invective:

“Horatio!” he thundered. “Horatio Maltravers? A beggar’s brat, disreputably dragged up by a hermit? A pauper? A young wastrel? An out-at-elbows fellow, a scrap and rag-bag, a rotten Oxford coxcomb all curls and debts, a miserable futility.” (25)

On high finance and debt bondage and desperate (often immoral) attempts to become unsnarled:

This lamentable situation [of progressive and often compound interest and resultant “debt bondage”] had risen from an action only too common upon the part of the gentry. Sir Henry’s father [Sir Orlando Portly] had the fatal imprudence to speculate on ‘Change [sic—the Financial Exchange]….

The rumor spread by Herr Amschel—later and better known as Baron de Rothschild—that the glory of Britain had set on the field of Waterloo [fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815], had led Sir Orlando…to sell…in the hope of reaping an immense profit when all should be acquainted with the fatal truth [the purported loss of victory]. He [Sir Orlando] had not allowed for the business acumen of the great banker. For Amschel-Rothschild had secretly procured the news of victory in advance of all, and had had the admirable foresight to spread accounts of defeat for the better preparation of the market.

It was upon these accounts that Sir Orlando [Portly] had [disastrously] speculated in London, confident in the ruin of our cause. (42-43—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Horatio’s necessary stopover at an inn in Dover, en route to France, because of the rough seas:

The landlord, standing at the door to welcome a guest [Horatio] whose distinguished bearing he had justly appreciated at his approach, bowed low to receive him, and asked him what service he might render.

“Let my horse [Crusader],” answered the gentleman dismounting, “be led to his stable, whither I will accompany the groom to see that all is in order: the saddle and its bags carefully lodged aside, the creature’s coat well rubbed down, a rug provided, and an ample feed of good oats—for a man’s first duty is to his mount. Next I will ask for a simple meal with a bottle of your best, and that disposed, I will beg a word with you.”….

“I would be brief. You have seen me accompany to his stall my best friend….Take, take I pray you, this steed of mine—the final object of my domestic affections—for I depart from England, and for ever! He is worthy of your acceptance….you will give him the home I desire….With you he will be secure from the sloth, the folly, the cruelty of bad horse-masters….I leave him in good hands. I ask no more….I go abroad for long, for long indeed. If you will harbour my gallant, my faithful Crusader, it is upon me that the boon is conferred.”

He was silent.

“Sir,” replied the host, in deep tones of ill-concealed emotion. “I shall keep him not as a gift, but as a trust, until I have the honour and pleasure of seeing your face again. (69-70—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s journey by ship to France in the heavy storm:

Within a few minutes [out of the protective have] the winds embraced her in full violence….The waves rose mountains high as the shore receded into the murk….The Captain (whose name was Beaver) affirmed, with rough sea-oaths, that in all his 317 crossings of the Channel he had never known so fearful a hurricane, and in the thickness of the flying scud the white sea-walls of England [of the cliffs of Dover] turned ghostly as though leagues away, (71-72—my emphasis added)

Then came Horatio’s answer to a question the Marquise Esmerelda posed to him after he had rescued her from night-robbers in France, a question as to his “destination”:

“Destination,” he answered, “I have none. I am a wanderer, self-exiled from the home of my childhood. I seek but the next hostelry [inn], thence to continue through the world my trackless and lonely way.”

“Nay,” said she decidedly, in that clear voice to which its mere hint of a French habit added a subtle charm, “then our course is plain. You must accompany me to my Château, which is near at hand, and there remain till you are healed of your wound. I will take no denial. That you are a gentleman your idiom, your gait, your accoutrement assure me. That you are the bravest of the brave [especially with your openly “Chivalric Daring” (81)] (she concluded, with an assuring glance) you have yourself proved.” (78—my emphasis added)

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1See Hilaire Belloc, Belinda: A Tale of Affection in Youth and Age (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2014—a re-print of the 1928 first edition). The first edition, as published in England in 1928, was published in London by Constable & Co. LTD. The American First Edition was published in New York and London by Harper & Brothers in 1929, and that edition additionally contains eight Illustrations. All future references, however, will be to the 2014 re-print text by Loreto Publications, and the references will placed above in parentheses in the main body of this essay.

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