I first heard of Hilaire Belloc when I read a few of his very funny poems, many years ago, in some humor anthology. Later I read these, with several more, to my daughter when she was very young until she could read them herself. I knew nothing more about him then. It turns out that he was a prolific writer in England, in the early part of the 20th century. His poetry was written early in his career and, cursed by fame, his sense of humor waned.
This book, while not funny, is a brief retelling of major events in French history for the general reader of almost any age. Belloc’s father was French, he knew the land well himself, and so he has written about it fondly. This is a pleasant switch from the national sport of France-bashing.
Belloc was also a staunch Catholic, and his writing and selections reflect this to some extent, although that slant is a slight one. This book is in no way an apology for Catholicism, just an appreciation for certain people and events in times when all the West was Catholic.
He also loved boats and boating. The nautical terms and watery descriptions cast into some of the selections are those of an afficionado and leave landlubbers like me puzzled, but the general meaning is clear enough.
Although Belloc is half-French, half-British, I felt like I was reading an Irish writer at times. Apparently the story-telling style, which I thought was peculiarly Irish, was a fad infiltrating word order, punctuation, and description for everybody back then. This a tad irritating (more or less), but not enough to destroy the important contribution this popular history makes. The Romantic School inspired lots of less perfect imitators. I attribute the style to “Fiona Macleod,” — who was really a man, William Sharp, writing when a man could not get published as easily as a woman (those were the good old days!). This is only a superficial impression, since it is based on my superficial readings from the time in question.
Belloc does have some charming turns of phrase, though, and the pieces are generally pleasant and informative on little-known episodes of new and old Gaul.
There is a nice blue and white illustration that spans the inner cover and first page of the book, which is Art-Deco-ish and romantic as all get out. It is of a knight in armour, on horseback, in front of a walled city. Don’t look at the online version too closely (please!), because the original picture had the fold marks straight up the center which I fixed — clumsily — in Photo-shop. I almost did not include it, but I liked it too much.
In the picture, I left the little green label (partially blurred) from the bookstore which first sold it, saying, “Dennen’s Book Shop, 37 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit, Michigan.”
There were also very few typos for a change: a big relief! These are fixed, with the emendations noted in the source code on the page.
French history is undertaught with strong elements of hostility and bias in both its instruction or the lack of it. To believe this, read this book and see how much of it you already know and how much you don’t.
Miniatures of French History
Title Pages and Contents
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Copyright © 2011