The Atlantic's Bookshelf

by Hilaire Belloc. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1924. 8vo. x+599 pp. Illustrated. $5.00.
MORE than a quarter of a century ago Mr. Hilaire Belloc began those studies of the French Revolution which resulted in his biographies of Danton, Robespierre, and Marie Antoinette, with other later, and perhaps lesser, contributions to the understanding of that great movement. In them he expressed and exemplified an historical creed which in a new preface to this book he has now formulated. This creed, he tells us, is based upon a particular method which ‘consists in an attempt to reproduce as a living thing the action of the past. It defends a special insistence upon physical details— dress, weather, gestures, facial expression, light, color, landscape— and a corresponding lack of emphasis upon mere chronicle ... a method of literary presentation which shall aim at vividness . . . and an elimination of reference.’ It is, in fact, a challenge to historical fiction, adapting many of the devices of that art to the Service of history.
Acting upon these principles, Mr. Belloc has given us that type of historical writing with which many have become familiar, and with which many, it is fair to say, have been delighted. It has, if one prefers to push its analysis further, one other characteristic which has added to its attractiveness to its readers. It has been, if not wholly biographical, centred on the personality of the great actors in the revolutionary tragedy. It has been much more than biography. It has had much more than the costume and atmosphere of the period. It has been at once philosophical, psychological, and poetical. To an unprejudiced mind it seems to reveal a little of the influence of that Carlyle whom Mr. Belloc so frankly dislikes, as well as no litLle of the painstaking investigation of the schools which he so sharply denounces. It is at once more and less than either of these; and it has a quality of epigram, as of penetration, hardly matched in historical writing.
Those very qualities have roused dissent as well as admiration; but, whatever one may think of the pictures which he draws with such skill, he cannot be denied the high quality of readability, the gift of style, the blessing of imagination, so often denied to the aspiring historian, or suppressed by him in the interest of accuracy of what he conceives to be historical truth. Mr. Belloc is not ashamed to be interesting; he glories in his unashamedness; he strives to be still more interesting.
In his Marie Antoinette he has pushed his creed to the extreme. In these pages there lives at least a real Queen, and at least one real battle. If he chooses to call the one Marie Antoinette and the other Wattignies, there are few, even among historians, who will venture to quarrel with him. And if he is preëminently a Defender of the Faith, if he speaks, as such an one should perhaps, ex cathedra, even those qualities add to the effect upon his principal concern, the reader.
Finally, it is fair to add, this book is not new. It first appeared in this country about fifteen years ago under the auspices of a different publishing house than the one whose name the present edition bears. Otherwise, so far as the text is concerned, it would seem that the plates of the earlier edition have been used for this — even without rereading the proof, or adding a much to be desired index. What is new is the statement of the author’s historical creed, of which the whole volume is an expression.