‘No one denies for a moment that large subscriptions to some public object are often rewarded by some public honour. I may be a little easy-going, but I really don’t see any harm in it. Everybody knows it is – er – done; the recipients are worthy men and they are just the kind of men who have always been made knights and baronets, and even peers when they were important enough.’
– Hilaire Belloc, Mr Clutterbuck’s Election (1908)
There is some admirable fooling in Mr Belloc’s new book, but only those who are keenly interested in politics will really enjoy it.
– The Sphere (1908)
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a big figure in Edwardian public life: a politician as well as a prolific author of biography, fiction, essays, travel writing and poetry. Now, I suspect he’s remembered almost exclusively for a single book of verse, Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), and even then primarily for the lines about how one should ‘always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse’. Compared to contemporaries like H.G. Wells or George Bernard Shaw, he has faded out of view.
Which isn’t entirely surprising. The sheer volume of work (over 150 books) suggests a lack of focus and concentration. Belloc was a good writer, but one who evidently found the process sufficiently easy that he didn’t need to work too hard at it, and consequently it feels like he never pushed himself to a higher level. Further, there is no single character – like his friend G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown – who has survived.
Despite all of which, I would tentatively suggest that his political satire is worth more consideration than it receives, and that this short book – said to have been dictated at speed over an Easter holiday – is the best of it.
Mr Clutterbuck is a small-time broker in the City of London, a man content to live quietly out in suburbia, nursing the capital he inherited from his father. Then he has a stroke of luck and does rather well out of the Boer War. In a slightly shady deal, he invests £750 in buying a million eggs that are destined for British forces in South Africa. When the conflict ends, with the eggs as yet unshipped, he fears that his money is lost, but the government has other ideas: it wouldn’t want patriotic businessmen to be out of pocket, so it offers compensation. ‘Within a week of the cessation of hostilities, offers had been made to all the owners at the rate, less carriage, of one shilling for each egg,’ and Clutterbuck’s £750 is instantly converted to £45,000. Within a decade, he’s doubled this, and then – thanks to an error by his clerk – he really gets lucky, and becomes a very rich man indeed, able ‘to pass from ease to affluence’.
Now that he’s a man of substance, he builds himself and his wife a big show-off house in Surrey. It’s a new life and a new Clutterbuck. ‘There were subtle signs of change about the man,’ we’re told. ‘He was kinder to his wife and less careful whether he were shaved or no before ten o’clock in the morning.’ Further:
Mr Clutterbuck acquired a clean and decisive way of speaking, prefaced more commonly by a little period of thought, and he permitted himself certain minor luxuries to which he had hitherto been unaccustomed: he would buy cigars singly at the tobacconist’s; he used credit in the matter of wine, that is of sherry and port, and his hat was often ironed when he was shaved.
The biggest change, though, is that his thoughts start to turn towards politics, and he’s soon being courted by one of the leading parties, because: ‘Our political world is ever ready to admit to the directing society of the nation those whose prudence and success in business have shown them worthy of undertaking the task of government.’
Clutterbuck parrots the appropriate platitudes, he makes a judicious distribution of donations, and he gets adopted as the parliamentary candidate for a by-election in North London. By now, incidentally, the events have taken us a little way into the future, to 1911, and the political environment looks somewhat different: women have the vote, and there’s Home Rule for Ireland.
The by-election campaign is disrupted by a populist media storm. In a completely unrelated incident, a dockworker is sacked, which provokes a strike threat by members of the United Riverside Workers and Sons of Southwark, and that in turn spreads to another union, the Paint Removers and Tar and Maritime Composition Appliers. Their case goes to court, and… Well, it doesn’t really matter about the detail. It all gets a bit convoluted, and ultimately the story disappears up its own fundament.
Or possibly what happens is that the satire gets more specific about a political world of which I know nothing, and consequently I get left behind. I read in A.N. Wilson’s biography of Belloc, for example, that the character of Mary Smith is a caricature of Margot Asquith, but I don’t know that it helps me much, since I don’t really care a great deal about either.
I should also add that there is only one mention, very much in passing, of Mr Clutterbuck’s Election in Wilson’s book. A couple of sequels – A Change in the Cabinet (1909), Pongo and the Bull (1910) – get slightly more coverage, but very little. The jokes in the latter, Wilson notes, ‘would be impenetrable today to anyone who had not taken the trouble to remind themselves of the political events of 1909–10’.
I don’t whether this is entirely true. It seems to me there’s plenty here that still stands very effectively. Clutterbuck’s naïve pursuit of a knighthood, his puzzlement that his donations don’t seem to be bearing fruit – this still resonates. So too does the ironic celebration of the great British generals in the Boer War, ‘who, in less than three years from the decisive victory of Paardeburg, imposed peace upon the enemy’.
Then there’s a charity, much patronized by members of high society, ‘a religious association of young men which did strenuous work among the poor of Mickleton, distributing large sums every quarter in salaries to its vast organization’. I also like the portrait of a member of the undeserving poor, a ‘man to whom manual labour had never appealed, and whose pathetic, intelligent eyes betrayed a world of suffering and want’. And you can’t argue with his description of the ‘routine of the House of Commons which is as regular in its way as the breathing of a profound sleep’.
Much of the time, the devilish humour is in the detail, as when a public enquiry is set up, headed by Lord Henry Townley, ‘whose name and salary alone are a guarantee of scientific excellence and accuracy’. It’s the inclusion of the word ‘salary’ there that makes all the difference.
And I’ve never read a better or more succinct joke at the expense of an inbred political establishment than the reference to ‘young Pulborough (who was his own father)’. Belloc’s good friend, J.B. Morton, would have been proud of that one.
I’m grouping these pieces about various novels under the heading Imperial Fiction. As the series expands, I’m not sure that’s always appropriate, but in deference to the phrase, I should add that the Empire does creep into this story.
There is, for example, the case of the ruby mines in the Anapootra Valley, which became the property of the British state ‘when the administration of the valley was taken over by Great Britain’. Happily, there’s a forward-thinking Lieutenant-Governor, who realizes that the best way to exploit the mines is to lease them to a newly formed private company for fifteen years. But, of course, one has to sweeten the pill a little if one is to attract investors, so the rent is set far below market value, and the state underwrites the entire enterprise to guarantee that no one will be left out-of-pocket by their pursuit of profit. And then the Lieutenant-Governor demonstrates his own faith in the enterprise by resigning his government post to become director of the mining company. And he takes his mining consultant with him ‘at a somewhat increased salary’. This satire still seems to have some relevance as well.
As in Edgar Wallace’s Sanders of the River (1911), there’s also a cynical humour to be found in the conflicting concerns of imperialism, capitalism and Christianity, with a particular emphasis on the differing attitudes between the British and the Belgian:
There were some, indeed, to whom the financial necessities of the unhappy natives were but a second consideration, absorbed as they were in the spiritual needs of the African; but there were others who saw, with the sturdy common sense which has led us to all our victories, that little could be done even upon the spiritual side, until marshes have been drained, forests cleared, fields ploughed, and the most carefully chosen implements imported from as carefully chosen merchants in the capitals of Europe. The directing hand and brain of the European must be lent to raise the material position of those unhappy savages in whom the Belgian had almost obliterated the semblance of humanity.
There’s one other aspect of the novel that needs to be mentioned. One of the characters, William Bailey, is an extreme anti-Semite, the sort who sees a Jewish conspiracy at work everywhere, shaping and controlling the political and business life of the nation and of the world. At one point, he sends a donation
to a Jew-baiting organization in Vienna; a foul gang of which he knew nothing whatsoever save that he had read its address in one of those vile Continental rags from which he derived so many of his prejudices, and whose authority was the origin of his repeated falsehoods.
As a mockery of what we might today call ‘false news’, this is good stuff. As a satire on anti-Semitism, however, it’s entirely undermined by Belloc’s depiction of a master manipulator behind the scenes, ‘the indefatigable empire-builder whom the world had known as Mr Barnett of M’Korio, and who now, as the aged Duke of Battersea, had earned by his unceasing good deeds the half-playful, half-reverend nickname of “Peabody Yid” among the younger members of his set’. His machinations are precisely the kind of thing that Bailey believes are characteristic of Jews.
At the time of writing, Belloc was a Liberal MP for Salford South, elected in the great landslide of 1906. But his politics weren’t entirely characteristic of the party in those glory days of H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George. Belloc owed allegiance to an old Europe, a Catholic Europe, and had a romantic attachment to land and old money. What he had no time for was shabby deal-making and plutocracy. And, being anti-Semitic, he attributed these deplorable phenomena to the agency of Jews.
The reviews were good. It was a ‘brilliant satirical study, a picture of British political and financial manners,’ said one. ‘The taste left in one’s mouth is indeed bitter, but it is a pleasant tonic bitterness.’ Another agreed: ‘a somewhat wordy but decidedly clever novel.’
It was a modest commercial success, and it enjoyed a revival in the post-war years, when it became unexpectedly topical. During the scandal in the early 1920s about the sale of honours by Lloyd George, it was reported that the novel was ‘very much in demand at the second-hand and cheap-edition booksellers’.
There was even, in those days, talk of Belloc’s political fiction as being in the same league as that of Trollope and Disraeli. Not now though.