How to Write Criticism

By John Hertz:   Actually it’s a lesson from Hilaire Belloc.  He (1870-1953) wrote 150 books; his comic poems Cautionary Tales for Children (1907) include “Rebecca, who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably”; two of his essay collections are On Everything (1909) and On Nothing (1910); his polemical biographies of Wolsey (1930) and Cranmer (1931) are masterly; by the first decade of the 20th Century people who did not agree with him – I often don’t (literary present tense) – were among those who called him the greatest living prose writer.

Here he is, writing in those days and in the style of his time, about what had just been.

In one epoch lubricity, in another fanaticism, in a third dulness and a dead-alive copying of the past, are the faults which criticism finds to attack.  None of these affected the Victorian era.  It was pure — though tainted with a profound hypocrisy; it was singularly free from violence in its judgments; it was certainly alive and new; but it had this grievous defect (a defect under which we still labour heavily), that thought was restrained upon every side.  Never in the history of European letters was it so difficult for a man to say what he thought and to be heard.  A sort of cohesive public spirit (which was but one aspect of the admirable homogeneity of the nation) glued and immobilized all individual expression….

It is to be carefully discerned how many apparent exceptions to this truth are, if they be closely examined, no exceptions at all.  A whole series of national defects were exposed and ridiculed in the literature as in the oratory of the day; but they were defects which the mass of men secretly delighted to hear denounced and of which each believed himself to be free.

Preface to Froude’s Essays in Literature and History (1906)

in J. De Chantigny ed., Hilaire Belloc’s Prefaces, p. 86 (1971;
B goes on to say “In such a time Froude maintained an opposing force”, p. 87)

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