I stayed up much later than I should have to finish this unexpected little book. The plot was quite good, but more compelling than that was Chesterton’s distinct style of writing and the little gems he scatters liberally on every page.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is Chesterton’s first novel and was published in 1904. In this story, he imagines a London eighty years hence (yes, 1984) in which nothing much has really changed. Horse-drawn hansom cabs still cruise the streets and the government has degenerated into a despotic democracy. A man is chosen from a list (just as one is called for jury duty) to be King. It is not a hereditary title, and the function of this King is to be a sort of national secretary. This systems is described as a despotic democracy because it is an ordinary man just like any other who is chosen off the list, and so he in his one person embodies the spirit of the masses — and yet he rules with an autocrat’s power.
Auberon Quin is one such young man, who is standing on his head in a public garden to mortify his friends when he receives word that he has been chosen as King. Auberon is a “dangerous man” because all he cares for are jokes. As King, he indulges a fancy of dividing London into respective sections and setting up a full medieval state, complete with flowing robes, contingents of halberdiers, and heraldic insignia for the Provosts of each small city. In the first flush of his joke, Auberon happens to meet a young boy in the vicinity of Pump Street, whom he laughingly admonishes to defend his Pump Street to the death.
Ten years later, that young boy is ready to do just that. He is the Provost of Notting Hill, and he opposes a bill that would send a thoroughfare right through Pump Street, the heart of Notting Hill. At first Auberon cannot believe that Wayne is serious, but it soon becomes clear that Wayne is deadly serious. And bloody battle ensues.
This book is full of poignant insights, and one of these that struck me was Chesterton’s assertion that the smaller a country is, the prouder and more loyal its subjects will be. He says a young boy playing at kingdoms in the street will be all the prouder of his territory if it is so small it barely has room for his feet to stand. This didn’t seem to make sense until I thought it through in terms of national identity. The smaller your national state, the more exclusive it is, the more special it makes you feel to belong to such an elite membership.
In the end, this story is about the superiority of the small and localized over the large and cosmopolitan. And yet Chesterton is not bigoted; the grocer’s store is described lovingly as a place where liquorice from the dark heart of Araby, tea from mystic China, and a whole host of other poetic items are brought to the heart of the local.
One thing that my copy’s introduction says is problematic for modern readers is Chesterton’s alleged glorifcation of violence. As modern readers, we agree with the idea that “small is beautiful,” but are not as comfortable with the portrayal of violence as essential to the survival of the small. Chesterton sees things in sharp polarity; the Small must always defend itself against the onrushing tide of the sprawling, monstrous, civilized, monotonous Large.
There is another strong polarity in the book, between the Joker and the Fanatic. Auberon embodies the Joker, to whom nothing matters but the humor of things. Adam Wayne typifies the Fanatic, who has no sense of humor and whose loyalty never falters. Wayne takes everythings too seriously; Auberon is incapable of taking anything seriously. I love the end, where the two are finally one.
It’s hard to believe this is Chesterton’s first novel. Of course he had been writing essays for some time, but the work has a very masterful feel. He knows exactly what he is doing, and follows his own rules. I’ll leave this with a few choice quotes from the book.
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
…humanity as a whole is changeful, mystical, fickle, delightful. Men are men, but Man is a woman.
I want to get my hair cut. I say, do you know a little shop anywhere where they cut your hair properly? I keep on having my hair cut, but it keeps growing again.
I have never been to St. John’s Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood-red cup and the beating of the wings of the Eagle.
Who is more certainly the stay of the city, the swift chivalrous chemist or the benignant all-providing grocer?
Terribly quiet; that is in two words the spirit of this age, as I have felt it from my cradle. I sometimes wonder how many other people feel the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is a dream from which I might wake screaming.
There has never been anything in the world absolutely like Notting Hill. There will never be anything else like it to the crack of doom. I cannot believe but that God loved it as He must surely love anything that is itself and unreplaceable.
…the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god… You have a halberd and I a sword; let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials.