Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin “had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses. … When he entered a room of strangers they mistook him for a small boy, and wanted to take him on their knees, until he spoke, when they perceived that a boy would have been more intelligent.”

For a joke, Auberon Quin instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

This was the King’s joke on his modern, businesslike subordinates. He enjoyed it and they did not. After ten years, the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who took the whole thing as seriously as life itself.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. The novel begins in 1984, and it takes two time leaps so that it ends in 2014. This is enough to qualify The Napoleon of Notting Hill as speculative fiction, though its author never heard of the term.

Like all Chesterton novels, this is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. The narrator of Napoleon remarks: “Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”

So the narration of Chesteron’s novels carries the same style and opinions as his apologetics.

Indeed, the fiction of G. K. Chesterton always revolves around the same things his nonfiction does. Many of Chesterton’s ideas can be seen in the pages of this book – on what makes men go mad, on the value and almost mysticism of ordinary things, and why it is better to “go clad in gold and scarlet” than in black frock-coats. But the idea that shapes the whole story is that of patriotism.

Adam Wayne was a lunatic because he was a patriot. He took Notting Hill seriously. Auberon had made the cities in mockery; he compelled them into mediavel glory for the pleasure of making his serious officials look like fools. He thought Notting Hill ridiculous, like the rest of it. The officials thought poor, small Notting Hill perhaps even more ridiculous than the rest of it. Adam Wayne thought it sacred enough to die for.

This was singularly foolish to his fellow provosts, but also singularly inconvenient. They had strictly commercial – and highly profitable – uses for Notting Hill. A Lord High Provost who could not be bought – who resisted their seizure of his city to the point of violence – that was more than they had ever dealt with.

Through the struggle for Notting Hill, the question is brought to fore: Is it rational to be a patriot? Is it sane to dress in gold and scarlet for glory, or to dress in black for dignity?

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”