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.”

Character Profiles: The Expository Sidekick

“Oh,” he said, with emphasis. “Oh – you don’t think it necessary; then,” and he added the words with great clearness and deliberation, “then, Mr. Ellis Shorter, I can only say that I would like to see you without your whiskers.”

And at these words I also rose to my feet, for the great tragedy of my life had come. Splendid and exciting as life was in continued contact with an intellect like Basil’s, I had always the feeling that that splendour and excitement were on the borderland of sanity. He lived perpetually near the vision of the reason of things which makes men lose their reason. And I felt of his insanity as men feel of the death of friends with heart disease. It might come anywhere, in a field, in a hansom cab, looking at a sunset, smoking a cigarette. At the very moment of delivering a judgment for the salvation of a fellow creature, Basil Grant had gone mad.

Your whiskers,” he cried, advancing with blazing eyes. “Give me your whiskers. And your bald head.”

The Club of Queer Trades, by G. K. Chesterton

His name was Swinburne, but his friends called him the Cherub. This, he said, was due to the “roseate and youthful appearance I presented in my declining years. I only hope the spirits in the better world have as good dinners as I have.”

And yet he was a man who had odd adventures, and had them regularly. He went to strange places in London, and to strange places outside it. One dark evening he climbed halfway up a tree in a deserted heath, for reasons he never did know. He followed strangers, and chased strangers, and occasionally pinned them to the ground.

There are many complex explanations for these actions, and a single simple one. Swinburne did all these things because he was around Basil Grant. Basil lived under the suspicion of being mad, and the world seemed to go mad around him. So his friend Swinburne passed through tale after tale of The Club of Queer Trades, a puzzled narrator of puzzling events.

He was an Expository Sidekick. Although the whole story is told through his “I”, he is not the subject – an unusual thing. Expository Sidekicks are a rare specimen. Generally they come paired with an Incomprehensible Genius, the real star. Let the sad truth be told: An Expository Sidekick is a character created as a literary device; he is a way to tell the story.

The most famous Expository Sidekick is undoubtedly Dr. Watson. He is, unlike Sherlock Holmes, a fairly normal person. As such, he performs two vital services for the story.

In the first place, he – like Swinburne – walks through the story going, What? This is what the reader feels and is meant to feel. It is helpful to have a character who feels the same. It makes the reader’s confusion about what is happening less a reaction to the story and more a participation in it. And then, on the reader’s behalf, Watson (and Swinburne) will demand – and get – an explanation.

In the second place, Dr. Watson is like every Expository Sidekick in that he can narrate and do it well. The Incomprehensible Genius – Holmes or Basil Grant – is not really fit to be a viewpoint character. His thought processes are in essence foreign. Sherlock Holmes and Basil Grant solve mysteries, but they are mysteries themselves. It would be hard, if the story related their thoughts directly, to preserve how incredible their minds are – let alone how mysterious. The Expository Sidekick is created to be the filter, witness to the geniuses and chronicler of them.

The Expository Sidekick is not usually complete without the Incomprehensible Genius – but far, far less is the Incomprehensible Genius complete without the Expository Sidekick. In this, too, the last shall be first, that though the Expository Sidekicks are more forgettable, they are utterly indispensable.

A Poem and its Parody

Years ago, while reading through an old volume of G. K. Chesterton poetry, I came across this poem:


(With apologies to a Beautiful Poem)

ABOU BEN ADHEM (may his tribe decrease
By cautious birth-control and die in peace)
Mellow with learning lightly took the word
That marked him not with them that love the Lord,
And told the angel of the book and pen
“Write me as one that loves his fellow-men:
For them alone I labour; to reclaim
The ragged roaming Bedouin and to tame

To ordered service; to uproot their vine
Who mock the Prophet, being mad with wine,
Let daylight through their tents and through their lives,
Number their camels, even count their wives;
Plot out the desert into streets and squares,
And count it a more fruitful work than theirs
Who lift a vain and visionary love
To your vague Allah in the skies above.”

Gently replied the angel of the pen:
“Labour in peace and love your fellow-men:
And love not God, since men alone are dear,
Only fear God; for you have Cause to fear.”

I wondered about that apology; later I found that “The Philanthropist” is based off a famous poem by Leigh Hunt called “Abou Ben Adhem”. A Book of Treasured Poems, published in 1928, features Hunt’s poem (but not Chesterton’s, go figure):


Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:-

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ – The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’

‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names who love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

With my own apologies to the beautiful poem, I have to say I like the parody better. Over at Chesterton and Friends, “The Philanthropist” is posted with some interesting thoughts.

The Pardon of Christmas

Here is a Christmas poem by G. K. Chesterton. Comments at the end.

The Pardon of Christmas

Roofed in with the snows of December

It returns, it is left to us yet

    A day: with one day to remember.

    A day: with long days to forget.

Undeterred, recurring, soft-footed

It comes down o’er the world, as today,

To the work, unfulfilled, uncompleted,

The house where the builders delay.

It sinks from the stars and sits throned

On the roofs, as the angel of snow,

Watching pale, as the prophets are stoned

With the stones that were red long ago.

Though our evangel hedges and palters,

Though the earth-land be rooted in hate,

Though Caiaphas stand at our altar

And Lazarus gasp at our gate.

Though the gold still clings for our cursing,

It returns: it remains to us yet

    A day, with one day to remember,

    A day with dark days to forget.

To forget eighteen centuries wasted

Thick squandered in madness and guilt,

With the wine of love standing half-tasted,

The city of promise half-built.

Join hands. Still we surely may gain it.

The King does redeem and renew.

O kings ye have lauded and slain it!

Ye have failed Him: and have we been true?

Ye have shackled and guarded the door,

Ye have hoarded the key in your grips.

Ye have taken the hope from the poor

And the word of God from his lips.

Ye have spat on and stricken the meek,

Ye have fenced in and rented his way.

Ye are red with the blood of the weak—

Join hands; join hands for today.

Though church councils betray and out-vote Him;

Though His little ones gasp for our gain;

Though the rich, that cried “traitor” and smote Him

Cry “Holy”, and smite Him again.

We have all done the sin: we have spoiled Him,

Thorn-crowned Him, and mocked and defiled,

Join hands, join hands—do it softly,

To-night He is glad, and a child.

I know this is a somber poem for a merry season. Yet I think that Christmas is both more serious and more joyful than we usually remember. It is the terribleness of the world, of our own sin, that makes Jesus’ coming so inexpressibly wonderful. The first Christmas is far away, but its promise, and our need, could not be closer. Christmas doesn’t come in spite of our failures and sins; it comes because of them. That our Savior is born is old news, but it is as good and joyful as on the day the angel proclaimed it.

In Defense of a Commercial Racket

Recently, I’ve been having a recurring thought: Christmas is coming. This is followed by another recurring thought: I have to start Christmas shopping.

Here I am, victim of the commercial racket they’ve made of Christmas.

Every year we hear about the commercialization of Christmas. It’s practically a Yuletide tradition. The sentiment is entrenched in the sixty-year-old classic Miracle on 34th Street: “Make a buck, make a buck…”

This is one Yuletide tradition I don’t join. I can’t get behind the “commercial racket” chorus. For one thing, it’s never been clear to me exactly what the problem is. What is “commercialization”? Material things trumping the spiritual (but wouldn’t that be materialism)? Is it people spending too much money? People making too much money? People making and spending money, period? As C. S. Lewis’ old teacher used to say, “Please clarify your terms.”

Sometimes it seems there’s a subterranean feeling that the junction between commerce and Christmas dirties up the holiday. This is one idea I am ready to completely deny. If we are going to celebrate Christmas, we are going to spend money on it. Someone is going to have to sell us the ham and eggnog and tree and gifts. I see no reason to be unhappy that businesses are angling to provide that service and make that buck. Sure, they’re making a profit on Christmas. And doctors make a profit on sick people, and dentists make a profit on people with toothaches, and grocery stores make a profit on hungry people.

Of course, trying to convince people to buy things they don’t want or can’t afford – the old sins of business – are always with us. And there is no doubt that some marketers can use Christmas rather cheaply. But once we get to specific criticisms, we’ve put down the broad brush of commercialization to please clarify our terms.

What’s even worse than the broad brush of commercialization is the hammer of the “commercial racket”. Rackets are, after all, the province of con men, frauds, and the Mafia. Are people who use the term simply overstating the case? Or do they really mean that the public is bribed, intimidated, or tricked into Christmas shopping by commercial interests? Are they saying that our traditions of gift-giving, feasting, and decorating were invented by capitalists looking for a profit?

There have been people who think the whole holiday is more or less a capitalistic scheme – people besides Lucy van Pelt. And so I end with a quotation:

If a man called Christmas Day a mere hypocritical excuse for drunkeness and gluttony, that would be false, but it would have a fact hidden in it somewhere. But when Bernard Shaw says that Christmas Day is only a conspiracy kept up by Poulterers and wine merchants from strictly business motives, then he says something which is not so much false as startling and arrestingly foolish. He might as well say that the two sexes were invented by jewellers who wanted to sell wedding rings. G. K. Chesterton

Tales of the Long Bow

I’ve been occupied these last couple weeks, so again I’m going to do a simple post, defined as “a post where I mostly quote other people”. But before that, an introduction.

G. K. Chesterton is an author more quoted than read. He is interesting, he is humorous, he can turn a clever phrase. But his prose is neither clean nor straight as an arrow. In a sense, Tales of the Long Bow is the perfect distillation of his style. Here are topsy-turvey tales and a topsy-turvey telling, where the author abandons the tried-and-true method of starting at the beginning.

Here is a selection of quotations from Tales of the Long Bow, including some that contain that subtle humor and wandering style that always marked Chesterton’s works.

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. Did the narrator merely say that they happened, without saying how they happened, they could easily be classified with the cow who jumped over the moon or the more introspective individual who jumped down his own throat. In short, they are all tall stories; and though tall stories may also be true stories, there is something in the very phrase appropriate to such a topsy-turvydom; for the logician will presumably class a tall story with a corpulent epigram or a long-legged essay.

For our judges are not hampered by any hide-bound code; they are progressive, like Dr. Hunter, and ally themselves on principle with the progressive forces of the age, especially those they are likely to meet out at dinner.

[part of a speech presumably supporting Dr. Hunter and his election to Parliament] “But then, for that matter, we all support Dr. Hunter. I myself have always found him quite supportable; I should say quite satisfactory. He is truly a progressive, and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to watch him progress. As somebody said, I lie awake at night, and in the silence of the whole universe, I seem to hear him climbing, climbing, climbing. All the numerous patients among whom he has laboured so successfully in this locality will join in a heartfelt expression of joy if he passes to the higher world of Westminster. I trust I shall not be misunderstood. Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song.”

‘Yes; I was arrested for that.’

‘Arrested for what?’

‘Arrested for being a rich and respectable old lady,’ answered Hilary Pierce; ‘but I managed to escape that time. It was a fine sight to see the old lady clear a hedge and skedaddle across a meadow.’

The Professor had begun, as he always began, by saying that it was quite easy to explain; which was doubtless true, as he was always explaining it. But he often ended by affirming fallaciously that it was quite easy to understand, and it would be an exaggeration to say that it was always understood.

“I don’t want your talk interrupted. Still less, far, far less, do I want it uninterrupted. I mean while I’m here. A little of your scientific conversation goes a long way with me; I know what you’re like when you’re really chatty. Professor Green will say in his satirical way ‘9920.05,’ to which you will reply with quiet humour ‘75.007.’ This will be too good an opening for a witty fellow like the Professor, who will instantly retort ‘982.09.’ Not in the best taste perhaps, but a great temptation in the heat of debate.”

Again, another recognized military fact is the fact the bow is an obsolete weapon. And nothing is more irritating to a finely balanced taste than to be killed with an obsolete weapon, especially while persistently pulling the trigger of an efficient weapon, without any apparent effect.

You can find the book on Amazon, and as an e-book at this excellent Chesterton website.