The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton was published in 1904. Chesterton was about 30 years old at the time and it was his first novel, though he had been working as a professional journalist in London for a few years at that point. The first time I read this book, which was just in the last year or two, I was instantly in love. I grew up on British humor and British authors, and I quickly recognized Chesterton’s influence on some of my favorites such as Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman. It actually still amazes me that it took me as long to discover Chesterton as it did, considering the impact that he had on so many other writers that I admire and enjoy.
The novel is often described as a “futurist fantasy” set in the then-future year 1984 (it’s common speculation that George Orwell chose that same year intentionally because of this), though the setting can actually be noted for it’s essential sameness of appearance to Chesterton’s Edwardian London. In fact, that unchanging sameness and the fight against it are some of the themes of the book. In the story’s setting, globalization reigns supreme, with all nations at peace but practically non-existent by the token that they have lost all of their uniqueness of spirit and tradition. In England, kings are acknowledged figureheads with no real weight who are elected by alphabetical lottery (think Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), and the story kicks off with the election of Auberon Quin, who has a very rare sense of humor in those times. Auberon’s defining characteristic is in fact that he has a sense of humor at all, while everyone else merely goes about doing whatever is most practical and sensible. Auberon is delighted to be elected king and uses the office to enact whatever practical jokes he finds amusing, though he is the only one to find them amusing. The most elaborate of his schemes is to institute elaborate ceremonies and costumes for the different districts of London, inventing heroic histories to explain the names such as Knightsbridge, Black Friars, etc. Everyone mostly finds the joke to be tedious and tiresome, except for one young man, Adam Wayne, who takes the proclamation with all seriousness and commits himself with sincere patriotism to his own district of Notting Hill.
Like all of Chesterton’s work, there are so many layers and brilliant details and nuances that it’s almost impossible to pick out particularities to discuss. The topic of patriotism in our own times of globalization would definitely be worth exploring, but it’s not a subject that I feel properly prepared for.
However, the most interesting of themes to me is how we get trapped in our ways of viewing the world. One of my favorite lines: “Now there is a law written in the darkest of the Book of Life, and it is this: if you look at a thing nine thousand and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”
Auberon’s sense of humor is about a change in perspective, as well as in defying expectations and conventions. The story begins with Auberon walking behind two of his companions and suddenly perceiving their coattails as the faces of two dragons walking backwards, an image he then can’t un-see and which brings him great amusement. As the focal point of his great joke, he dwells on the possible literal meanings of the London boroughs, creating elaborate mythologies to explain such names as Hammersmith, Bayswater, or Ravenscourt. (This is an idea that Neil Gaiman latter borrowed in his book Neverwhere). How often do we actually stop and think about the origins of things that we are surrounded by every day? What’s the actual history of the town or city that you live in? Why do you maintain certain traditions or family habits? Do you know why they started? Are they practical in the first place? Are you actually seeing the world around you or are you just responding to things by reflex?
All of the characters in Chesterton’s story are ruled by their particular way of viewing the world. Auberon sees everything as an elaborate joke and takes nothing seriously. Adam Wayne sees everything as intense poetry and sees nothing with any levity. There is one character who sees everything as politics, another who sees everything as a matter of arithmetic. It blinds them all to each other. Auberon and Adam cannot even comprehend the mind of the other. None of the characters are presented as having the “right” view, either. Auberon’s ability to look at things with new perspective might be laudable, but his selfishness in seeking his own amusement makes him rather distasteful. He is the most jolly cynic you’ll ever find. Adam has the soul of a poet and a deep love and patriotism for his little district, but his unbridled fervor is also the cause of a great deal of violence and he is ignorant of anything outside of his small world. The city of London is all that Adam has ever known; he has no experience of nature or of the exotic and foreign.
If Auberon and Adam are the two extremes, it would make sense that we should be seeking the middle ground ourselves. When we look at old things with new perspective, it allows us to see them as if for the first time and build a deeper identification with them. When we understand and give attention to our history, even imagined histories such as Auberon creates for the boroughs, it builds connections and bonds and devotion. That’s why we study the history of our country or the genealogies of our families. We need to seek to understand things, to be curious about them, if we are to love them.
The one complaint that I will lay at the feet of Chesterton is the complete lack of female characters. There is not a single woman mentioned even in passing. What to make of this? It’s hard to say whether Chesterton was intentional in it or not. It’s clear from his non-fiction work that he had a very high opinion of women, practically bordering on idolatry, yet his fiction work does not make much use of female characters generally. It’s most likely because this book in particular revolves around politics and war, and in Chesterton’s mind women simply did not factor in the equation. Blame the Victorian and Edwardian mindset.
One of my favorite exercises, though, is to ask myself, as an author, how would I resolve this problem? How would I incorporate some ladies into the story without distorting the original tone? First, I would give Adam a love-interest, in one of two ways: either a mutual love, which they would both naturally sacrifice for patriotism; or an unrequited love á la Éponine and Marius in Les Misérables. Either of these love scenarios would actually help to highlight Adam’s single-mindedness without changing his established character. Many ladies could also easily be snuck into the story simply with the presumption that most men have wives and they occasionally discuss things with those wives, and those wives also generally have opinions about the actions of their husbands. One wouldn’t even need to create more characters to throw into the action, just add some comments here and there that show the women’s response to events. I even believe that Chesterton would have been perfectly capable of adding such comments brilliantly himself, if he had only had a decent editor to point it out to him. But again, such were the times.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is definitely a novel worth many readings. I’ve read it twice so far, and found that I enjoyed it even more the second time, and I expect I will continue to enjoy it more every time I come back to it. Every character is worth analysis, each chapter could be studied on its own. But even more, the whole book can just be read to give you a good laugh.
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