G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
“The morning was wintry and dim, not misty, but darkened with that shadow of cloud or snow which steeps everything in a green or copper twilight. The light there is on such a day seems not so much to come from the clear heavens as to be a phosphorescence clinging to the shapes themselves. The load of heaven and the clouds is like a load of waters, and the men move like fishes, feeling that they are on the floor of a sea. Everything in a London street completes the fantasy; the carriages and cabs themselves resemble deep-sea creatures with eyes of flame.”
Is Chesterton fantasizing aimlessly or is he on to something more?
In the novel, Napoleon of Notting Hill,a dystopic Victorian society is portrayed with similar elements found among the collections of Wells, Verne, Huxley and Orwell where the citizenry are in a state of soporific melancholy. The great wheel of progress has slowed under the weight of a meek and denatured society:
“I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me then you have ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’”
It can be seen that Chesterton shine’s with his descriptions of the powerful and ominous backdrops of London.
“I was stricken from the sky as by a thunderbolt, by the height of the Waterworks Tower on Campden Hill. I don’t know whether Londoners generally realize how high it looks when one comes out, in this way, almost immediately under it. For the second it seemed to me that at the foot of it even Human war was a triviality…this overwhelming tower was itself a triviality; it was a mere stalk of stone which humanity could snap like a stick.” (Interesting enough, Chesterton was born near Campden Hill, Kensington.)
The story unfolds with axioms and a stroll about the park where two dignified gentleman are discussing the nature of their toils and labors but then we are presented with a childish, owl-like man by the name of Auberon Quin who seems to be the last self-titled humorist alive, and at first go, he appears mad:
“’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 on growing again.’ One of the tall men looked at him with the air of a pained naturalist.”
But this character has a wisdom that is masked by sheer frivolity that is remarked on by another and it proves true as pages turn,
“’He is a man, I think,’ he said, ‘who cares for nothing but a joke. He is a dangerous man.‘”
We find later that he is exactly the man to break up the monotony that is Chesterton’s London when this, Auberon is elected by random poll to the throne of England. (That is how Kings are elected in this vision of London.)
“’We are, in a sense, the purest democracy. We have become a despotism…people call it the decay of democracy. It is simply its fulfillment.’”
Chesterton draws an interesting paradigm from the different characters he has created to establish a reflective sentiment on whether modernity has truly progressed society. Take for instance, the overthrown president of Nicaragua who exhibits an old-world, ‘barbous dexterity’:
“‘I never catch a wild horse,’ replied Barker, with dignity. ‘Precisely,’ said the other; ‘and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, “This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him.” You say your civilization will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimax has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses- by lassooing the fore feet- which was supposed to the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not permit me to say, what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilized.’”
The Nicaraguan paradigm ends his duty to the novel by presenting this position:
“’Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?’”
And it is with that sentiment, the course of the novel maps its destiny with an impending conflict on the horizon but the wit and comedy is ever-present,
“If, therefore, any of you happen to a have such a thing as a halberd in the house, I should advise you to practise with it in the garden.“
King Auberon’s machinations reduce (or perhaps enliven) London to a feudal entity where each borough are separate entities and powers of the kingdom. An idea is born and of it, a man named Adam Wayne is born in that idea.
“’The danger is imminent. In all this matter I have felt that I fought not merely for my own city (though to that I owe all my blood), but for all places in which these great ideas can prevail.’”
He fights for Notting Hill and it’s sanctity for it not to be trespassed and usurped by the other Councils.It isthe principle that the ancient glory of mans honour and the distinction of his community cannot be bought or sold; It could be postulated that in the ferment of madness and swirling chaos, another could be reaping the very granular essence of humanity.
It is London but it’s not, it is a medieval time but it is not; it is the vision of an absurd king- it is the fulfillment and awakening of an anesthetized people. G.K Chesteron joins vivid descriptions, dynamic characters and compelling ethics and morals that call all readers of every generation to glean its lesson and moreover to take part in its adventure. Mingling medieval and chivalrous tradition that harkens back to the days of Charlemagne with righteous campaigning and confounding unscrupled enemies, this book has a lot to offer.