Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton, 1904.
This was Chesterton’s first novel, published when he was 25.
It’s a strange book. I’m not sorry I read it, but I wouldn’t enthusiastically recommend it either. It faded from my memory rather quickly after reading it only a few months ago though it is full of the wit and pithiness that makes Chesterton such a quoted author.
Technically, it’s science fiction (or, in the British context, a scientific romance), but only by virtue of its futuristic setting and not any scientific or technological extrapolations.
Set in a London around 1984, it takes place in a world where there aren’t really any nations anymore.
In fact, we meet, at the beginning, the last leader of Nicaragua. There is still a king in London though chosen by lot. In fact, the hero of the book is Auberon Quin, and he becomes king early in the story.
As others have noted, Chesterton loved paradox.
That is certainly true here.
Quin starts out as a romantic figure. His whole scheme of creating kingdoms – complete with walls, banners, and coats-of-arms, out of London neighborhoods is sort of an attempt to bring back the Middle Ages, but it’s also an absurd gesture by a man who takes nothing seriously except maybe art. Chesterton defends the medieval outlook in one passage. It talks of how men lived in the Middle Ages expecting signs and miracles. It wasn’t because they were ignorant. It was because they were too wise to live their humdrum lives expecting no wondrous relief. (The bogus etymologies supplied for some names of London neighborhoods are amusing too.)
This theme is introduced right at the beginning with Quin looking at his friend’s dress and seeing dragons. Chesterton states we usually find wonder in something that has been seen before many times.
The theme of wonder in the quotidian is further developed when Quin sees normal jobs in romantic terms – the often exotic origins of the goods a grocer sells, the marvelous and exotic substances of the apothecary, the thrift shop owner who sells tin soldiers and always wanted to be a general. In fact, he becomes one. Chesterton argues against the humdrum of politicians and boring businessmen for the wonder of art and spectacle and myth (however recently created).
The story eventually moves from farce and absurdity to real battles with deaths.
The novel’s final chapter is a bit puzzling with its dialogue between Emperor Wayne (somehow avoiding death in the final battle between his Notting Hill kingdom and the neighboring cities) and Auberon.
Wayne says, “When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist”. It is implied they then agree to kill each other and go “together into the unknown world”.
Their actions may lead to death, argues Chesterton, but they also lead to a more joyous and more full life.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, how Chesterton felt about his novel after World War One.
Incidentally, at the beginning of the novel, Chesterton satirizes H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw by name.
The edition I read also had amusing illustrations and maps.
Even though you don’t recommend this novel is does sound somewhat appealing. Is Quin a modern Quixote?
Based on my second hand knowledge of Don Quixote, I’d say no. Quin actually persuades a lot of people to go along with his idea, and Chesterton’s voice doesn’t, ironically or otherwise, criticize Quin. I think Chesterton would argue Quin’s ideas are a necessary folly. Or, if not truly necessary, an enlivening folly.
My somewhat lukewarm review is solely based on the fact that very few incidents in the book stuck in my mind, and I’ll downgrade a work for that however amusing, which Chesterton’s novel was when reading it.
Of course, we’re getting into the vagaries of reviewing. My review would certainly have been different written immediately after reading the book. And non-literary things — health, business, distractions — all play a bigger role in reactions to books than most reviewers will admit.
If you’re curious about the novel, I’d say read it. It’s not very long, and you won’t be out much time. I also suspect that several decent audio versions exist, but I’m not an audio book guy.