Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Like its more famous cousin The Man Who Was Thursday, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a tale of paradoxes and dichotomies. It was published in 1904 (his first novel) and set in semi-utopian future, and the tale arcs around two central characters.
The first central character is Auberon Quin, described in the following way:
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.
Auberon is selected by a kind of hyper-democratic lottery as the King of England while he is ludicrously babbling about Nicaragua. This plot device—the selecting of monarchs at random—was not a mere gimmick for Chesterton, but was his actual explanation of dynastic monarchy, as he had stated in his chapter of Robert Browning’s philosophy:
The great compliment which monarchy paid to mankind [is] the compliment of selecting from it almost at random. (Robert Browning, p. 94)
The second central character (to whom the title alludes) is Adam Wayne, who lives his whole life in Notting Hill, and grows an obsessive patriotic loyalty for the London borough that he calls his home.
He still retained his feeling about the town of Notting Hill . . . He was a genuine natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland. But he was perhaps the first to realise how often the boundary of fairyland runs through a crowded city. Twenty feet from him (for he was very short-sighted) the red and white and yellow suns of the gas-lights [i.e. street lamps] thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the wood of elf-land.
The playful competition and opposition of these two characters comprises the whole plot of this novel.
Without spoiling the plot, there are some themes worth mentioning. One is the nearness of fairyland. “Fairyland” or “Elfland” in Chesterton (and the Inklings who read him) refer to a hypothetical land visited by imagination. The theme is the precise precursor to Lewis’ Narnia and functions like another dimension, visited in vision by the most childlike characters. In Napoleon of Notting Hill, the narrator references “fairyland” quite a few times through the course of the novel (for example, see the above quotation). This is important because these are some of his earliest published references to an idea that became integral to Chesterton’s view of life. “Fairyland” figures most prominently in Chesterton’s works Magic: A Fantastic Comedy and Orthodoxy, but I have yet to find a book in which it is not mentioned.
Another theme is the vindication of humor. (See also “A Defence of Nonsense”!) Auberon Quin seems to take nothing seriously, and Adam Wayne seems to take everything seriously. As the novel proceeds, positive and negative judgments are given on both characters, and the reader is left wondering who is the hero.
“Madmen are always serious; they go mad from lack of humour. You are looking serious yourself, James.” (Auberon Quin)
Chesterton also has an interesting take on patriotism, which I give here at length, since it does not in any way spoil the novel, and is a characteristic sample:
Upwards from his abstracted childhood, Adam Wayne had grown strongly and silently in a certain quality or capacity which is in modern cities almost entirely artificial, but which can be natural, and was primarily almost brutally natural in him, the quality or capacity of patriotism. . . . He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew . . . that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.
All this he knew, not because he was a philosopher or a genius, but because he was a child. Any one who cares to walk up a side slum like Pump Street, can see a little Adam claiming to be king of a paving-stone. And he will always be proudest if the stone is almost too narrow for him to keep his feet inside it.
It is almost impossible to convey to any ordinary imagination the degree to which he had transmitted the leaden London landscape to a romantic gold. . . . To this man, at any rate, the inconceivable had happened. The artificial city had become to him nature, and he felt the curbstones and gas-lamps as things as ancient as the sky. (p. 134-136)
Political themes are also important to Napoleon of Notting Hill, but there is nothing there I haven’t written about in my review of What I Saw in America. His stance on “internationalism” is obvious in Napoleon from the semi-utopian setting of the book; ultimately, he sees efforts to unite the world in peace to be idealistic and misguided. He also mocks pure democracy in the setup to the novel (again, he wrote about this in his writings on America).
This novel is not as fast-moving as The Man Who Was Thursday. Admittedly, during the first few chapters, I was quite lost as to where the novel was going, or who the “Napoleon of Notting Hill” could be. The first chapter is essentially an essay. But the novel does start to get interesting after “The Charter of the Cities,” and it does have its fair share of action in the second half. Take heart; patience is rewarded in this one.
When I saw how the plot turned in this novel, I was inclined to think that it could have been a short story. The short story usually turns on one key dilemma or plot device (in this case, a monarch selected at random), and so far that has been true of Chesterton’s novels. At least they are interesting, and Chesterton’s narration has many intriguing asides.