Thursday, 9 October 2003

G.K. Chesterton: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1996
Review number: 1187

In some respects, Chesterton's first novel seems almost contemporary in outlook; in others, it is stuck in its time, now almost a century in the past. One of the great problems of our age (at least in the West), according to politicians, is political apathy; that is a link between today and the Britain of 1904. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984, a famous year in science fiction, and the consequence of that apathy has been to turn political office into the result of a random selection process. The fact that this is virtually the only change to have occurred in an eighty year period is Chesterton's side-swipe at the prophets who attempted to say what would happen in the twentieth century, a pastime as popular then as it has been again with the turn of the twenty first. (The first chapter consists mainly of ridicule of some of the ideas of these would be prophets, each one made ludicrous, and the principal butt of the attack is the scientific utopianism of H.G. Wells, ironically the most accurate of the prophecies, at least in its prediction of the dominance of technology.)

What sparks change in this vision of a static culture - like Wells in The War of the Worlds, Chesterton compresses his world to southern England - is the appointment of Auberon Quin as king of England. Quin is a practitioner of a dying art - humour - and his big joke is to create gaudy (and extremely uncomfortable) uniforms in medieval style and force the sober officials of the London boroughs to wear them on official occasions. This runs into one problem - Adam Poole, the Provost of Notting Hill, is a man without humour, who has an obsessive devotion to his home neighbourhood which has been fired by the cod-patriotic rhetoric which Quin uses to set up his scheme. From this it is a short step to open warfare between Notting Hill and its surrounding boroughs.

The introduction to this Wordsworth Classics edition suggests that Chesterton had a serious point (I'm not completely convinced that he did), which was that a war would be a good solution to the political apathy he saw around him. He goes on to say that such a position became unthinkable after the carnage of World War One, but I think that is a naive view of the world. It could easily be argued that the recent conflict in Iraq and the response of the US and other Western nations was manipulated for a variety of reasons which included this one; just look at how huge the media circus surrounding the fighting was right from the start. Earlier, the Falklands Was was escalated by Margaret Thatcher and her ministers to lay the basis for her subsequent re-election as British prime minister. At least this sort of behaviour has been fairly widely condemned as unacceptable.

If Chesterton did want to make a serious point, then another candidate could be based on the contrast between Quin and Poole, the one unable to take things seriously, the other unable to do anything but. Both prove equally responsible for the destruction of peace in Britain. In the pomposity of Victorian local government, there was much that was hard to take seriously, and Quin is to some extent a self-portrait by a man who clearly saw how ludicrous it could be.

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