America stands in need of a new revolution to free itself from the tyranny of bureaucracy and the ensuing slavery of boredom. Such freedom is difficult to depict even in the land of the free, because the United States is losing its identity as the home of the brave. Cowardice, termed “tolerance,” is the marching order of the day and Americans are knuckling under, rank and file, to the dull detriment of the times. Madness is the result—and perhaps a solution. The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton is a novel that calls for a novel madness: the madness to be sane in a world gone insane.
Written in 1904 and set in 1984 (nearly half a century before Orwell’s return to that now iconic year), The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an epic burlesque with an earnest burden. It presents an England where democracy is dead. The king is randomly chosen by lottery in the laissez-faire attitude that any man is as good as another. In this world where revolution has been forgotten, a man is appointed for his turn to be king who changes the humdrum doldrums of the country. Auberon Quin, artist and humorist, receives his summons to assume the throne, and he takes it determined to define his administration by his religion—the art of humor. He sees how the dull course of politics has set a dread curse on patriotism, and he finds it utterly tedious. So, tongue firmly in cheek, Auberon Quin orchestrates a mock restoration of a bygone patriotism through the mock restitution of the pageantry of bygone eras. Quin’s “Charter of the Cities” legally requires modern England to become merry England again. The snickering king turns municipalities into principalities as he resurrects medievalism in a joke to tickle the common citizen. He mandates instruction in the old legends. He builds walls around boroughs and sets watchmen. He issues coats-of-arms, antique fashions, and courtly customs. He deploys halberdiers and trumpeteers. King Auberon makes all of England a beautiful jest in a game of beau geste, laughing all the while at the glorious absurdities.
But then, while reviewing a project to knock down a few insignificant structures on Pump Street to make way for a commercial road through an old district of Notting Hill, the joke takes on a new meaning. The throne room doors crash open to admit Adam Wayne, the provost of Notting Hill, fiery in his provincial regalia, and bristling like a lion. He hurls his sword down before his king and kneels, swearing that there shall be no road at the expense of any beloved edifice in the precious province where he has found life and love. The songs and colors and traditions of his Notting Hill will not be trampled underfoot for something so base. No. He, Adam Wayne, would defend Notting Hill by force of arms, and die if necessary in the name of Notting Hill. Quin is aghast as he looks down on the great warrior youth. Adam Wayne is the one thing Auberon Quin never imagined possible. He is a fanatic who took the cynic’s joke quite seriously. He is a lunatic whose lunacy gives him a faith that is fearless. He is a passionate patriot even when patriotism is suffering a passion upon the pillory. Auberon Quin laughs with delight at such a surprise. Adam Wayne does not.
What follows must be read to be believed. It is a grave gambol of wild wits, bloody battles, cynical laughter, and fanatical love. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a grand and uniquely Chestertonian blend of the comic and the tragic—or the militaristic and the chivalric—where soldiers clash, bleed, and die in thundering explosions of color, speech, and emotion over the soul of English society. The humorist Quin and the humanist Wayne strive against each other over the question of whether life is a gag or a gift to the bitter end, where the world dawns suddenly on both—and they know it not.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill is G. K. Chesterton’s best work of fiction, even though it is his first. It presents characters that are more fully alive than any he conceived afterwards, and also presents his own character more fully than in any story he conceived afterwards. For Chesterton, gravity and games always go hand in hand. This mingling is evident in his use of paradox, where, by a clever pun or somersaulting of words, Chesterton made the most solemn truths wink and take a bow. Playfulness and profundity were the two lobes of Mr. Chesterton’s brain, and he painted in their colors—but those colors were richest when he painted Auberon Quin and Adam Wayne.
The harmonious division of unbridled laughter and unflinching love represented in these characters should characterize the Catholic. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a book that validates a healthy lunacy that swims against the stream that makes the world a small and sullied cell. Both Auberon Quin and Adam Wayne encourage a breaking free from the accepted traces—the one with humor and the other with hope—and Americans are in need of both such rebels. The United States is growing more and more standardized as local customs, characters, and colloquialisms fade into the uniformity of chain stores, interstate highways, and fast-food restaurants. Do Americans really think about politics anymore? Are they really concerned about the economy? It is difficult to be vigilant, nowadays, because it is easy to be mesmerized by trashy sex, trashy entertainment, and trashy culture. Americans are too plugged in to be tuned in to real humor or hubris, which is precisely where this book offers real revival and remedy.
In the words of Adam Wayne to Auberon Quin:
When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace. But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill presents a balance between taking nothing seriously and taking everything seriously, and the balance is a Catholic one. It is the balance of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Catholics need to stand between being too intense and too indifferent, for the Catholic Faith is neither severe nor senseless. It is joyful, and joy is a quality requiring both seriousness and lightheartedness. Catholics need to joke, and then thank God sincerely for the joke. This is Chesterton’s vision of Christianity: that Christians be moved by the joyful juxtapositions of faith and reason, sense and nonsense, heaven and earth, God and Man.
The union of love and laughter is crowned in God, and striving to live in Him must involve cherishing what has been overlooked, hailing miracles in a world where miracles are outlawed, and even being a lunatic for the sake of being Catholic. Though rebellion is strange to imagine, stranger rebellions have happened. The Napoleon of Notting Hill may yet be the tale to stir America from its stupor.
This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.