Sunday, 12 September 2010

GK Chesterton: Napoleon of Notting Hill

Oh Gilbert, Gilbert. Whatever are we to do with you?

GK Chesterton gets a lot of stick for being an arch-conservative, stolid and old-fashioned, supporting outdated morals, values, prose and beliefs at a time when modernism was shocking and delighting the literary world. In a way, this is justified. In the same way that, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a modernist who happens to have been born a Victorian, Chesterton sometimes seems like a Victorian displaced by about thirty years.

However, despite occasional moments of forehead-slapping sexism and pomposity, he has managed to grab much of what was great about being a decent fellow of the old school. He stands up for what is basically good, while writing with wit, imagination and charm. After a hundred years of watching political and religious extremes causing immense suffering, Chesterton should be respected for being persistently and reasonably moderate.

Also, when you do disagree with him, you don’t find yourself hating him. He can present an argument or position with such style and good humour that you end up wishing you agreed. This is, famously, the guy who converted CS Lewis to Christianity, and if you read his writing about all that God business you can see why. It isn’t that his arguments are the finest ever put down, or that he is the greatest philosopher since we came up with the word, but merely that he makes being religious seem so right, so pleasant, so imaginatively inspiring. I’m far from being a Catholic, but Father Brown has come closer to tempting me than any number of real priests could.

But this isn’t about religion, so I’ll save all that for another time. This post is about The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a sort of romantic, England-of-shopkeepers take on a utopian HG Wells novel. Wells is even mentioned in the opening chapter, where the state of Chesterton’s imagined future is described. It’s 1984, and in a surprising turn of events, the world hasn’t changed at all since the turn of the century. 1984 London is more or less identical to the London of 1904 (when the book was written), chiefly because everyone is far too bored to alter anything. Society, culture and life have stultified, and politics has been reduced to an uninterested non-hereditary monarchy, where a new king is selected at random whenever the previous one dies. There is no tyranny, no horror, just blandness.

This changeless civilisation is disrupted when a funny little chap called Auberon Quin is selected as king. He treats the entire arrangement as an enormous joke, and enjoys using his powers and privilege to ridicule the dull, serious men around him. He reintroduces pageantry, insists on absurd uniforms, and tries to enforce territorial distinctions between West London boroughs. At first this is all fairly harmless, but when Adam Wayne, as an intense but impressionable child, encounters his ludicrous monarch, something inside him changes.

Ten years later, Wayne is a fierce young man with a fervent belief in the independence and importance of Notting Hill. When a collection of bureaucrats from neighbouring districts want to build a thoroughfare through Pump Street, in the heart of Notting Hill, Wayne refuses, and goes to the barricades to defend his opinion. At first there is half-hearted conflict, but soon real violence erupts, as the besieged men of Notting Hill rebuff their assailants. The king rushes around in pride and dismay as Wayne and his supporters fight and die for his joke, but as the conflict grows he finds himself drawn ever more towards Wayne’s absurd but nobly romantic position.

Yes, it’s pretty loopy, and that’s half its charm. Much of Chesterton is about using a joke to find a truth, and here Quin’s frivolous, humorous ideas accidentally give birth to Wayne’s much more serious, deeply held beliefs. Amid jokes about journalism, civic pride, the nature of London shops, government, and anything else that strikes the fancy of Chesterton and his characters, the central theme is the nobility, the goodness, of believing. Not believing in a god, but of having a cause, of caring, of just being bothered about something, rather than slinking away into a meaningless, empty existence. Quin and Wayne are the laughter and the fury: the two sides of this urge to have something bright and worthwhile in life.

Half the fun of the book is watching this being taken too far, but by the end you do find yourself, like Quin, admiring the awful madness that has taken place. It’s an uneasy argument, one that finds glory in war and heroism in needless horror, but the book knows this: it is asking you, the reader, to stand up for the small things. To fight not just for your grandest philosophies and statements, but for your neighbourhood, your local shops, and everything else that would make David Cameron proud.

So no, it isn’t sexy politics, and it doesn’t want to be. It elevates moderation into its own warped form of radicalism, and it’s a testament to Chesterton’s writing, charm and imagination that he makes this work. It’s a prime example of where reading someone else’s viewpoint is engaging and enjoyable.

Sadly, though, there’s another area of wonky attitudes that I found harder to accept. Take a look at this:
'Wayne had something feminine in his character; he belonged to that class of persons who forget their meals when anything interesting is in hand. A woman has always a weakness for nature; with her, art is only beautiful as an echo or shadow of it.'
And there’s a lot more along those lines. What’s more, there are no women anywhere in the book, with the exception of a few weepy figures in crowd scenes. Okay, when this was written married women had only been allowed to own property for about twenty years, but this isn’t about whether the author’s attitudes are acceptable to any given reader. No – it’s about whether this sexism damages the book, and sadly I think it does. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is about societies, about a city, and this overwhelming masculinity ruins the image of the city. Yes, most of it is about war and violence, but in say, a medieval romance, which is similarly phallocentric when it comes to waving about spears and swords, there are always women present somewhere, even if it’s only as a witch stealing a man’s holiness by tempting him with, oh the horror, sex. Here there is nothing. Nobody is married, has loves, fears, or any concerns about women. Worse than offering a risible image of the female, which at least a reader can get annoyed by, here there is a mysterious absence. A hole in humanity.

This vast omission aside, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an interesting little book. It’s basically an argument stretched and warped until it turned into a story, and it is fun in the same way as a Swiftian satire, along the unsubtle lines of Battle of the Books, and it does leave you thinking. However, as the lack of women suggests, it doesn’t work so well as a full novel. It’s an idea disguised as an adventure, and it’s clever and engaging and intelligent and generally worth a look, but if you want to see Chesterton at his best you’re better of with the magnificent The Man Who Was Thursday or the early Father Brown stories.

1 comment:

  1. I think that Gilbert's omission of any women characters is more because they're unneeded than any sort of sexism (one only needs to read about Chesterton's devotion to his beloved wife, Frances, to know he wasn't truly a sexist) where would a romantic interest, or even a female character have fit in? I think it would've been adding something unnecessary for its own sake, rather than that of the story.