My exposure to G.K. Chesterton, until now, has been limited to his lovely poem ‘The Donkey’. As a child, I learnt it off by heart and I still think it’s terrific:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
On a recent visit to Ipswich I found a second-hand copy of three of his novels published as A G.K. Chesterton Omnibus and having always meant to read The Man Who Was Thursday, which it contains, I bought it. However, I decided to start with The Napoleon of Notting Hill for the exciting and original reason that it was first in the book.
Well, it is a very odd novel, not at all what I expected (which was something Wodehousey, actually) and I am unable to think of anything it resembles. Written in 1904, it is set in 1984: a 1984 which is very similar to 1904 largely as a result of apathy. Democracy requiring too much effort for the British, they have decided on despotism, so much less bother than democracy and arguing about everything in Parliament. The king – women don’t seem to be eligible – is chosen by lot on the death of his predecessor and everything chugs gently along as one king is very much like another. Until Auberon Quin is chosen to be the next king. Quin considers it all to be a huge joke and uses his privileges to poke fun at the bland, dull society around him. Under his pet project, Charter of the Cities, he decides to strengthen the boroughs of London, granting to each its own provost, walls and private army: the powers of mediaeval city states. No one else really likes this idea and no one likes observing Quin’s redundant ceremonials or strutting about in robes at all, but no one takes the trouble to oppose him. It all seems quite harmless, anyway.
And so ten years pass. A large new road is proposed linking Hammersmith with Westbourne Grove; people are bullied and land is purchased and properties demolished and coincidentally a number of the provosts stand to make a tidy profit from its construction. But then Notting Hill acquires a new provost: the romantic, passionate Adam Wayne, who refuses to relinquish Pump Street to the developers. The other boroughs send in their armies but are repelled; barricades are built and swords are drawn. Suddenly the joke of the Charter is being taken very seriously indeed.
(‘In the dark entrance there appeared a flaming figure’, illustration by W. Graham Robertson for The Napoleon of Notting Hill, London and New York: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1904; found here)
The world of the book is very strange, not least because it’s 1904 masquerading as the future but with the mediaeval past (or 1904’s idea of the mediaeval past), in the shape of the Charter and Adam Wayne, breaking in on it. Men are walking around dressed in top hats and frock coats but brandishing halberds or belting up swords. Then there are no women – not one, not even a woman walking past in the street or serving a man a cup of tea or darning a sock. This is actually quite peculiar, although I’m not sure that Chesterton consciously intended it to be. And then there’s the tone. Auberon Quin is a joker and a cynic, who despises the outlook of the businessmen around him. He longs for romance and his ministers don’t provide that. Adam Wayne, however, does. Like a Pre-Raphaelite knight made flesh, he speaks in a heightened, mediaevalish way, cherishes honour and courtesy, and takes the Charter seriously. He is able to inspire men who were not really bothered about whether Pump Street is knocked down or not, and inspire them to fight to the death. This is another oddness: there is fighting, the streets literally run with blood, but only one death is actually described. The violence is veiled and there is no pain or grief. Everyone seems like toy soldiers, to be knocked down as part of a game. And everything is described in a wry, comical tone.
Quin is at first amused that someone is taking his Charter seriously; later he grows to admire Wayne despite his ridiculousness since he believes deeply in something, and this elevates him above everyone else, with their practical and material outlook. Both Chesterton and Quin describe Wayne as a ‘fanatic’. His fanaticism is particularly disturbing because it isn’t for a moral, spiritual or social end but for the upholding of his own powers as provost under the Charter. From the outset, it’s made pretty clear that most of the inhabitants of Notting Hill are quite happy for the road to be built and Pump Street to be knocked down. It is Wayne who objects and for no other reason than that he is entitled to object: ‘That which is large enough for the rich to covet, is large enough for the poor to defend’ – it’s mine and you can’t have it. This struck me as a petty principle for which to expect men to die. The painlessness of the fighting seemed at times like Chesterton disguising this.
But I think there’s another reason too. At the very end, Quin and Wayne talk together. Where are they? The story suggests that it may be the afterlife. On the other hand, this novel began with a preface discussing the futility of predicting the future, it continually and jokily resists realism and it includes a long despatch from Quin who at one point masquerades as a journalist reporting on the fighting in Notting Hill. In other words, we’re constantly being reminded of the artificiality of the story. None of the characters in it is ‘real’: none is more than a toy soldier constructed of words. There’s no ‘real’ death. So, at the end, Quin and Wayne may be in the afterlife, or they may have stepped outside outside the story, and are now looking in. They talk about their different perceptions of the world. Quin confesses that the Charter was conceived as a joke. He says:
‘Suppose I am God [...] and suppose I made the world in idleness. Suppose the stars, that you think eternal, are only the idiot fireworks of an everlasting schoolboy. Suppose the sun and the moon, to which you sing alternately, are only the two eyes of one vast and sneering giant, opened alternately in a never-ending wink. Suppose the trees, in my eyes, are as foolish as toad-stools. Suppose Socrates and Charlemagne are to me only beasts, made funnier by walking on their hind legs. Suppose I am God, and having made things, laugh at them.’
‘And suppose that I am man,’ answered the other. ‘And suppose that I give the answer that shatters even a laugh. Suppose I do not laugh back at you, do not blaspheme you, do not curse you. But suppose, standing up straight under the sky, with every power of my being, I thank you for the fools’ paradise you have made. Suppose I praise you, with a literal pain of ecstasy, for the jest that has brought me so terrible a joy. If we have taken the child’s games, and given them the seriousness of a Crusade, if we have drenched your grotesque Dutch garden with the blood of martyrs, we have turned a nursery into a temple. I ask you, in the name of Heaven, who wins?’ [...]
‘But suppose, friend, [...] it was all a mockery. Suppose that there had been, from the beginning of these great wars, one who watched them with a sense that is beyond expression, a sense of detachment, of responsibility, of irony, of agony. Suppose that there were one who knew it was all a joke.’
The tall figure answered: ‘He could not know it. For it was not all a joke.’
Wayne goes on to say that he, the fanatic, and Quin, the satirist, are essential to the world, ‘and they went away together into the unknown world’. All of which adds up to an interesting and terrifying theology. Are satire and fanaticism both essential (especially when the satire is in love with the fanaticism, as in this novel)? If God is in fact an idle joker then are humans actually greater than God? And must we spill blood to prove our seriousness? As I say, I found this a profoundly disquieting book.
(Also, what is a Dutch garden?)