Problems Plus Time: What Creates a Dystopia, Real or Imagined
Madeline Ashby on G. K. Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill
According to Chesterton scholar Dale Ahlquist’s lecture on the subject, in 1904, G. K. Chesterton spent his last ten shillings on a shave and a fortifying lunch that included a bottle of wine, then pitched his editor on a novel about the future of London in which nothing of any consequence will have changed in eighty years—except for how England comes by its kings. In his imagined future, all prospective monarchs would be chosen “like a juryman upon an official rotation list.” (Presumably, said rotation list contained no once or future queens.) Set in 1984, the book would focus not on the future of science or technology, but the future of power, society, and authority. Interested in the futures of his country, his career, and his marriage, not necessarily in that order, Chesterton asked for twenty pounds in advance—which he gave to his wife.
What he produced is The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a satire of the future in which an owlish, unpleasant little man named Auberon Quin randomly wins England’s curious leadership lottery, then immediately uses his new position upon the throne to resurrect the romantic tradition of chivalric heraldry and pageantry. He establishes each neighborhood of London as its own fief or commonwealth: halberds are back, and so are “the full richness of medieval garments,” which means men in tights deciding if mustard is really their color. London becomes a theme park dedicated to the celebration of a glorious past which never truly existed outside books of myth and verse. Some tourists and even residents of the city today might find themselves in agreement that of Chesterton’s many speculations regarding London’s future, this one was especially prescient.
By dividing London into commonwealths, Quin pits the neighborhoods against each other for his own amusement; this is short-sightedness on his part, but it’s also sheer carelessness. Early in the novel, he laughs long and loud while remembering the words of a Nicaraguan refugee who later commits suicide, mocking the man’s sincere belief in a leader that wants to do right by his people. It’s a private moment, which explains why Quin’s ministers are so surprised to discover that their leader is, in the parlance of our times, nothing but a troll doing it for “teh lulz.”
This is cosplay taken to the level of governance, a utopia for one. Quin’s rule functions much as though a fan of C. S. Lewis’ works had gained the throne and decreed, as a new addition to the building regulations, that all wardrobes should function as secret passages into the next-door neighbor’s house; or as though a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works had decided to abolish New Scotland Yard, in tribute to Holmes’ opinion on the uselessness of the Metropolitan Police.
Quin’s fanboy devotion to another era would not have been unfamiliar to Chesterton’s readers. During the eighteenth century, trendy English gardens had become home to “follies”—so named for the cost of their development— which evoked visions of other centuries through decorative buildings. Greek temples, Chinese pagodas, Egyptian pyramids, medieval castles: all of these “ruins” were built brand-new and in miniature. Nor did the fad for neoclassical and neo-medieval design end there or then. Following his ascendancy to the Bavarian throne in 1864, Ludwig II oversaw the ongoing construction of multiple castles meant to evoke a medieval past that had never happened. Romantic and wildly impractical, the castles earned the young monarch the nickname “Mad King Ludwig.” After Germany fully unified as a country in 1871, Ludwig’s castles became part of the fledgling nation’s myth, which is why these structures are often referred to now as “mythcastles.” One of these, Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, would eventually inspire Walt Disney—who used it as the basis for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.
The strategy of architecture as retroactive continuity would continue past the nineteenth century. In 1934, Adolf Hitler appointed architect Albert Speer head of the Chief Office of Construction, and charged him with designing and building stadiums and rally grounds in a “Stripped Classical” style that would link Nazi Germany to the perceived legitimacy of ancient Rome. Speer was so good at this job that, in 1937, he was made Berlin’s General Building Inspector; in this role, his job was to remove Jews from their homes.
Such is the practice of many dictators and tyrants. To shore up support, they create the illusion of a shared mythic past, then stoke a longing for it amongst their people. Against this backdrop, Auberon Quin’s neomedieval yearnings seem less quaint (if tiresome and fundamentally opposed to progress, like neomedievalism itself) than malevolent. It may also explain why Chesterton assumed that no one would seriously complain about Quin’s changes, until city planners propose a highway through Notting Hill: because he was giving the people what they wanted.
After he published A Short History of England in 1917, Chesterton himself would be accused of a Quin-like nostalgic sentiment. “To say that it exalts medievalism, deplores modernity, and lures the reader on from sparkling epigram to startling if at times strained paradox,” noted the historian R. L. Schuyler in a review, “is merely to report that Chesterton is still Chesterton.” Chesterton’s first novel, that is to say, reveals the author’s own obsessions—which happen to be the same as Auberon Quin’s.
Chesterton’s vision of a monarch chosen at random sounds absurd until you watch a Question Time, or learn that the House of Commons can only operate legally when an oak and silver mace from the period of Charles II is left on a table, or read a tabloid account of Prince Andrew’s alleged compulsion to have his teddy bear collection put in order—a headline which I promise you is not a euphemism. (Speaking of tabloids, by the way, Quin writes for them—like most tyrants and trolls, he craves publicity.) Like many other pieces of English satire and humor, from A Modest Proposal to The Thick of It, Chesterton’s novel plays with the joke at the core of England itself: this little country thinks it’s an empire! This little man thinks he’s a king! The change from primogeniture to a lottery system within the novel illuminates the absurdity inherent in the lottery of birthright itself.
Among the many English stories of unlikely leaders springing from humble places—King Arthur, Prince Hal, Harry Potter—we must add this one, however grudgingly. Those other tales were inspired by the one story that fascinated Chesterton all his life: the story of Christ. This story is quite the opposite of that one. It’s not about a man wrestling with the burdens of leadership and enduring the suffering and sacrifice which that leadership demands, but about a fiend concerned with his own pleasure and amusement and little else. If there is any element of the underdog in this novel, it lies with Adam Wayne, the humble citizen of Pump Street (an imaginary road in Notting Hill) who challenges the Crown.
Writing this novel in 1904, a scant few years before revolutions in Russia, Mexico, and Ireland, and ten years before the Great War, Chesterton would have the science fiction writer’s queasy-making experience of watching certain fictions pass into reality—in his case, the collapse of traditional power structures. In fact, the book may have helped inspire a revolution closer to home: Michael Collins, director of intelligence for the Irish Republican Army during the 1919–1921 War of Independence, was a lifelong fan of The Napoleon of Notting Hill—owing to its anti-imperialist theme and its vivid depiction of urban guerilla warfare. In his biography of Chesterton, Joseph Pearce recounts that “Lloyd George, hearing of Michael Collins’s literary taste, presented a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill to every member of his Cabinet prior to their meeting with the Irish delegation during negotiations for the Irish Treaty so that they might the better understand the Irish leaders’ minds.”
Speaking of royal families, Chesterton never raises the possibility of King Auberon having children. In fact, there are no women with speaking parts in the book, although in the final lines we learn of the existence of “wives.” Whether Quin remains single because no consort patient enough to tolerate his antics can be found, or because by 1984 the women of England have all expatriated out of sheer frustration, is not addressed.
England’s most important woman, Queen Victoria, died three years before the publication of The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Written at the end of one era, and at the beginning of another as yet unknown era, at the level of form Chesterton’s novel is more avant-garde than his politics were.
The careers of Dickens, the Brontës, the Brownings, Thackeray, Hardy, Wilde, Shaw, and others now often regarded as the definitive English litterateurs—began during Victoria’s 64-year reign. The English novel was transformed, at that time, from the barely coherent yarn-spinning of Richardson and Fielding to stories in which things happen because of something that a character did. Actions have consequences. Choices change circumstances. This sort of thing was a literary innovation second only to the movement of the novel from the purely epistolary or “found” text (which functioned much as the “found footage” film does now) to narratives which approximate reality without purporting to represent it as true fact.
Prior to the twentieth century, English plotlines were as expansive as the empire and as chaotic as the wars which gave it birth. They were ruled by convenient coincidences: Sydney Carton looks exactly like Charles Darnay for no reason whatsoever; Jane Eyre’s uncle dies exactly when she needs money. These coincidences were part of the “providential tradition” within Victorian literature. In a literary world with an intimate relationship to God, the coincidence was what Dickens fondly called “the mighty store of wonderful chains that are forever forging, day and night, in the vast ironworks of time and circumstance.” Coincidence was to be read not merely as evidence of God’s existence, but as a sign of His favor. Things worked out for the protagonists because the protagonists were good; this assumption continues to influence novels, movies, and comic books. The “providential tradition” was itself part of the ongoing literary custom of both the deus ex machina in Classical drama, and the participation of gods in the Homeric epic tradition. The Western literary canon is full of meddling deities; the Victorians simply buttoned them up and covered their ankles.It takes creativity to imagine possible futures; it takes courage to imagine their consequences.
This is not to say that Victorian literature couldn’t be realistic by modern or even postmodern standards: Thomas Hardy’s works have the same cold, logical brutality as James M. Cain or Jim Thompson. Nevertheless, Victorian literature tended to assume that all disruptions were temporary and that everything would work out for the best in the end. The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by contrast, suggests that the best outcome is something that must be strived for, and that succumbing to the seemingly harmless aesthetic whims of a tyrant is still succumbing to a tyrant.
Twenty years into his reign, King Auberon suffers the fate of all has-been comedians: he gets taken seriously. Adam Wayne, a red-headed patriot, objects to the development of a road through Notting Hill—and proceeds to fight it not in the courts, but in the streets, with bricks and bats and wrought iron fencing used as spears. People die. Suddenly those cheerful costumes are stained with blood and ashes.
The idea of comedians as leaders is less unusual these days. Ronald Reagan’s cinematic career began with comedy in the 1930s, eventually ending with 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he played psychologist to a suicidal chimp. In 2007, Stephen Colbert announced his presidential campaign. There have been many previous examples of Colbert’s stunt—one thinks of Pigasus J. Pig, nominated by the Yippies; Alfred E. Neuman; Pogo; Bill the Cat; as well as nonfictional comedians like Dick Gregory (“Write Me In!”), Gracie Allen, and Will Rogers. In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy played the role of president in a sitcom before being elected to the position. As of this writing, Russia has invaded Ukraine, and Zelenskyy’s on-camera skills have done more to influence global support for his cause than any focus-grouped soft power campaign.
In a 1957 interview with Cosmopolitan, comedian Steve Allen said, “When I explained to a friend recently that the subject matter of most comedy is tragic (drunkenness, overweight, financial problems, accidents, etc.) he said, ‘Do you mean to tell me that the dreadful events of the day are a fit subject for humorous comment?’ The answer is ‘No, but they will be pretty soon…. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.’” So what’s the equation for stories set in the future? Writing for Essence in 2000, Hugo Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Octavia E. Butler related a story about how she so accurately anticipated the future problems described in her novels The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents: “All I did was look around at the problems we’re ignoring now and give them about thirty years to grow into full-fledged disasters.” Present problems plus time equal dystopia. It’s as simple, and as terrible, as that.
In his introduction to this book, after a diatribe on what he considers the dubious merits of progress, revolution, and foresight, and in which he calls out H. G. Wells and Cecil Rhodes, Chesterton admits something odd: “When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years from the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.”
There are two ways the reader can take this admission. The first is to see it as a belabored the-dog-ate-my-future story, in which frustrated fiction writer Chesterton was simply too lazy to do what Wells and Verne and Poe and Wollstonecraft-Shelley had been doing for years—namely, cultivating a worldbuilding sensibility and making use of it. The second is to take the introduction as sincere, and understand that Chesterton was the same man who wrote a chapter on Wells one year later in his book Heretics, saying “Progress itself cannot progress,” when considering Wells’ fundamental acceptance of uncertainty regarding the future. Rather than imagining how human values and behavior might change in the future, Chesterton is content to ask, “If the standard changes, how can there be improvement which implies a standard?” and exploit this conundrum as a “get out of future free” card in which nothing has to change except the parts of the plot which are most convenient to his point.
For a philosophical thought experiment, this narrative choice is de rigueur. For a work of fiction, it’s dreadfully shabby. But whatever creative bravery is lacking in the world of the story, courage is the other half of this novel: courage and sincerity. Auberon Quin’s sociopathic creativity is eventually matched by the whole-heartedness of Adam Wayne, the little boy grown up into a man under Quin’s rule—who takes his role as a knight in shining armor with deadly seriousness. Wayne takes the inherent absurdity of his scenario to its logical conclusion, and in so doing gets Quin to experience self-awareness and even remorse.
It takes creativity to imagine possible futures; it takes courage to imagine their consequences. Between them, Quin and Wayne—who wind up recognizing themselves as the “essentials” of the world—possess these virtues, which makes Chesterton’s troubling story so very readable.
The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton, introduction by Madeline Ashby, is available from MIT Press.