The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a novel written by Gilbert or G. K. Chesterton in 1904, set in a nearly unchanged London in 1984.
Wikipedia plot summary: Although the novel is set in the future, it is, in effect, set in an alternative reality of Chesterton’s own period, with no advances in technology nor changes in the class system nor attitudes. It postulates an impersonal government, not described in any detail, but apparently content to operate through a figurehead king, randomly chosen.
The dreary succession of randomly selected Kings of England is broken up when Auberon Quin, who cares for nothing but a good joke, is chosen. To amuse himself, he institutes elaborate costumes for the provosts of the districts of London. All are bored by the King’s antics except for one earnest young man who takes the cry for regional pride seriously – Adam Wayne, the eponymous Napoleon of Notting Hill. (Wikipedia plot summary)
G.K. Chesterton fans will no doubt know of the G.K. Chesterton Society https://www.chesterton.org
From Chapter 2: The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)
“Sir,” said Wayne, “I am going from house to house in this street of ours, seeking to stir up some sense of the danger which now threatens our city. Nowhere have I felt my duty so difficult as here.
For the toy-shop keeper has to do with all that remains to us of Eden before the first wars began.
You sit here meditating continually upon the wants of that wonderful time when every staircase leads to the stars, and every garden-path to the other end of nowhere.
Is it thoughtlessly, do you think, that I strike the dark old drum of peril in the paradise of children? But consider a moment; do not condemn me hastily. Even that paradise itself contains the rumour or beginning of that danger, just as the Eden that was made for perfection contained the terrible tree.
For judge childhood, even by your own arsenal of its pleasures.
You keep bricks; you make yourself thus, doubtless, the witness of the constructive instinct older than the destructive.
You keep dolls; you make yourself the priest of that divine idolatry.
You keep Noah’s Arks; you perpetuate the memory of the salvation of all life as a precious, an irreplaceable thing. But do you keep only, sir, the symbols of this prehistoric sanity, this childish rationality of the earth?
Do you not keep more terrible things? What are those boxes, seemingly of lead soldiers, that I see in that glass case? Are they not witnesses to that terror and beauty, that desire for a lovely death, which could not be excluded even from the immortality of Eden? Do not despise the lead soldiers, Mr. Turnbull.”
“I don’t,” said Mr. Turnbull, of the toy-shop, shortly, but with great emphasis.
“I am glad to hear it,” replied Wayne. “I confess that I feared for my military schemes the awful innocence of your profession. How, I thought to myself, will this man, used only to the wooden swords that give pleasure, think of the steel swords that give pain? But I am at least partly reassured. Your tone suggests to me that I have at least the entry of a gate of your fairyland—the gate through which the
soldiers enter, for it cannot be denied—I ought, sir, no longer to deny, that it is of soldiers that I come to speak. Let your gentle employment make you merciful towards the troubles of the world. Let your own silvery experience tone down our sanguine sorrows. For there is war in Notting Hill.”
The little toy-shop keeper sprang up suddenly, slapping his fat hands like two fans on the counter.
“War?” he cried. “Not really, sir? Is it true? Oh, what a joke! Oh, what a sight for sore eyes!”
Wayne was almost taken aback by this outburst.
“I am delighted,” he stammered. “I had no notion—”
He sprang out of the way just in time to avoid Mr. Turnbull, who took a flying leap over the counter and dashed to the front of the shop.
“You look here, sir,” he said; “you just look here.”
He came back with two of the torn posters in his hand which were flapping outside his shop.
“Look at those, sir,” he said, and flung them down on the counter.
Wayne bent over them, and read on one—
REDUCTION OF THE CENTRAL DERVISH CITY.
On the other he read—
“LAST SMALL REPUBLIC ANNEXED.
NICARAGUAN CAPITAL SURRENDERS AFTER A MONTH’S FIGHTING.
Wayne bent over them again, evidently puzzled; then he looked at the dates. They were both dated in August fifteen years before.
“Why do you keep these old things?” he said, startled entirely out of his absurd tact of mysticism. “Why do you hang them outside your shop?”
“Because,” said the other, simply, “they are the records of the last war. You mentioned war just now. It happens to be my hobby.”
Wayne lifted his large blue eyes with an infantile wonder.
“Come with me,” said Turnbull, shortly, and led him into a parlour at the back of the shop.
In the centre of the parlour stood a large deal table. On it were set rows and rows of the tin and lead soldiers which were part of the shopkeeper’s stock. The visitor would have thought nothing of it if it had not been for a certain odd grouping of them, which did not seem either entirely commercial or entirely haphazard.
“You are acquainted, no doubt,” said Turnbull, turning his big eyes upon Wayne—”you are acquainted, no doubt, with the arrangement of the American and Nicaraguan troops in the last battle;” and he waved his hand towards the table.
“I am afraid not,” said Wayne. “I—”
“Ah! you were at that time occupied too much, perhaps, with the Dervish affair. You will find it in this corner.” And he pointed to a part of the floor where there was another arrangement of children’s soldiers grouped here and there.
“You seem,” said Wayne, “to be interested in military matters.”
“I am interested in nothing else,” answered the toy-shop keeper, simply.
Wayne appeared convulsed with a singular, suppressed excitement.
“In that case,” he said, “I may approach you
with an unusual degree of confidence. Touching the matter of the defence of Notting Hill, I—”
“Defence of Notting Hill? Yes, sir. This way, sir,” said Turnbull, with great perturbation. “Just step into this side room;” and he led Wayne into another apartment, in which the table was entirely covered with an arrangement of children’s bricks.
A second glance at it told Wayne that the bricks were arranged in the form of a precise and perfect plan of Notting Hill.
“Sir,” said Turnbull, impressively, “you have, by a kind of accident, hit upon the whole secret of my life. As a boy, I grew up among the last wars of the world, when Nicaragua was taken and the dervishes wiped out. And I adopted it as a hobby, sir, as you might adopt astronomy or bird-stuffing. I had no ill-will to any one, but I was interested in war as a science, as a game.
And suddenly I was bowled out. The big Powers of the world, having swallowed up all the small ones, came to that confounded agreement, and there was no more war. There was nothing more for me to do but to do what I do now—to read the old campaigns in dirty old newspapers, and to work them out with tin soldiers. One other thing had occurred to me. I thought it an amusing
fancy to make a plan of how this district or ours ought to be defended if it were ever attacked. It seems to interest you too.”
“If it were ever attacked,” repeated Wayne, awed into an almost mechanical enunciation. “Mr. Turnbull, it is attacked. Thank Heaven, I am bringing to at least one human being the news that is at bottom the only good news to any son of Adam. Your life has not been useless. Your work has not been play. Now, when the hair is already grey on your head, Turnbull, you shall have your youth. God has not destroyed, He has only deferred it. Let us sit down here, and you shall explain to me this military map of Notting Hill. For you and I have to defend Notting Hill together.”
Mr. Turnbull looked at the other for a moment, then hesitated, and then sat down beside the bricks and the stranger. He did not rise again for seven hours, when the dawn broke.
The headquarters of Provost Adam Wayne and his Commander-in-Chief consisted of a small and somewhat unsuccessful milk-shop at the corner of Pump Street …”
The whole book is available at:
An interesting blog post
In Maisie Ward’s 1945 biography of Chesterton, she mentions:
“With H. G. Wells as with Shaw, Gilbert’s relations were exceedingly cordial, but with a cordiality occasionally threatened by explosions from Wells. Gilbert’s soft answer however invariably turned away wrath and all was well again. “No one,” Wells said to me, “ever had enmity for him except some literary men who did not know him.” They met first, Wells thinks, at the Hubert Blands, and then Gilbert stayed with Wells at Easton. There they played at the non-existent game of Gype and invented elaborate rules for it. Cecil came too and they played the War game Wells had invented.
“Cecil,” says Wells, comparing him with Gilbert, “seemed condensed: not quite big enough for a real Chesterton.”
“They built too a toy theatre at Easton and among other things dramatized the minority report of the Poor Law Commission. The play began by the Commissioners taking to pieces Bumble the Beadle, putting him into a huge cauldron and stewing him. Then out from the cauldron leaped a renewed rejuvenated Bumble several sizes larger than when he went in.”
Cecil was Cecil Chesterton (1879-1918), younger brother of G.K. Chesterton and friend of Hilaire Belloc, was an English journalist and political commentator, known particularly for his role as editor of The New Witness from 1912 to 1916. He was injured fighting in WW1 and died on 6 December 1918.
Gilbert and Cecil appear to have played Wells’ Little Wars with Wells at Easton.
Easton Glebe is Wells’ one time house in Dunmow in Essex, alongside his Hampstead house nearer London. It was here in Essex that Wells’ second wife Jane died in 1927.
Besides his home in London, Wells rented Easton Glebe, on the Easton Lodge estate, between 1910 and 1928.
It was during this time that Wells had a 10 year affair with Rebecca West. They met in 1912 when Wells was 46 and West only 19. West was also a prolific writer, later being appointed a Dame for her service to English literature. Their son, Anthony West, born in 1914, grew up to became a well-known novelist.
Blog post by Mark Man of TIN, && January 2021
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