Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
G. K. Chesterton’s primary intent in his first novel was to express his opposition to England’s imperialism, which had been the cause of the Boer War of 1899-1902. When he depicts the London borough of Notting Hill declaring its independence, Chesterton is defending the right of any country, however small,...
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G. K. Chesterton’s primary intent in his first novel was to express his opposition to England’s imperialism, which had been the cause of the Boer War of 1899-1902. When he depicts the London borough of Notting Hill declaring its independence, Chesterton is defending the right of any country, however small, to express and defend its nationalistic tendencies. In other words, the Boer republics had as much right to patriotism as did the invading British Empire. By means of the brief but startling appearance in the novel of the flamboyant Juan del Fuego, former president of Nicaragua, Chesterton compares the British Empire’s fading fortunes at the end of the nineteenth century to those of the Spanish Empire, which had lost its last overseas colonies in 1898.
Besides serving as a platform for the author’s political views, Chesterton’s first novel outlines his literary and aesthetic philosophy, best described as modernist. The beginning of modernist literature coincides with the demise of the British and Spanish empires at the end of the nineteenth century; therefore, it follows that modernist literature depicts history as a decadent, destructive force rather than as a progressive, civilized movement. Chesterton captures the modernist attitude toward history as an arbitrary, capricious phenomenon by making simultaneous, contradictory allusions to the past and to the future.
The novel’s medieval politics and warfare, like the title’s reference to Napoleon, cast Chesterton as a historian. By placing the action of the novel in 1984, eighty years beyond the novel’s publication date of 1904, Chesterton also acts as a prophet. Futuristic settings were popular among others who wrote at about the same time as Chesterton, notably H. G. Wells and George Orwell. It is probably coincidence that the action of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) takes place in the same year as does the plot of The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
By granting Quin the dual vocation of king and poet, Chesterton makes clear his intent to define the relationship between politics and art. As a failed poet, Quin represents the failure of both the British Empire and the Victorian literature that glorified the empire, such as the writings of Rudyard Kipling. As an eccentric king who revives medieval heraldry and traditions, Quin symbolizes the modernist movement, which celebrated the end of imperial Europe by glorifying the more picturesque features of the past merely for their aesthetic value. When Quin writes newspaper accounts of the war in Notting Hill, the king/journalist personifies the way in which history and literature are inextricably linked. His transformation from poet to journalist is analogous to English literature’s graduation from Victorian to modernist.
Furthermore, Quin and Wayne personify the kinship between literature and history. Quin, like modernist literature, conceives the idea of re-creating medieval aesthetics. His first name complements his anachronistic vision: Auberon is an obvious allusion to Oberon, the king of the fairies in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-1596). Adam Wayne, whose first name suggests the origins of human history, decides to reenact that history literally, not merely metaphorically or aesthetically. Like Quin, Wayne is a failed poet, and his obsession with literally re-creating the past is a result of his failure to understand metaphor and allusion, the lifeblood of modernist literature.