My airplane reading for this trip was G. K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill. The book’s been on may shelf for a couple of years. I was looking for something on the shorter side, and I wanted it to either be British or fantastical in some way (I found a fantastical book later). I read the first third in the flight over and most of the rest on the flight back (though I did have a couple of chapters to finish in Starbucks yesterday).
The novel was Chesterton’s first. As is often the case with GKC, the political and the Romantic and the theological kind of all weave together, though the weaving only becomes clear in the end (as with The Man Who Was Thursday). The story, first published in 1904, takes place in a 1984 London that was a lot like a 1904 London- no flying cars or teleportation or aliens or any other sci-fi elements that can show up in such stories. The initial lead in the book is Mr. Auberon Quin. The second lead, who picks up the story later, is a young man named Adam Wayne, who has taken Auberon at this word when it comes to the way that the world works. It’s difficult saying more than that without giving away some interesting twists. It’s a slower boil than Thursday. But when it gets going, it’s quite brilliant.
It seems as though part of GKC’s goal in writing is to tell a story about the future in light of a game of (what he calls) “Cheat the Prophet.” So when the curtain opens on 1984, we find that “the people had cheated the prophets of the twentieth century” by leaving London “almost exactly like what it is now.” How could this be? Because “the people of had absolutely lost faith in revolutions.” The narrator continues:
Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.
Enter Auberon Quin.
It’s a good read. Definitely a different kind of “futuristic” story. And, as the foreword suggests, there are a number of threads and images introduced here that will show up in GKC’s later work (though I recommend avoiding any foreword for the sake of surprise). As with much of GKC’s work, he argues well between the extremes of things. There’s tension there, of course. But there’s also truth, beauty, and goodness.