The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

The Decay of Lying: An Observation by Oscar Wilde (1891)

The aim of the liar is simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure. He is the very basis of civilized society.

Originally published as a magazine article in 1889, Wilde substantially rewrote this essay for inclusion in his volume of four essays, Intentions (1891).

Dialogue form

It is in dialogue form, harking back to the Platonic dialogues Wilde would have studied for his Classics degree, signaling Wilde’s embryonic interest in drama – and his realisation that his ‘ideas’ were maybe less amusing than his taste for paradox, for surprising reversals of expectations, for sudden bon mots and witty phrases – all of which are easier to engineer in dialogue form. Dialogue allows:

  • quick fire interchange
  • one person to develop an idea at length until it is in danger of becoming boring, at which point – the other person interrupts with a deflating remark or a witty summary of the story so far, so
  • treatment of individual notions can be pages long or made in a throwaway one-liner, and
  • the case of the proponent can itself subjected to irony and satire by the interlocutor – Wilde can parody or ironise his own argument

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism Wilde has to go a long distance in his own voice and strains a bit to make a consistent ‘argument’. In Lying, as soon as the dramatic lead (Vivian) tires of one line of witty sophistry, his foil (Cyril) can interrupt, not understanding, or pooh-poohing the idea or asking for clarification: whatever new direction Wilde requires at that moment.

The Argument

All Art is lying, wonderful imaginative lying.

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.

However, in Wilde’s time more and more artists were determined to drag the ‘real world’ into their art, making it ‘relevant’, addressing ‘issues’ and thus showing a tragic misunderstanding of what Art is and is for, and – the great crime in Wilde’s eyes – destroying their individuality – so that all the writers end up sounding like Parliamentary reports and all the artists end up creating works which are grim and depressing.

Now, everything is changed. Facts are not merely finding a footing place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything. They are vulgarising mankind.

Art is a form of lying, of rejecting the banality of ‘reality’ and creating something marvellous from our imaginations. Wilde must have had notebooks packed with sentences starting ‘Art is…’:

The object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty.

Art itself is really a form of exaggeration; and selection, which is the very spirit of art, is nothing more than an intensified mode of overemphasis.

The proper school to learn art in is not Life but Art.

Art never expresses anything but itself. This is the principle of my new a aesthetics; and it is this, more than that vital connection between form and substance, on which Mr. Pater dwells, that makes music the type of all the arts.

Taking this as his point of departure, the entire essay enjoys contradicting the popular view of the day (Wordsworth, Ruskin, Morris), that we must somehow get ‘back to Nature’, that Nature is a cure for modern industrial society. Quite the opposite:

What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition… Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of Nature, that is a pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her.

If Nature had been comfortable, mankind would never have invented architecture, and I prefer houses to the open air. In a house we all feel of the proper proportions. Everything is subordinated to us, fashioned for our use and our pleasure. Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity’ is entirely the result of indoor life. Out of doors one becomes abstract and impersonal. One’s individuality absolutely leaves one. And then Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope, or the burdock that blooms in the ditch. Nothing is more evident than that Nature hates Mind.

Provocation 1 – The incongruous

Wilde enjoys provoking his reader, which takes at least two forms: one is the unexpected and witty application of homely phraseology in an unexpected way, to create a humorously incongruous effect.

Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out…  Art is … our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.

A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher.

Thus, as he endeavours to show his friend Cyril how far lying has decayed, the protagonist Vivian makes a humorous survey of the professions, all on the witty assumption that they are and have been professed liars, so that he is in the witty position of lamenting the decay of lying in professions which most Victorians would assume to have been the bedrock of British honesty and probity:

CYRIL. Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.

VIVIAN. I assure you that they do not.  They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue [!]…  Something may, perhaps, be urged on behalf of the Bar. The mantle of the Sophist has fallen on its members. Their feigned ardours and unreal rhetoric are delightful…  They …  have been known to wrest from reluctant juries triumphant verdicts of acquittal for their clients, even when those clients, as often happens, were clearly and unmistakeably innocent [!]. But they are briefed by the prosaic, and are not ashamed to appeal to precedent. In spite of their endeavours, the truth will out. Newspapers, even, have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon [!] One feels it as one wades through their columns…

Many a young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy… or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination! and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so like life that no one can possibly believe in their probability.

Later, he manages to include journalists in his list of the lying professions. The same journalists who would hound him into prison and cackle around his fallen corpse.

Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is of course well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leaderwriter is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond a kind of ostentatious obscurity.

Provocation 2 – Anti-England

Like any man of feeling or imagination, Wilde is depressed by the small-minded, xenophobic, philistine culture of England (something which has always driven our best writers abroad, to escape our stifling conformity and seek out a wider world). An attitude given bite by the fact that he was, of course, Irish and saw himself, as so many literary men of the Modern period (1890s onwards), as an outsider.(1)

Thinking is the most unhealthy thing in the world, and people die of it just as they die of any other disease. Fortunately, in England at any rate, thought is not catching. Our splendid physique as a people is entirely due to our national stupidity.

Nonetheless, one trembles when one reads his casual insults of England and the English. For, as we know, the English were going to have their total and humiliating revenge on Wilde and to drag all his witty paradoxes down into the lowest mud.

A thoughtful young friend of ours once told us that it reminded him of the sort of conversation that goes on at a meat tea in the house of a serious Noncomformist family, and we can quite believe it. Indeed it is only in England that such a book could be produced. England is the home of lost ideas.

But in the English Church a man succeeds, not through his capacity for belief but through his capacity for disbelief. Ours is the only Church where the sceptic stands at the altar, and where St. Thomas is regarded as the ideal apostle.

The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvellous tale, and fantasy La Chimere, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flutetoned voice.

The contemporary scene

Wilde gives a fascinating summary of the contemporary literary scene, of which he laments: ‘the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’

He is to be found at the Librairie Nationale, or at the British Museum, shamelessly reading up his subject. He has not even the courage of other people’s ideas, but insists on going directly to life for everything’ and ultimately, between encyclopaedias and personal experience, he comes to the ground, having drawn his types from the family circle or from the weekly washerwoman, and having acquired an amount of useful information from which never, even in his most meditative moments, can he thoroughly free himself. The loss that results to literature in general from this false ideal of our time can hardly be overestimated.

In his way Wilde is echoing Stevenson’s essay on Romance – a conscious revolt against the gradgrindish obsession with facts, a wish to escape, to soar on the wings of free imagination. Although Stevenson is first in line to be criticised:

  • Mr Robert Louis Stevenson… is tainted with this modern vice [of realism]… There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it too true, and The Black Arrow is so inartistic as not to contain a single anachronism to boast of, while the transformation of Dr. Jekyll reads dangerously like an experiment out of the Lancet.
  • Mr. Rider Haggard, who really has, or had once, the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar, he is now so afraid of being suspected of genius that when he does tell us anything marvellous, he feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence, and to put it into a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration.
  • Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.
  • Mr George Meredith! Who can define him ? His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language: as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story: as an artist he is everything, except articulate.
  • Mr. Hall Caine, it is true, aims at the grandiose, but then he writes at the top of his voice. He is so loud that one cannot hear what he says.
  • Mr. James Payn is an adept in the art of concealing what is not worth finding. He hunts down the obvious with the enthusiasm of a shortsighted detective.
  • The horses of Mr. William Black’s phaeton do not soar towards the sun. They merely frighten the sky at evening into violent chromolithographic effects.
  • Mrs. Oliphant prattles pleasantly about curates, lawntennis parties, domesticity, and other wearisome things.
  • Mr. Marion Crawford has immolated himself upon the altar of local colour. He is like the lady in the French comedy who keeps talking about ‘le beau ciel d’Italie.’ Besides, he has fallen into a bad habit of uttering moral platitudes. He is always telling us that to be good is to be good, and that to be bad is to be wicked. At times he is almost edifying.
  • Robert Elsmere is of course a masterpiece–a masterpiece of the ‘genre ennuyeux,’ the one form of literature that the English people seem to thoroughly enjoy. It is only in England that such a book could be produced.
  • As for that great and daily increasing school of novelists for whom the sun always rises in the East End, the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw.

Wilde prided himself of his knowledge of French culture – their poetry and painting vastly more advanced than their English counterparts. But he dwells on the realist school and is equally as damning:

  • M. Guy de Maupassant, with his keen mordant irony and his hard vivid style, strips life of the few poor rags that still cover her, and shows us foul sore and festering wound. He writes lurid little tragedies in which everybody is ridiculous; bitter comedies at which one cannot laugh for very tears.
  • M. Zola is determined to show that, if he has not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds!.. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. M. Zola’s characters have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest. Who cares what happens to them? In literature we require distinction, charm, beauty, and imaginative power. We don’t want to be harrowed and disgusted with an account of the doings of the lower orders.
  • M. Daudet is better. He has wit, a light touch, and an amusing style. But he has lately committed literary suicide… The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.
  • What is interesting about people in good society – and M. Bourget rarely moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London – is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask. It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour. Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit, and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality!

But he likes Balzac:

  • Balzac was a most wonderful combination of the artistic temperament with the scientific spirit. The latter he bequeathed to his disciples: the former was entirely his own. The difference between such a book as M. Zola’s L’Assommoir and Balzac’s Illusions Perdues is the difference between unimaginative realism and imaginative reality… A steady course of Balzac reduces our living friends to shadows, and our acquaintances to the shadows of shades. His characters have a kind of fervent fierycoloured existence. They dominate us, and defy scepticism… But Balzac is no more a realist than Holbein was. He created life, he did not copy it.

Art does not express the world. Yuk. It expresses the individuality, the genius, of the artist.

Art should be quite detached, quite useless

Where Morris the Marxist argued that Art in an ideal world would be the results of happy men expressing their creativity, especially in decorating the everyday objects of our lives, so that everything a happy fulfilled worker makes is Art – Wilde the hyper aesthete argues that all Art should be quite useless, quite irrelevant to our everyday lives and concerns: that is its point.

The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us. As long as a thing is useful or necessary to us, or affects us in any way, either for pain or for pleasure, or appeals strongly to our sympathies, or is a vital part of the environment in which we live, it is outside the proper sphere of art. To art’s subject matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind…

I do not know anything in the whole history of literature sadder than the artistic career of Charles Reade. He wrote one beautiful book, The Cloister and the Hearth, a book as much above Romola as Romola is above Daniel Deronda, and wasted the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons, and the management of our private lunatic asylums. Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor law administration; but Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.

Life imitates Art

So far, so plausible. Wilde has moved beyond outraging the bourgeoisie to establish his main point: Art is a wonderful kind of lying which, in his age, was everywhere in danger of being hobbled by the mania for Realism. But the essay goes to another level when Wilde pushes the conceit further to say that, not only is vulgar, dull Life bad for Art, but that Life itself actually copies Art.

Paradox though it may seem, it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life. We have all seen in our own day in England how a certain curious and fascinating type of beauty, invented and emphasised by two imaginative painters [the pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Burne-Jones], has so influenced Life that whenever one goes to a private view or to an artistic salon one sees, here the mystic eyes of Rossetti’s dream, the long ivory throat, the strange squarecut jaw, the loosened shadowy hair that he so ardently loved, there the sweet maidenhood of The Golden Stair, the blossom-like mouth and weary loveliness of the Laus Amoris, the passion-pale face of Andromeda, the thin hands and lithe beauty of the Vivien in Merlin’s Dream. [See illustration below]

And it has always been so. A great artist invents a type, and Life tries to copy it, to reproduce it in a popular form, like an enterprising publisher. Neither Holbein nor Vandyck found in England what they have given us. They brought their types with them, and Life, with her keen imitative faculty, set herself to supply the master with models.

As it is with the visible arts, so it is with literature. The most obvious and the vulgarest form in which this is shown is in the case of the silly boys who, after reading the adventures of Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin, pillage the stalls of unfortunate applewomen, break into sweet shops at night, and alarm old gentlemen who are returning home from the city by leaping out on them in suburban lanes, with black masks and unloaded revolvers… The boy burglar is simply the inevitable result of life’s imitative instinct. He is Fact, occupied as Fact usually is with trying to reproduce Fiction.

  • Schopenhauer has analysed the pessimism that characterises modern thought, but Hamlet invented it. The world has become sad because a puppet was once melancholy.
  • The Nihilist, that strange martyr who has no faith, who goes to the stake without enthusiasm, and dies for what he does not believe in, is a purely literary product. He was invented by Tourgenieff, and completed by Dostoieffski.
  • Robespierre came out of the pages of Rousseau as surely as the People’s Palace rose out debris of a novel. Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose.
  • The nineteenth century, as we know it, is largely an invention of Balzac. Our Luciens de Rubempre, our Rastignacs, and De Marsays made their first appearance on the stage of the Comedie Humaine. We are merely carrying out, with footnotes and unnecessary additions, the whim or fancy or creative vision of a great novelist.

At some point this argument begins to overlap with very modern concerns about people imitating violent films or video games. Wilde doesn’t say there is a tendency to copy art: he think sit is an absolute rule:

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true. Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realizes in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life – the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it – is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which this expression can be attained. Life seizes on them and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt. Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.

This anticipates Raymond Chandler’s 1930s comments about his hoodlums and gangsters modeling themselves on the movies, a sentiment echoed by Alistair MacLean in his thrillers of the 1960s, and of what I know of Auden and his circle modeling their posing, the way they lit and held cigarettes, on the movie stars of the 1930s. It seems to me a very persuasive argument indeed that Art gives us the models and then people enthusiastically set about copying them – except that Wilde probably wouldn’t call movies, TV and pop videos Art: but they are what provide contemporary humanity with our models for behaving and talking.

Nature imitates Art

And Wilde’s comic style, his essential humour, combines wonderfully when Vivian is goaded by Cyril to go one step further and prove that Nature imitates Art – the precise opposite of what most of the nineteenth century has been telling itself:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gaslamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows ? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge ? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art.

Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold.

And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon.

The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Nature… That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilized man.

Art doesn’t reflect its society & times – it creates them

In the same spirit, Wilde rejects another cliche, that Art reflects the society and times it was created in. Wrong, says Wilde; the precise opposite: Art doesn’t reflect: Art creates the style and look of its times.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. Take an example from our own day. I know that you are fond of Japanese things. Now, do you really imagine that the Japanese people, as they are presented to us in art, have any existence ? If you do, you have never understood Japanese art at all. The Japanese people are the deliberate selfconscious creation of certain individual artists. If you set a picture by Hokusai, or Hokkei, or any of the great native painters, beside a real Japanese gentleman or lady, you will see that there is not the slightest resemblance between them. The actual people who live in Japan are not unlike the general run of English people; that is to say, they are extremely commonplace, and have nothing curious or extraordinary about them. In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people.

The Japanese people are, in fact, simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art. And so, if you desire to see a Japanese effect, you will not behave like a tourist and go to Tokio. On the contrary, you will stay at home, and steep yourself in the work of certain Japanese artists, and then, when you have absorbed the spirit of their style, and caught their imaginative manner of vision, you will go some afternoon and sit in the Park or stroll down Piccadilly, and if you cannot see an absolutely Japanese effect there, you will not see it anywhere.

The fact is that we look back on the ages entirely through the medium of Art, and Art, very fortunately, has never once told us the truth.

A new world

The essay ends, with a witty call for a revival of lying at all levels of society, beginning in the nursery and extending through school and into the higher professions. In a kind of satire on the millenial, revolutionary rhetoric of this decade of revolutionaries and nihilists and anarchists, Wilde looks forward to the overthrow of the present dull world of facts and the rebirth of a wonderful world of lying and imagination:

The solid stolid British intellect may not hear the voice of fantasy now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings. And when that day dawns, or sunset reddens how joyous we shall all be! Facts will be regarded as discreditable, Truth will be found mourning over her fetters, and Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.

The very aspect of the world will change to our startled eyes. Out of the sea will rise Behemoth and Leviathan and sail round the high-pooped galleys, as they do on the delightful maps of those ages when books on geography were actually readable. Dragons will wander about the waste places, and the phoenix will soar from her nest of fire into the air. We shall lay our hands upon the basilisk, and see the jewel in the toad’s head. Champing his gilded oats, the Hippogriff will stand in our stalls, and over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be. But before this comes to pass we must cultivate the lost art of Lying.

Three principles

And the essay winds up with some more generalisations from Wilde’s books of sentences about Art.

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself.  It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in direct opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress.
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything… It is only the modern that ever becomes oldfashioned. M. Zola sits down to give us a picture of the Second Empire. Who cares for the Second Empire now? It is out of date. Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.
  3. The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.

1. It is a revealing moment when Wilde jokingly says that society must return to its ‘lost leader’, the skilled liar. Mostly this is paradoxical wit – but the phrase ‘lost leader’, by 1891, already referred to Charles Stewart Parnell, whose affair with a married woman split the Home Rule party of which he was leader, and, arguably, set back the cause of Irish independence by a generation. And of course, Wilde’s oblique reference to a man hounded to his death by the British establishment because of his private life has a terrible reverberation for us who know Wilde’s fate.

Related links

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1874)

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