Like all places, my hometown has its noteworthy quirks. Founded in 1805, Malone, New York was the home of U.S. Vice President William Almon Wheeler. The local delicacy is Glaziers, hot dogs with skins that are dyed an unmistakable red. The American classic children’s book, Farmer Boy, is set about five minutes outside the town at Almanzo Wilder’s childhood home, and his farm is a bucolic local tourist destination. Though the decisions of today’s elites implicitly dismiss such local flavor as outdated at best and racist at worst, true conservatism recognizes that it is in fact a great source of joy and meaning in human life.
G.K. Chesterton’s first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, places this kind of localism at its center. One part social commentary, one part farce, and one part military epic, the book centers on a war between a London neighborhood, Notting Hill, and the rest of the city. Yet, reading the novel today, one cannot help but think of a term that is never far from political discussions: nationalism. How do localism and nationalism fit together? How do each of these philosophical approaches to place use and abuse the innate noble feeling of patriotism? Over the course of Chesterton’s story, we are challenged to confront these questions and answer how we ought to live.
“Why Should I Think it Absurd?”
Chesterton is perhaps best-known for his aphoristic style and Father Brown short stories, so it is hardly surprising that his first foray into long-form fiction can feel a little disjointed at the beginning, but it is well worth pushing through to the meat of the novel. The opening chapters are mainly concerned with what we might call ‘worldbuilding.’ Written in 1904, the novel takes place eighty years in the future, a future in which England has fully embraced the modern tendency towards facelessness and abstraction in government. This imagined England (much like most Western nations today) is ruled by bureaucracy. The King of England is chosen by lot, and, as a general rule, he does very little for the nation.
That is until a man named Auberon Quin becomes King, and the fun of the novel begins. Auberon is a joker, a prankster, a man who takes very little seriously. Thus, on ascending the throne, he decides to play a bit of a practical joke on the city of London. The King announces that London neighborhoods must regain their distinctive beauty, traditions, and ways of life. He wishes, ultimately, to instill “a keener sense of local patriotism.”
What this means concretely is that each London neighborhood is ordered to become fundamentally distinct from every other neighborhood in virtually every way. Each one becomes a walled city unto itself, with a distinctive coat of arms, its own leader, and ways of life. The king believes this will lead to great fun. Little does he know, however, that his colossal, years-long prank on the city cannot remain a mere joke. Modern men, as much as the ancients, have need for adventures, for danger, for patriotism, and he has unknowingly reminded them of this fact.
The king, on a walk to “mingle with the people,” happens to pass a playing child. The boy wears a paper hat and wooden sword, and he is clearly imagining himself as a powerful warrior. “I’m the King of the Castle!” the child proclaims. The king kindly and comically responds, “I’m glad you are so stalwart a defender of your old inviolate Notting Hill. Look up nightly to that peak, my child, where it lifts itself among the stars so ancient, so lonely, so unutterably Notting. So long as you are ready to die for the sacred mountain, even if it were ringed with all the armies of Bayswater…”—and then the King is distracted and moves off.
These words, jokingly dashed off by an ironical man, make a deep impression on the boy. The child’s mind and heart become focused on his home neighborhood, Notting Hill. Unlike the unserious King, the boy, Adam Wayne, believes that all the required neighborhood pomp and circumstance are in service to a deep human truth: our homes are good, and they are worth defending.
In time, the young Wayne grows up and becomes the Provost of Notting Hill. Very quickly he is in the midst of a controversy many of us will understand. Several neighborhoods of the city have come together to build a highway. After years of planning and after construction has begun, word comes to the young provost that several buildings in Notting Hill will need to be torn down in order for the highway to be paved. Wayne is incensed, and he seeks an audience with the king. As the original illustration shows, Wayne earnestly expresses his opposition to the demolition before the King.
The King, as usual, fails to take this issue seriously. However, after some discussion with Wayne and his opposition, he comes to understand Wayne’s sincerity in defending his “sacred” home neighborhood. As the arguments come to a head, King Auberon finally asks Wayne, “Don’t you really think the sacred Notting Hill at all absurd?”
Wayne’s response is worth dwelling on. “‘Notting Hill,’ said the Provost, simply, ‘is a rise or high ground of the common earth, on which men have built houses to live, in which they are born, fall in love, pray, marry, and die. Why should I think it absurd?’”
Though the action of the scene goes on, this single line sticks with the reader. As modernity (or post-modernity or late modernity or whatever we’re calling it these days) rolls on, it tells us a series of lies. Among many others, it tells us that our homes do not matter, that our families do not matter, that our work does not matter, that beauty, tradition, and piety do not matter. Even more than that, we are told that strong attachment to such things is absurd. We have progressed, we are told, beyond the need for marriage and sexual restraint, beyond the distinction between men and women, beyond borders, to a world where everything must be renovated or remodeled or simply torn down in embarrassment.
Adam Wayne, the titular Napoleon of the novel, rejects this flimsy narrative. Once it becomes clear that the other neighborhoods’ officials will not back down, Wayne raises an army and mounts a defense of his home.
The Military Comic Epic
It is, of course, ridiculous for a tiny neighborhood to go to war with an entire city. All of us who have lived in a metropolis have at one time or another become disgusted with how our neighborhood was being treated. But, we tell ourselves, this is simply what goes along with conveniences of modernity like refrigeration, plumbing, and access to the internet. Part of the joy of reading The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that it not only reminds the reader that our little homes are worth protecting, but that against all odds we ourselves might be able to protect them.
I won’t spoil the second half of the novel, but suffice it to say that there are many skirmishes, regroupings, and ingeniously ridiculous battle-plans. While Chesterton avoids any lurid descriptions of violence, readers cannot help but be a little taken aback by the body count. Hundreds of ordinary, modern men are dying in the streets of London for a provocation, the knocking down of some houses, that most of us take as a simple fact of life. Yet, when the building in question is a place of great beauty and existential meaning, like Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, recent controversies can help us understand the desire to fight and die for a place. As Adam Wayne puts it, protecting the things we love by the sword “has made mean landscapes magnificent, and hovels outlast cathedrals…. Why should it not make lamp-posts fairer than Greek lamps; and an omnibus-ride like a painted ship?” The local, the real, the small is still beautiful. And it is still worth defending.
Eventually, when the King attempts to reason with Wayne, arguing that the protection of his home is nothing but a fool’s crusade, Wayne rebukes him. Scathingly, he mocks the king (and most modern rulers) for preferring the appearance of humanity and benevolence over the tough realities of caring for human beings. “You will make war,” he says, “for a frontier, or the imports of a foreign harbour; you will shed blood for the precise duty on lace, or the salute to an admiral. But for the things that make life itself worthy or miserable—how humane you are!” The economy, or, as we might put it now, oil in foreign nations and the GDP, are hardly worth dying for; they are not even worth living for! He continues:
“[T]here were never any necessary wars but the religious wars. There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars but the religious wars. For these men were fighting for something that claimed, at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader thought, at least, that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king or tinker, that it could really capture. I think [those who wish to tear down the beauty of Notting Hill] hurt the soul of every man, hurt every inch of the ground, hurt every brick of the houses, that they can really capture. Do you think I have no right to fight for Notting Hill?”
Though the circumstances of the novel are comical, Wayne’s point is not. Man is far more than a cog in a machine. He is a living, breathing animal made in the very image and likeness of God. This is the reason why all just wars have been fought. We are not meant to live and die for the whims of our bureaucrat overlords. We are to live and die for our homes, our families, and our God.
Lessons For Today: Localism and Nationalism
But what does it mean to live and die for these things today? As much fun as Chesterton’s imagined war is, I doubt any of us are about to rise up in arms against nearby construction sites. And yet, contemporary conservatism is clearly wrestling with the idea of home. The Thatcherite-Reaganite conservatism, which often emphasized market growth over community life, has had unintended consequences for small towns and neighborhoods. Communities across the West are hollowed out as the gifted get jobs in the city and the average struggle to make ends meet working in jobs where they are increasingly alienated from the land and their neighbors. Addiction to drugs, alcohol, and (especially) pornography is rampant.
While libertarians and some conservatives have argued that the problem has been insufficient application of free market principles, and that what is needed is a stronger form of 1980s-style conservatism, most sensible conservatives realize this is not enough. Economic conservatism without social conservatism is futile.
But how are we to build a world (and a movement) that embodies both? Some advocate for the ‘Benedict option,’ building ‘intentional communities’ of like-minded religious conservatives, while others have argued in favor of a ‘national conservatism’ that puts national identity and family-first policies at the forefront of its political platform. We can justly speak of each as ‘localist’ and ‘nationalist,’ respectively.
Chesterton’s novel is helpful for grappling with the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Wayne has a love of country, but his love of Notting Hill comes first. He reminds us that the most important conflicts, whether in war or in politics, have to do with what is closest to us. No wide-spread national policy can ever make up for what is missing at the level of the community. And yet, localism is not enough. Though Wayne’s stand against London is inspiring, it is also limited. After all, is it really worth hundreds of men’s lives to shave off some of the harsh edges of modernity?
On the other hand, nationalists recognize that, for better or worse, most policy today is at the national level. They also recognize that, if progressives continue to occupy the halls of power, we will be condemned to decades not just of ugly architecture but of sexual propaganda in schools, continued breakdown of the family, and more and more children being taken away when parents don’t believe that they are ‘trans.’ Most progressives are so malformed that they genuinely believe it is their moral duty to build a society where sex, family, and nation as we have known it are things of the past. This must be stopped. However, hyperfocus on nationalizing the conservative agenda can end up running roughshod over the very small communities and families we hope to protect. We need to fight for subsidiarity in order to allow communities like Notting Hill to prosper.
And besides, our aim cannot simply be political victories in hope of destroying those with whom we disagree. A truly flourishing political community incorporates those who disagree with one another into projects in service of the common good, and this cannot happen at the national level in our politically divided world. Neighborhoods like Notting Hill and small towns like the one in which I grew up are the best chance we have of rebuilding a sense of solidarity and friendship between conservatives, moderates, and progressives. In these places, those who disagree can easily come together. Small-town sports coaches need not discuss politics, and those who plan an annual neighborhood festival can come together without worrying about national issues.
Or at least they should be able to do so. Ideological crusades can sadly invade even small-town celebrations (as when orginizers have to answer questions like ‘Where should the pride tent go?’ and ‘What’s our trans bathroom policy?’). There is no simple solution to these problems, but that does not mean we need to give up.
Isn’t there some way we can balance localism and nationalism to heal our world? Isn’t there a world in which Notting Hill, London, Great Britain, Europe, and the world can co-exist and support the flourishing of men, women, and children?
This may sound like a pipe dream to you. The dragon of progressivism is too big, the monster of modern government too powerful, and all we can do is live with it. If this dim and dreary view is the only way you can think of the future, I recommend picking up a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, for, as the author puts it elsewhere, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of [dragons]…. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”
This essay is the second in the monthly series “Forgotten Classics.”