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Julian Barnes: Arthur & George

Using historical events and historical characters as the basis for a novel is more and more common. Sometimes it can be quite effective, other times less so. Barnes falls between the two extremes. His story is well told but lacks that je ne sais quoi that would make this a great novel. The Arthur is very well-known – Arthur Conan Doyle – the George much less so – George Edalji, famous only because Conan Doyle intervened in his case. Though Barnes is obviously concerned primarily with the issue where their two lives intersected, he chooses to essentially tell the life stories of both men and he tells it in the form of a short chapter on one and then a short chapter on the other, with a few exceptions. He even tries a somewhat cute approach. He starts off the Conan Doyle story without any indication that the Arthur concerned is the creator of Sherlock Holmes. If we know something of Conan Doyle’s life story we may well realise early on who it is but, if we do not, we have to wait till he is revealed as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Similarly with George, we have to wait not just for his identity, which, of course, will be known to few readers, but for his race, as Barnes does not reveal his surname, his father’s first name or his religion and ethnic background, till well into the book, laying, instead, great stress on the Englishness of the family.

The Edalji case is important not only for Conan Doyle’s involvement but also because it ultimately led to the creation of the Court of Appeal and it is the story of Edalji’s alleged crimes that are the focus of the book. However, we learn a lot about both men that is not directly connected with the crimes. We learn about Conan Doyle’s upbringing in genteel poverty, his father’s inability to get much of a job and then his drunkenness and epilepsy. We learn of his first happy marriage and his wife’s subsequent tuberculosis. We learn of his long term platonic affair with Jean Leckie, who will be his second wife, while his first wife was ill. More importantly we learn of his grief at his first wife’s death and how only his interest in the Edalji affair brought him out of his sorrow, something clearly recognised by Jean Leckie. We learn of his passionate interest in spiritualism and, indeed, the final scene is a huge spiritualist meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, soon after Conan Doyle’s death, attended by his widow, his four surviving children and Edalji.

Edalji’s father was a Parsi who had emigrated from Bombay. He met and married a Scottish woman and they had three children, of which George was the eldest. His wife’s family was able to get a living for Edalji in Staffordshire which, as some (but none of the Edalji family) point out, was something of a risk, as some of the locals clearly would not take to someone of Parsi origin. Whether race is a motivation for what subsequently happens is not made entirely clear but what is clear is that many think that it is. The problems start with anonymous letters, for which the maid is found guilty and dismissed. But other letters come and other actions as well, such as dead animals on the lawn, other clergymen urgently summoned to the vicarage and advertisements of a dubious nature placed in various publications. When Edalji Senior raises these issues with the Chief Constable, not only is he rebuffed but it is suggested that his son, George, is responsible for them. George goes on to study law and eventually becomes a solicitor and even produces a guide to railway law for The Man on the Train.

However, in addition to the letters and associated attacks, someone starts mutilating animals in the neighbourhood. George is soon suspected, without any real reason, except that he likes walking round the roads late at night. Special constables are called in but can find nothing, even when they follow George. After one specific attack he is arrested and charged. The evidence is scanty but it is clear that the police have to find a culprit and they do. He has faith in British justice and is very surprised when he is charged, prosecuted, found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. He is released after three years but cannot practice law, as a convicted criminal. Conan Doyle gets wind of the case and charges in. He tries reasoning with the Chief Constable but to no avail. Indeed, the Chief Constable clearly gets the better of him in the argument. But he is the creator of Sherlock Holmes and, as we are told, the best-known author in England after Kipling. Using his fame, he is able to succeed in doing what he cannot do by force of argument.

Barnes tells his story well but much of it is simply biography as told by a novelist as he ratchets up the details of Conan Doyle’s life and career and even the minutiae of the life of Edalji. It is fascinating but, though I have not read the Weaver non-fiction book (scroll down), I have to wonder what Barnes adds, apart from the odd set piece about Edalji (particularly the final scene at the post-mortem spiritualist meeting).

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Vintage