ARTHUR & GEORGE
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, $24.95, 385 pages
Once again, and splendidly, Julian Barnes turns to the life of a great writer to shape a novel.
The Arthur of “Arthur and George,” is the toweringly humane Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The George is one George Edalji, a dark-skinned solicitor who, in 1903, was falsely accused of a series of horrendous animal slashings in a farming village north of Staffordshire.
Using letters and newspapers of the time, government reports and court proceedings along with Conan Doyle’s own writings, Mr. Barnes imagines the meeting of these two very different men. Traversing the darkest sides of human nature, he builds a tale that marries the elements of a good detective story with a more human story. Conan Doyle is the chief beneficiary in all this, emerging here as a faithful husband, an enthusiastic lover and a protector of the downtrodden.
This is a work of historical fiction, and fans of the highly inventive “Flaubert’s Parrot” will no doubt miss some of the experimental bravura of that earlier work. Nevertheless, while this book is attentive to the historical facts of events — and, some would argue, gets bogged down in them — it manages to intrigue and delight at a steady clip. Moreover it revisits an injustice that more than deserves a second look.
Like a good detective story the book opens ominously, describing a small boy’s encounter with a corpse. That small boy is a dutiful young Arthur who the narrator suspects has been subjected to a cold dose of reality, starting with a door has been purposefully left ajar. The omniscient narrator observes, “There might have been a desire to impress upon the child the horror of death; or more optimistically, to show him that death was nothing to be feared. Grandmother’s soul had clearly flown up to Heaven, leaving behind only the sloughed husk of her body. The boy wants to see? Then let the boy see.”
Though George does not have a first memory as vivid as Arthur’s, as the son of vicar, he early on learns the rules. “[H]e is expected to tell the truth because at the Vicarage no alternative exists.
“‘I am the way, the truth and the life’: he is to hear this many times on his father’s lips. The way, the truth and the life. You go on your way through life telling the truth. George knows that this is not what the Bible means, but as he grows up this is how the words sound to him.”
And so each of the boys grow, the first into a beloved son and brother who does well in medical school, takes a wife and becomes, first, a famous writer then a knight. And all the while the second, who hails from a mixed race heritage (his mother is Scottish, and his father an Indian), steadily commits himself to doing well at school, looking after his younger siblings and no running afoul of his very stern father, the highly regarded Vicar of Wyrley.
And so the book proceeds with a long run-up to the central action of the novel, which amounts to, first, the persecution of George’s family through threatening letters on to George’s arrest for the mysterious mutilation of horses on farms near the vicarage.
As George’s life is depicted taking an unfair, long spiral-down trajectory, Arthur’s life seems to move from success to success until his beloved wife Touie is stricken with consumption. At that point, the gallant Arthur is forced to become a caregiver and he does so with utmost gentleness. Before long, he finds love, but because an infidelity is out of the question he must make sure that even his chaste visits with the younger Jean give no one pause.
A number of questions are raised in the book. Who sent the threatening letters to the vicarage? Who killed the animals? Why was George arrested? Worse, how did he come to be found guilty? Why, in spite of horse maimings after George’s imprisonment, was he not released? How did Conan Doyle come to be involved? Did he help? Was George truly vindicated? Did the solicitor find peace in his life? How did things turn out for Conan Doyle?
For the most part, the book is sustained by the rhythm of crime and courtroom, with justice given its due, however belatedly. Apart from the questions central to the book’s subject Mr. Barnes has his characters debate everything from golf to religion to marriage. This is a richly textured book that above all else provides hours of reading pleasure.
Of lingering questions, perhaps only Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, here given some attention, never quite squares with the utterly rational side of his life.
In the end, it is George who, perhaps, evokes a reader’s greater sympathies. After he is released from prison and he has his life back he tries to make sense of it. “From villain to martyr to nobody very much — was this not unfair? His supporters had assured him that his case was as significant as that of Dreyfus, that it revealed as much about England as the Frenchman’s did about France, and just as there had been Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards so were those for and against Edalji.”
But in the end once more, it is Conan Doyle who readers are reminded is the hero. For “in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [George] had as great a defender, and a better writer, than the Frenchman Emile Zola, whose books were reportedly vulgar and who had to run away to England when threatened in his turn with gaol.”
Julian Barnes is, no doubt, in very good company. With the sensitivity reminiscent of the stories in his collection “The Lemon Tree,” Mr. Barnes proves again an able guide to the ironies of mortality.