Review : Arthur & George by Julian Barnes


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2005

Plot Summary :

While Arthur ( Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ) does not need any introduction , George will definitely need one . George Edalji ( pronounced Ay-dl-ji ) , an English solicitor  was the son of the Vicar of  Great Wyrley , Shapurji Edalji . Shapurji was a Parsi convert from India who married a woman of Scottish descent and the niece of a brother clergyman . Wikipedia says that the appointment to the position of  Vicar at St . Mark ‘ s  ( Great Wyrley ) was a wedding present from Mrs . Edalji ‘ s uncle .

When the Edaljis begin to receive vicious anonymous letters , the family puts it down to racial prejudice . They appeal to the police , to no less than the Chief Constable , but to their dismay he appears to suspect George of being the letters’ author . Then someone starts slashing horses and livestock  . Again George becomes a key suspect for the GW police force who seem to set their eyes no farther than the Vicarage and its inhabitants , primarily George who has acquired some Boo Radley-esque reputation among the members of the local police force , thanks to the Chief Constable ‘ s wariness about his Parsi antecedents .   After a particularly gruesome slashing of a pit – pony , he is arrested and , on the flimsiest evidence , sent to trial , found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ hard labour . However , he was  released after serving  three years . . .

Arthur is mourning his first wife ( having been in love for the past ten years with the woman who was to become his second ) when he gets to know about the Edjali case from an ‘obscure newspaper article ‘ which was a statement of the case . Atleast that ‘ s what , he would say in his autobiography . Actually , George wrote to him a covering letter enclosing all the relevant newspaper articles including the one Arthur referred to in his autobiography .  Incensed at this obvious miscarriage of justice , Arthur steps into the shoes of his creation , Sherlock Holmes and clears George ‘ s name and even gives the name of the man who could be a better candidate as a suspect for livestock maiming and also writing the vicious , sometimes even blasphemous letters  . . .

My thoughts on the book :

Julian Barnes does a fantastic job of delving into the psyche of his central characters , considering the fact that both of them were REAL men . . . Another reason why this might be almost a feat is that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the most famous men in his times – while it might easier to research about this man , the same can ‘ t be said of portraying this man ‘ s psyche convincingly . The author needs to bring the REAL Sir Arthur on the paper and not some man who looked like Sir Arthur and sounded too much like his famous detective which would have been the case with any less competent author . It would have been only too tempting and an easy work to endow the creator of a fictional character with some of the characteristics of his creation itself  because , readers are only too used to equating the creator itself as the primary inspiration for the character .

When it comes to George Edalji , I suspect that the author might as well have been on his own , considering that all that came from this case was infamy . They don ‘ t report the character profiles  of  the  defendants in a case , you know  . . . Post Sir Arthur clearing George ‘ s name , after making a lot of noise , the young solicitor was happy to return to his practice and was not interested in grabbing the opportunities like addressing meetings , writing to the newspapers or give interviews which his new found fame afforded . . .

The detailed research is evident from the writing which subtly hints at the aspects of Doyle ‘ s life which do not concern the primary narrative threads like Doyle working on the Edalji case or his ‘ love story ‘ with his to – be – second – wife . I  feel that the implication is that the second Lady Conan Doyle was somewhat pretentious and very keen to ingratiate herself with the family members closest to her would – be husband  prior to their marriage  . My guess was proved correct when I read several articles how she was the fairy-tale stepmother who would not have Sir Arthur allow even the most simple requests from his daughter Mary Conan Doyle ( from his first marriage . . ) . Perhaps , his fight for justice for several others like George , might help the public impression of  a champion of justice but it does little to assuage the feeling that his conduct towards the children of his first marriage was not very honorable .

While several others in Sir Arthur ‘ s closest circle could discern that Miss Leckie was not the angel as Sir Arthur made her out to be after some time , the man ‘ in love ‘  could not discern even the slightest hint of it , even after eight years of clandestine courtship . This extract is about the feelings of Alfred H. Wood  – a friend , private secretary and business manager  to Sir Arthur . . .

He thought it might take him a while to adjust himself to Miss Leckie – though he doubted she would still be using her maiden name by the end of the next twelvemonth . He would serve the second Lady Conan Doyle as assiduously as he had served the first one ; though with less immediate wholeheartedness . He was not sure how much he liked Jean Leckie . This was , he knew quite unimportant . You did not , as a schoolmaster , have to like the headmaster ‘s wife . And he would never be required to give his opinion . But over the eight or nine years she had been coming to Undershaw , he had often caught himself wondering if there was not something a little false about her . At a certain moment  she had become aware of his importance in the daily running of Sir Arthur ‘ s life ; whereupon she had made a point a point of being agreeable to him . More than agreeable . A hand had been placed upon his arm , and she had even in imitation of Sir Arthur , called him Woodie . He thought this  intimacy she had failed to earn . Even Mrs Doyle – as he always thought of her – would not call him that .

[ . . . ] it seemed to Wood that sports played you a lot straighter than most women .

Talking about failing to spot the obvious ( atleast a man in love might be excused ) , one thing which intrigued and somewhat impressed me about George Edalji is the fact he did not play the racial – prejudice card . He could have very well done so if he had wished it . There were , in fact ,  a few who were biased against the Edalji family ( unsurprisingly ) , which Sir Doyle and the others fighting for George could discern easily but George himself continuously denied it . In this day and age when people are quick to take offense and quite often , interpret any random incident as having ” hurt their sentiments greatly ” ( I don ‘ t want to deflect into politics and the new norm of what can be or cannot be deemed as offensive . . .  ) , George Edalji is and will be a rarity I guess .

Here is George ‘ s  argument on why racial bias was not a factor in his case  :

” I was brought up as an English man . I went to school , I studied the law, I did my articles , I became a solicitor . Did anyone try to hold me back from this progress ? On the contrary . My schoolmasters encouraged me , my partners at Sangster , Vickery & Speight took notice of me , my father ‘ s congregation uttered words of praise when I qualified . No clients refused my advice at Newhall Street on the grounds of my origin . “

[ . . . ] There have been as I said , occasional slights . There were teasings and jokes . I am not so naive as to be unaware that some people look at me differently . I am a lawyer , Sir Arthur . What evidence do I have that anyone has acted against me because of race prejudice ? Sergeant Upton used to try and frighten me , but no doubt he frightened other boys as well .  ” 

Sir Doyle ‘ s affair raised an interesting question for me to ponder about – Why is that a man needs a dutiful and obedient wife who shadows him during the early years when he is working towards realizing his dreams and climbing the social ladder and when he finally achieved everything he had dreamed for , he starts to look for ‘ intelligence ‘ in his partner and wants her to walk along his side ( when the wife was always walking a step behind him in all these years of their marriage . . . ) There have been umpteen fictional affairs where a successful man falls for another much younger woman  because the lady can hold a conversation ‘ intellectually ‘. Duh!!

I specially loved the narrative style of showing  how the formative years and the lives of both the men had been in stark contrast by switching the chapters between the two men – Arthur grows up with the ambition of providing adequately for this family when he is grown – up having been a witness to the family ‘ s genteel poverty from an early age . George seemingly does not have any high ambitions but is happy to do the job he loves .  Arthur , from an early age , is groomed to be the ” man of the house ” ; George , on the other hand  does not have the responsibility to look out for his family ‘s finances . If there is any expectation from George , it is to have a decent career ; Arthur  is not happy in the marriage when his wife becomes terminally ill and begins an affair with a much younger woman . George ” aspires to that situation ” in his 30 s but comfortably settles down as a bachelor because ” he has seen too much in his practice ” . . .

Final thoughts :

This was one of the best reads of the year for me and is highly recommended from me . There were a few characters like Horace Edalji about whom I wanted to know how they turned out in detail but I understand that this book is about When Arthur Met George ( or should it be the other way round ? ) . I might pick up more of Julian Barnes ‘ work . . Also , the questions which the book raised , the introduction to this milestone case and the wonderful writing easily make this book stand out from all the other reads this year .

Here is one of my favourite passages from the book  which I MUST quote:

” He [ George ] would have sent them [ his parents ] on a dismal journey of self questioning . Today , we know George and we know him innocent . But perhaps in three months : we think we know George and we believe him innocent . And then in a year : we realize we did not know George , yet we still think him innocent . Who could blame anyone for this declension ? “

Rating : 4 / 5

If you have already read the book , let me know in the comments section about your thoughts on the book  . . . Until the next review then . .

Articles you might want to have a look at –

Adultery, my dear Watson: Writer betrayed his dying wife with younger lover

Revealed: the cruelty of Conan Doyle to his eldest daughter

Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia