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Book Review - Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Righting The Wrongs

Arthur & George
Julian Barnes

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Review by W. R. Greer

We all know Arthur Conan Doyle as the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The detective is more famous than the author, something that even rankled Arthur Conan Doyle during his lifetime. In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes gives us a fictional re-creation of his life. To place it in the proper historical perspective, Julian Barnes also gives us the story of George Edalji, the son of a vicar in Great Wyrley, a country parish full of farmers and miners. The novel moves back and forth telling the story of these two men, and how the intersection of their lives changed both their lives and English society as well.

Arthur and George were two vastly different men. George Edalji's father was a Parsee from India who converted to the Anglican Church, and his mother was Scottish. George never thought of himself as anything other than English, although the Edalji family was an ill fit in the English countryside. George was a quiet boy, with no friends or social life outside of his family. He was intelligent and very nearsighted. Life in the vicarage was simple, and George never had toys or any luxuries. He was an easy target for bullies and ruffians, and for a period of several years near the end of the 19th century, some person or persons harassed the family with anonymous letters and constant pranks. The police, suspicious of anyone different or odd, blamed it all on George, even accusing him of sending himself the anonymous letters.

Arthur grew up in a Catholic family. His father was a drunkard who couldn't support his family, and his mother was the driving force behind his life whose strength and determination held the family together. From an early age, Arthur was determined to be successful at whatever he tried so his family would never want for anything again. As he grew into manhood, he left behind religion and embraced science. He became an ophthalmologist, but a lack of patients gave him the opportunity to indulge another passion, writing. The creation of Sherlock Holmes gave Arthur all the wealth he could imagine. He was also a man devoted to honor and chivalry, often remarking that he really should have lived in the 14th century, where those values lived among the knights of the realm. He married a woman he nicknamed Touie, who always agreed to whatever Arthur proposed, dutifully following him wherever his life took him, and raising his children.

George eventually became a solicitor, enjoying the minutiae of contract law. He still lived with his family in the vicarage, sharing a bedroom with his father since his sister took ill as a girl. George lacked friends, and girlfriends, and lived a simple life of family and work. The letters and pranks had stopped for a 7-year period, but they suddenly began again. In addition, someone was cruelly murdering farm animals and using the anonymous letters to threaten police and young girls in the area. The chief constable knew he had to catch whoever was committing the crimes, so they turned to their old suspect, George Edalji. Slowly they built a case against George and charged him with a crime. Their evidence was circumstantial, some of their experts were of dubious quality, and every odd behavior or comment George ever made was used against him. He was convicted and sent to prison.

Arthur's fame and fortune continued to grow. Touie became ill with consumption, and Arthur did everything he could to minimize its effect on her, moving her to warmer climates and building a house especially for her. Touie lived for years in her weakened state, and Arthur did everything proper for his wife. Then he met and immediately fell in love with Jean. Arthur realized that he didn't love Touie, but he never wanted to bring her any pain or discomfort. His duty was to his wife and he must live his life with honor, but he couldn't live without Jean. It tore him apart, both remaining steadfastly faithful to Touie and longing to spend every platonic minute with Jean. Julian Barnes explains Arthur's dilemma when he realized Touie's condition was stable and she was comfortable in the house he had built for her:

He cannot wish for her death; equally, he cannot wish for Jean's impossible position to continue without end. If he believed in one of the established religions, he would doubtless put everything in the hands of God; but he cannot do this. Touie must continue to receive the best medical attention and the strongest domestic support in order that Jean's suffering may continue as long as possible. If he takes any action, he is a brute. If he tells Touie, he is a brute. If he breaks off with Jean, he is a brute. If he makes her mistress, he is a brute. If he does nothing, he is merely a passive, hypocritical brute vainly holding on to as much honour as he can.
At a low point in his life, Arthur receives a newspaper article about George Edalji. It's not unusual since he's constantly receiving requests for him, or more likely, Sherlock Holmes, to solve real mysteries or undo a miscarriage of justice. He immediately seizes upon the obvious errors in George's prosecution and sets about to prove his innocence.

Arthur & George expertly captures the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a larger-than-life man driven by boundless energy and high ideals who championed underdog causes and constantly strove to understand his world and make it a better place. Surprisingly, Julian Barnes also brings George Edalji to life. This man, whom most people would consider an odd fellow or socially handicapped, becomes a sympathetic character. His quiet, unassuming life is the life he's chosen, and one his criminal conviction threatens to completely destroy. He draws on an inner strength that sustains him through his ordeal. The two men symbolize the two extremes of English gentlemen. Arthur is an active man, exploring, serving his country when called, expanding his horizons and upholding the honor of his name and country. George is a silent-suffering man, keeping that proverbial stiff upper lip and a wait-and-see attitude. He wants to believe that right will always triumph over wrong, and is willing to live his life without disturbing his neighbors or have his neighbors disturb him.

Through these two men and the story they share, Julian Barnes also brings to life England at the turn of the century. It's a time when the sun never sets on the English empire and the exploration of both science and the physical world is expected behavior for English gentlemen. It's also an era of change. Women are clamoring for the right to vote (George is for it, Arthur is against it). In many aspects, both men are a mix of the end of one era and the dawn of a new century. Arthur is conservative in his views of marriage, childrearing, and women's rights, yet he explores the afterlife and spiritualism. He considers religion an old relic that will be cast off once science explains life after death. The most important thing in George's life is his family, yet he gladly leaves the country behind for an independent life in London. As each man grows and overcomes the challenges life places before him, England as whole must overcome the challenges of the new century.

Arthur & George succeeds on many levels. Besides the unfolding of the lives of these two men and the depiction of England a century ago, Julian Barnes touches on timeless themes. George's conviction based on circumstantial evidence is chilling when it is shown how any behavioral trait can be used to explain criminal intent or guilt. George was convicted more for who he was than any evidence that pointed to his guilt. Arthur struggles with love and responsibility. Julian Barnes ties it all together, weaving their stories within the confines of the era and the universal challenges of life, love, and family. It's an engrossing story, expertly told, and enthused with the idea that with men like Arthur Conan Doyle, some of the miscarriages of life can be undone.

Copyright © 2006

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