by Kevin Higgins
My review copy of Arthur & George arrived on the morning of Monday, October 10th. The winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize, for which Arthur & George was short-listed, was to be announced that night. It was the third time a Julian Barnes novel had made the list; Flaubert's Parrot got there in 1984, as did England, England in 1998. The publicity sheet accompanying the book announced, "Arthur & George is the odds-on favourite to win this year's Man Booker Prize." It seemed Julian Barnes's moment was at hand. At 11 pm I tuned in to BBC 2 to watch the station's live coverage of the awards ceremony at London's Guildhall. Despite the book's much trumpeted hot-favourite status, it wasn't to be. The surprise winner: John Banville's The Sea. As I watched the ceremony, and listened to the literary equivalent of post-match analysis, it struck me that however successful a writer becomes-and with both critical kudos and a dedicated readership, Julian Barnes is about as successful a novelist as it's possible to be-there will always be those annoying near-miss nights. The Booker Prize ceremony and the annual Galway County Council New Poet of the Year prize-giving evening have more in common than I had previously imagined.
Arthur & George is a fictionalised account of the relationship between Arthur Conan Doyle, the aggressive, eccentric creator of Sherlock Holmes, and George Edalji, the rather pedantic son of an Indian-born Church of England vicar, who instilled in his offspring a desperate wish to be accepted as more English than the English themselves. George's mother is English; she is the niece of the previous vicar, Compson. The residents of Great Wyrley aren't quite ready for this dark-skinned vicar and his mixed-race family. And however much George goes on about England being "the beating heart of the Empire", that isn't about to change.
The novel moves in mostly short chapters, alternately titled "Arthur" and "George", from the two boys' childhoods into their adult lives, and on to the point at which the two men's lives become briefly intertwined. Over a period of years, George's family is victimised by means of a series of poison-pen letters and other increasingly elaborate dirty tricks. The letters include death threats against the young George. "I swear by God that I will murder George Edalji soon," the writer says on one occasion. I know I shouldn't say it, but Julian Barnes's detailing of the dirty tricks sometimes made the schoolboy prankster in me laugh out loud:
"a young red-blooded curate from Norfolk [is] impatient to know why his fellow servant in Christ has summoned him all the way to Staffordshire on a matter of spiritual urgency, perhaps requiring an exorcism . . . Quantities of goods-fifty linen napkins, twelve young pear trees, a baron of beef, fifteen gallons of black paint-are delivered and have to be sent back. Advertisements appear in newspapers offering the Vicarage for rent at such a low price there is an abundance of takers. Stabling facilities are offered; so is horse manure . . . The following day a bailiff arrives to distrain goods in favour of an imaginary debt. Later, a dressmaker from Stafford comes to measure [his child sister] Maud for her wedding dress . . . In the midst of this scene, five oilskin jackets arrive for George."
The Reverend Edalji contacts the local constabulary, but the police do nothing, preferring the theory that the perpetrator is in fact George. Accused of sending death threats to himself, George's Kafkaesque journey begins. It ends with him being falsely convicted, as an adult, for killing cattle at Wyrley, and sentenced to seven years of penal servitude. George is eventually released on license, at which point the famous and wealthy author, Arthur Conan Doyle, becomes his champion. George Edalji's name is cleared, and the Court of Criminal Appeal is set up to avoid such miscarriages of justice in the future. For a time George is something of a celebrity. He is invited to Conan Doyle's wedding, where he feels slightly out place. Julian Barnes is a master of small ironies. His portrayal of Conan Doyle's involvement in the Edalji case is a perfect piece of understated satire on the particular egotism of celebrities-from Vanessa Redgrave to Bob Geldof-who involve themselves in helping the world's unfortunates.
In the early chapters there is a dichotomy between the prim Anglicanism of George's family and the rather lackadaisical Catholicism of Arthur's. By page seven Barnes has George thinking, "he would prefer to stay here, inside, with Mother, with his brother Horace and new sister Maud, until it is time for him to go to heaven and meet Great-Uncle Compson," while Arthur's family are "always moving: half a dozen times in Arthur's first ten years. The flats seem to get smaller as the family grew larger." There is an even starker dichotomy, though, between how English society views George's mixed race background and how it views Arthur's. Despite his desperate efforts to assimilate, George will never be allowed to be English. To be or not to be English is a question more easily resolved for Arthur: "Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth, instructed in the faith of Rome by Dutch Jesuits, Arthur became English."
George's wish to be an Englishman does result in his acquisition of one quintessential middle-class English trait: a polite snobbishness which remains with him for the rest of his life. When his father tells him that he shouldn't look down on the farm boys who attend the same school as him, George doesn't really buy his father's explanation:
"'Blessed are the meek, George. You know the verse.'
But something in George resists this conclusion. He does not think Harry Boam and Arthur Aram are meek. Nor can he believe it to be part of God's eternal plan for His creation that Harry Boam and Arthur Aram shall end up inheriting the earth . . . They are just smelly farm boys, after all."
Throughout his life George Edalji maintains this Tory attitude toward the lower orders, even though he himself had been the victim of vicious prejudice. He quietly resents the fact that after taking up his case, Arthur Conan Doyle moves on to champion the cause of one Oscar Slater, who has been wrongly accused of murder. Slater is "a very low sort, a professional criminal", and though George accepts that he is not guilty of the murder in question, it bothers him to have to constantly listen to his own name being mentioned in the same breath as Slater's.
Arthur Conan Doyle's active belief in spiritualists, mediums and sTances is wickedly and hilariously lampooned in the last section of the book. George sees an advertisement in the Daily Herald for a "Great Meeting" of 6,000 spiritualists to say goodbye to Conan Doyle, who died a few days before. His family, including his wife, will be in attendance. They will sit on a stage, where one chair will be left empty for the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle to occupy, should it so wish: "Lady Conan Doyle . . . asked that there be a demonstration of clairvoyance in the course of the evening. This would be performed by Mrs. Estelle Roberts, who had always been Sir Arthur's favourite medium." Despite his skepticism about such things, George decides to go along. Barnes's description of this scene in the novel's final thirty pages is the dramatic high point. Barnes manages both to poke savage fun at the spiritualists and to sympathetically examine the psychological roots of such things-our need to maintain a connection with those loved ones who have passed on. Julian Barnes is a hugely intelligent writer, whose beautiful wit is always humanely applied; Arthur & George is a great story masterfully told. If Jane Austen's spirit lurks anywhere, it is surely somewhere around his writing desk.