Julian Barnes’s new novel, Arthur & George, which was shortlisted for Britain’s most prestigious literary prize but failed to win it, links a celebrated historical figure with an unknown one. Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, knight of the realm and creator of detective Sherlock Holmes. George is the utterly obscure but equally real-life George Edalji, son of a late-Victorian Church of England vicar from Bombay. Both of Barnes’s leading characters, then, are in Doyle’s phrase “unofficial Englishmen”–ethnic hybrids with one foot in and one foot out of the Establishment. Arthur is a renowned public figure with an interest in the paranormal and a disreputable father; George is a conventionally minded Englishman of Parsee stock.
Conan Doyle was the son of a feckless Edinburgh alcoholic and raconteur who met his squalid end in a lunatic asylum. Doyle’s background was artistic and bohemian, with a dash of both Scots and Irish. This offbeat pedigree was to take the form of a consuming interest in the occult, despite his hardheaded scientific training. (“Scottish practicality streaked with sudden fire” is how his sister fondly thinks of him.) It is intriguing that Doyle bestowed an Irish surname on Sherlock Holmes’s deadly rival, the sinister Professor Moriarty, who may be evil but who, unlike most Irish characters in Victorian fiction, does not fall over every five minutes shouting “Bejasus!”
George Edalji was born of an Indian father who in time-honored émigré fashion became more English than the English. His mother was a Scot, like Arthur’s ancestors, and he was raised in a morally straitlaced Anglican vicarage with dreams of imperial grandeur. There is a touch of the Brontë sisters about this setup. After all, the Brontës were the daughters of a penniless Irish immigrant who turned himself into an English clerical gent as morally unbending as George’s father. Whereas Arthur’s head is stuffed with chivalry and romance, the impeccably bourgeois George, who becomes a lawyer, publishes a book with the enthralling title Railway Law.
The story this novel has to tell of George is that of his relentless, subtly vicious persecution by anonymous figures in his Midlands community. This harrowing nightmare is rendered all the more powerful by the level, dispassionate tones in which Barnes recounts it. Hoaxes, obscene letters, unwanted deliveries of useless articles, police harassment: All of this, which George in his respectable middle-class way steadfastly refuses to attribute to racism, culminates in his being framed for mutilating cattle and sentenced to penal servitude for seven years. At this point in the novel, the separate careers of Arthur and George converge, as the former launches a campaign on behalf of the latter. An author’s note informs us that “George Edalji died…on 17th June 1953; the cause of death was given as coronary thrombosis.” The perpetrator of the cattle mutilations was never discovered.
And that, more or less, is that. Arthur & George is a beautifully crafted novel, as one would expect from a virtuoso like Barnes, who can make a rounded portrait out of a few sparse brush strokes. Arthur’s dipsomaniac father “would be brought home, dribbling into his beard, by cabmen whose insistence on being paid would wake the children; the next morning he would lament at maudlin length his inability to support those he loved so tenderly.” Thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed, the book brings alive the cultural ethos of late-Victorian Britain, a world of brickworks and vicarages, school cricket grounds and gentlemen’s clubs. The child George is taught by his father that England is “the beating heart of the Empire,” and that “the blood that flows through the arteries and veins of the Empire” is the Church of England.
Yet the book, for all its compulsive readability, is also curiously depthless. There is a gulf between its fine attention to historical detail and its rather inconsequential subject matter. The difference between documentation and fiction is not primarily one between the true and the imaginary. Novels can contain lots of historical facts and still be novels. It is a question of what they make of them. “Fiction” does not mean untrue: It means pressing actual facts into the service of some symbolic or conceptual pattern, so that they achieve a deeper resonance and come to speak of more than just themselves.
It is here that Arthur & George fails to deliver. It is not that the book does not try to pluck something “meaningful” from this bald historical record. Lurking beneath the narrative are reflections on truth and fiction, the parallel between the artist and the detective, the instability of facts and the sweated labor involved in distinguishing charlatanry from the genuine article. Perhaps what we see, as with spiritualism, is a shadowy symptom of some underlying world that is more real than the observable one; or perhaps what you see is what you get. In the end, the novel is more about epistemology than Edalji. Just as it mixes fiction and fact in its form, so it broods upon their vexed relation in content. Sherlock Holmes is an imaginary character often mistaken for an actual one. But the instability of truth is the merest cliché of postmodern art, and Barnes has little to add to it. There is indeed an “idea” in the book, to render it more than mere documentation, but it does not adequately inform its materials.
Still, there are some splendid local touches. When George is consigned to prison, he learns from a fellow inmate that Jews are sent to a special prison with a rather softer regime. The result is that it can be hard to distinguish between real Jews and “prison Jews,” those who assumed Judaism to give themselves an easier ride behind bars. George is photographed by the prison authorities, told to grow a beard and photographed again, in case he escapes and grows one as a disguise. There is no doubt, either, that miscarriages of justice interest the British these days, after a series of infamous cases in which police lied through their teeth to put innocent men and women behind bars as supposed IRA bombers. One difference between the British and other Europeans is that the British used to trust their police and now do not, while their more sagacious Continental colleagues never did in the first place.
Toward the end of the novel, there is a lengthy, exquisitely nuanced, wonderfully subtle conversation between Doyle and a senior police officer, ranging in topic from race and religion to Oscar Wilde and the nature of moral guilt, which is testimony in itself to Barnes’s extraordinary artistry. Yet Doyle’s meteoric rise through the British Establishment, as a friend of the king, champion of the Empire and illustrious public figure, is more reported than dramatized. The spotlight shifts instead to his notoriously tangled love life, which this reviewer at least found less fascinating than his public involvements. Perhaps it is known as middle age. There is a great deal to be admired in this lucid, sophisticated narrative, but one can see why it didn’t win the Man Booker Prize.