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.