Review of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Please Share:

Book Review of Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

As the creator of one of the most uniquely enduring of fictional characters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life has proven to be a source of endless fascination. His interest with spiritualism and the turbulent relationship with his most famous creation, which led to him pitching Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls at the height of his popularity and then reluctantly resurrecting him, have all been well documented; it would seem there’s little mystery left – but in his latest novel Julian Barnes has chosen to focus on a lesser known aspect of the man’s character. 

Doyle himself published an account of the time when he found himself playing detective in a real case – in his attempt to clear the name of George Edalji, a solicitor falsely accused of mutilating animals – but Barnes sheds new light on this incident and as a result on the man himself.

The novel begins by alternating the upbringings of these two men. Arthur attends public school and studies medicine at Edinburgh; while he comes from a well-off Scottish background, his father is an alcoholic, a vice which eventually sees him committed to an institution.

George, on the other hand, is the mixed race son of a Parsee vicar living a spare existence in a Midlands village, he diligently studies to be a solicitor and successfully publishes a small legal volume (on railway law) but never really fits in to the community. At one point the Edaljis are subjected to a bizarre hate campaign – hoax letters and strange items delivered to their door – though the source of this harassment is never really clear and it stops as abruptly as it started. 

The book changes gear once George begins to be suspected in The Great Wyrley Outrages, a series of ‘rippings’ and mutilations of farm animals. The evidence against him is sketchy at best but nonetheless he is imprisoned for the crimes, serving three years of a seven year sentence.

To the authorities’ embarrassment the incidents of mutilation continue whilst George is in prison though this does little to encourage them to reopen his case. It is at this point that Doyle steps in, with the intention of proving the innocence of the man, of clearing Edalji’s name so that he can re-enter the legal profession and regain some semblance of normality in his life. 

The press of his day seemed happy to conflate the character of Sherlock Holmes with that of his creator – going some way to explain the animosity Doyle felt towards he of the aquiline nose and Meerschaum pipe – and Doyle was forever turning down requests to get involved with criminal cases. Barnes doesn’t really reveal what it was about Edalji’s case that made him change his policy on such matters, other than a sense of a wrong that needed to be righted.

In fact he takes care to point out that Doyle was not Holmes; there are some wonderful scenes where the two men are about to meet for the first time and Doyle is conscious of trying to use Holmes’ methods of deduction – and therefore the methods of Joseph Bell the forensic surgeon who inspired Holmes – to make assessments about Edalji. 

This is richly detailed (too much so apparently for Natasha Walter in the Guardian) and evidently impeccably researched book; both warmer and more accessible than you expect from Barnes. He combines Edalji’s narrative with much of interest about Doyle’s relationship with his mother (forever referred to with the definite article; as “The Mam”), his first wife Touie who died of tuberculosis and his long and unusual courtship of Jean Leckie, the woman who would become his second wife, though their relationship began long before Touie’s death.

There is also a strangely poignant epilogue that further explores Victorian ‘spiritism’ and provides a level of closure not supplied by the main narrative itself – real events proving disappointingly anticlimactic – the true culprits behind the animal mutilations never being satisfactorily captured. 

With Arthur and George, Barnes has created a real literary treat, something that lies midway between biography and novel; a book that Robert Winder so accurately described in the New Statesman as “a delicious adventure in reading, writing and truth-telling.” It’s also worth mentioning that the book itself is wonderfully presented, cloth-bound in mustard yellow. Whether or not you feel this smacks of, as the Guardian put it, cod-Edwardian “whimsy,” it’s unarguably appealing.

Buy Arthur & George by Julian Barnes on Amazon

Please Share: