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Arthur & George    by Julian Barnes order for
Arthur & George
by Julian Barnes
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Julian Barnes writes a fictional account of a true story in early twentieth century Britain, involving Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - doctor and famed author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries - and country solicitor George Edalji, whose father was a Parsi vicar and his mother Scottish. Barnes portrays their religious beliefs, family life and ancestry, education, and social standing - as well as the sequence of events that brings the two together together.

Both began in poor, close-knit families. Arthur's includes sisters and a brother, with a staunch Mam and a neglectful, alcoholic father. Uncles provide Arthur with an education in a strict Jesuit school at Stonyhurst, with 'emphatic beatings' to instill lessons. Arthur becomes a 'boisterous youth' consoled by his love of the library and cricket. From his Mam he learns chivalrous and romantic stories, firing his love of the 14th century and knights of glory. 'Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth, instructed in the faith of Rome by Dutch Jesuits ... Arthur became English by elected choice ... inspired by its freedoms, and history.' A doctor and poet, Bryan Charles Waller, tutors Arthur to enter studies in medicine at Edinburgh University. Arthur doctors in Sheffield, Shropshire, and Birmingham, and for a period as a surgeon on a stem-whaler. (He falls into the sea so often the crew dubs him 'Great Northern Diver'.)

Setting up practice in Southsea, Doyle meets Louisa Hawkins, whom he courts, nicknames Touie, and marries in 1885. They have a son and a daughter. Even though Arthur's mainstay is medicine (he later studies ophthalmology in Vienna, writing becomes his true desire. From magazine articles, Arthur graduates to mystery and a protagonist who can be depended upon for 'regular and diverse adventures', a consulting detective first named Sheridan Hope, then Sherringford Holmes, and finally Sherlock Holmes, (His original plans for Sherlock Holmes were for two years of life - three at most - then to kill him off, and return to historical novels.) When Touie is diagnosed with tuberculosis, they move from damp London to Hindhead, referred to as 'the Little Switzerland of Surrey'. There Arthur settles his family at what becomes known as Undershaw.

Approaching thirty-eight, Arthur is smitten with twenty-one-year old Jean Leckie. His love for her remains platonic, as he throws himself into work and his growing interest in 'Spiritism - scientific origins and procedures of psychical research'. This latter passion includes metaphysics, thought-transference, seances, telepathy, and laws of physical phenomena. Sir Arthur behaves impeccably with Touie, and finally admits to himself in a devastating sentence that 'He has loved his wife as best a man can, given that he did not love her.' Of his assignations with Jean, Arthur muses, 'It is impossible for him not to love Jean ... It is impossible for him to divorce Touie, whom he still regards with affection and respect ... it is impossible to turn the affair into an intrigue by making Jean his mistress.' After Touie's death 1906, Arthur falls into immense lethargy, until a package arrives with the return address of George Edalji ...

George Edalji is shy in demeanor, and is told by more than one classmate, 'You're not a right sort'. George lives at the Vicarage in Shropshire with his Parsee father, Vicar Shapurji Edalji, his Scots-born mother Charlotte, a frail younger sister and a brother. In 1903, the half-Indian Edaljis are made scapegoats in Great Wyrley. This is mainly aimed at George in the form of anonymous calls and letters. He is accused of writing the obscene, threatening letters himself - to his own family. Unordered goods are delivered to the Vicarage, and there are insulting advertisements in the newspaper. The Vicar goes to the police for help, but is disbelieved. When a large key is found on the family's doorstep and traced to a theft in Walsall, sixteen-year old George is questioned about involvement in the crime. After two years of persecution, just as suddenly as it began, it suddenly stops.

George graduates to study law, and later opens his own law office. His interest centers on railway law, about which he publishes a book. His daily routine is precise, his life focused on work and family. When George has been practicing law four years, Inspector Campbell and Chief Constable Anson meet to discuss horrendous acts of animal mutilations occurring in surrounding areas. In August of 1903, George is arrested. Firmly believing in English justice, he trusts that he will be acquitted since the evidence is circumstantial at best. But a verdict of guilty is returned, with a sentence of seven years of penal servitude. The verdict invokes a public outcry, with 10,000 petitioners including solicitors and members of Parliament. After George serves three years of his seven-year sentence, a sudden discharge is issued.

Anxious to resume his law career, in desperation George sends Arthur a chronicle of the accusations, trial, and subsequent incarceration. Shaken out of his depression, Arthur examines the Edalji case records, and immediately travels to Clengrossing to clear George's name and seek compensation for him. When George inquires of Arthur, 'you think me innocent?', the latter replies, 'No, I do not think you are innocent. No, I do not believe you are innocent. I know you are innocent.' In discussion with George about whether there is 'a religious justification for my suffering', Arthur profoundly answers, 'Man is on the verge of elaborating the truths of psychical law as he has for centuries been elaborating the truths of physical law. When these truths come to be accepted, our whole way of living - and dying - will have to be rethought from first principles ... We shall understand more deeply the processes of life ... realize that death is not a door closed in our face. but a door left ajar. And by the time that new millennium begins, I believe we shall have a greater capacity for happiness and fellow-feeling than ever before in mankind's frequently miserable existence.'

A suspenseful display of personal pain, loss, and betrayal, Julian Barnes' account of George's ordeal at the hands of the law takes on a harrowing, fatalistic momentum. The intertwined lives of Edalji and Conan Doyle form a fraternal biography of both men, who come together in a criminal case in which one fell 'prey to racism and class consciousness' in an obvious 'miscarriage of justice'. Barnes deftly scrutinizes the inner lives of Arthur and George as individuals. At a leisurely, conversational pace, Barnes gains the reader's sympathy and empathy for both the victim and his advocate. Arthur & George is an absorbing, flawlessly-crafted novel, based on a true incident. Though this is the first of Julian Barnes' books I have read, it will not be my last.

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