Book Review: Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

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Arthur and George, Julian Barnes, (Vintage 2006 RRP £8.99 450p)

Warning…if you, and I hope this applies to all my readers, are the sort of person to abhor a miscarriage of justice, then reading this book will almost certainly cause you to utter a silent scream that you secretly hope will reverberate back through the ages to the ears of George Edaliji sitting in his cell, so he will know that somewhere people are feeling for, and thinking of, him. And if you are the sort of person, and I hope that at least half my readers are, to have cried at the Van Gogh Dr. Who episode, then you will probably find yourself imagining a similar episode involving Matt Smith dragging poor George back through a time portal to show him this novel in bookshops, and how much the world has changed, and how we try not to let things like this happen any more. If I did have a Tardis, I would perhaps have liked to travel back a hundred years or so, buy him a cup of tea, and tell him about a time in the not so distant future when it is hard to imagine the court of appeal not existing.

Arthur and George could not have been living more different lives. Arthur has been lifted from his life as a struggling eye doctor and transformed into a literary celebrity through his creation of Sherlock Holmes. George is the victim of one of the most incredible miscarriages of justice, ‘The Great Wyrley Outrages’. Personally, I found it hard to get beyond the smallness of George’s life, and how little he wanted from it, so used as I am to reading about great men and women, and egotistical fictional characters who demand that their adventures be the centre of my life for a week or two. Arthur comes to resent his own demandingly famous creation, and to a lesser extent his ill wife, and the resulting thirteen years of celibacy forced on him. During that time he meets a Miss Jean Leckie, and begins a decade long, ‘honourable’ affair. Arthur’s wife dies, and he finds himself experiencing an existential crisis, then he reads about George…

George is a half Indian solicitor who had just served three years in prison for slashing horses and sending malicious letters, despite being so short sighted that the chances of him locating a horse in a field at night were almost zero. The local police did not let this get in the way of their enthusiastic evidence gathering and finger pointing. George is the son of the local vicar, and his family had suffered years of torment at the hands of an anonymous malicious letter writer. At George’s trial, the prosecution claimed that George was the writer of some of those letters. Released after serving three of his seven year sentence, George was not cleared. Even after Arthur’s involvement, the Home Office refused to clear him of sending the abusive letters, so the novel has no neat, feel good ending.

Unfortunately, the life of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan-Doyle just isn’t that, well, interesting. If he hadn’t had the winning combination of luck and ability, and created one of the most enduring and recognisable characters in fiction, then he would just have been an unknown, moderately successful doctor. Likewise, if George had not had the misfortune to attract the attention of first a malicious and petty criminal, then the local police, he would have remained an obscure provincial solicitor. Life has a funny habit of bringing people together, and Arthur and George are perhaps the most unlikely such couple, unlikely enough to warrant someone telling their story.

Arthur and George is a very well written book, but I couldn’t help thinking that it might have made an elegant novella rather than a hefty 450 page tome. It got fabulous reviews, but I found myself losing interest quickly, and finishing was a struggle. Barnes’ recreation of the lives of the two men is a great achievement, and must have required painstaking research, and I found George’s stifling provincial existence particularly engaging. I picked up this novel from my love of Sherlock Holmes, and I was expecting a detective story. What I got was a character study with a crime sub-plot, and the part of the book that interested me was George, while I felt strangely repelled by Arthur. This is Arthur Conan-Doyle’s real life Sherlock Holmes adventure, but it couldn’t be further from one of his swift, elegantly plotted tales, and I can’t help wondering if the reason why I found it so difficult to read at times was because it exposes some of the dark under-currents that flow beneath the complex, engaging plots of the Nineteenth Century novels that are so beloved by me.

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