Synopses & Reviews
From one of England's most esteemed novelists, an utter astonishment that captures an era through one life celebrated internationally and another entirely forgotten.
In the vast expanse of late-Victorian Britain, two boys come to life: George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, in shabby genteel Edinburgh, both of them feeling at once near to and impossibly distant from the beating heart of Empire. One falls prey to a series of pranks en route to a legal vocation, while the other studies medicine before discovering a different calling entirely, and it is years before their destinies are entwined in a mesmerizing alliance. We follow each through outrageous accusation and unrivaled success, through faith and perseverance and dogged self-recrimination, whether in the dock awaiting complete disgrace or at the height of fame while desperately in love with a woman not his wife, and gradually realize that George is half-Indian and that Arthur becomes the creator of the world's most famous detective. Ranging from London clubs to teeming prisons, from a lost century to the modern age, this novel is a panoramic revelation of things we thought we knew or else had no clue of, as well as a gripping exploration of what goals drive us toward whatever lies in wait an experience resounding with issues, no less relevant today, of crime and spirituality; of identity and nationality; of what we think, what we believe and what we can prove.
Intriguing, relentless and, most of all, moving, Arthur and George richly extends the reach and achievement of a novelist described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as "a dazzling mind in mercurial flight."
"Arthur is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physician, sportsman, gentleman par excellence and the inventor of Sherlock Holmes; George is George Edalji, also a real, if less well-known person, whose path crossed not quite fatefully with the famous author's. Edalji was the son of a Parsi father (who was a Shropshire vicar), and a Scots mother. In 1903, George, a solicitor, was accused of writing obscene, threatening letters to his own family and of mutilating cattle in his farm community. He was convicted of criminal behavior in a blatant miscarriage of justice based on racial prejudice. Eventually, Sir Arthur ('Irish by ancestry, Scottish by birth') heard about George's case and began to advocate on his behalf. In this combination psychological novel, detective story and literary thriller, Barnes elegantly dissects early 20th-century English society as he spins this true-life story with subtle and restrained irony. Every line delivered by the many charactersthe two principals, their school chums (Barnes sketches their early lives), their families and many incidentalsrings with import. His dramatization of George's trial, in particular, grinds with telling minutiae, and his portrait of Arthur is remarkably rich, even when tackling Doyle's spiritualist side. Shortlisted for the Booker, this novel about love, guilt, identity and honor is a triumph of storytelling, taking the form Barnes perfected in Flaubert's Parrot (1985) and stretching it yet again." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[D]eeply satisfying....The precision of the style suits the decorum of the period and serves to underline the warm, impulsive generosity of Doyle's support, which saved an innocent man from ruin. A triumph." Kirkus Reviews
"[F]ascinating....What appears to have been a 'footnote in legal history' is the source for a stunning literary achievement." Seattle Times
"Barnes's writing is, as usual, masterly....Facts are interpreted, then reinterpreted; the bigoted speak convincingly; nothing turns out quite as expected; and even the book's coda delivers a final shock." Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"Though Arthur and George is smoothly written and professionally assembled, it's a ponderous performance crammed full of historical research and re-creations of period details and overstuffed with evidence relating to George's legal case." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"The results are mostly admirable, as Barnes has created brilliantly intimate portraits....Arthur and George will greatly please those who want a Dickensian sprawl of a novel with one or two heroes and a sometimes thrilling story line." Boston Globe
"A beautifully modulated work; highly recommended." Library Journal
"[A] finely evocative historical novel as well as a morally and psychologically astute glimpse into the worlds of two men." Los Angeles Times
"While Arthur is the more colorful character...Barnes' George, thoughtful and cautious, is the greater creation, a tragic yet strangely noble little figure who may linger in your memory long after you have closed this marvelous book. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
About the Author
Julian Barnes is the author of nine novels, including Flaubert's Parrot, A History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, and England, England, which was shortlisted for the 1998 Booker Prize. He is also the author of Something to Declare and Letters from London, as well as two collections of short stories, Cross Channel and The Lemon Table. He lives in London, England.
Reading Group Guide
The discussion questions, topics, and suggested reading that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Arthur & George,
Julian Barnes’s moving account of the intersection of the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle, world-famous writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor imprisoned for dreadfully gruesome crimes.
1. One of the first things we learn about George is that “For a start, he lacks imagination” (4). George is deeply attached to the facts, while early in life Arthur discovers the “essential connection between narrative and reward” (12). How does this temperamental difference determine their approaches to life? Does Barnes use Arthur and George to explore the very different attractions of truth telling and storytelling?
2. What qualities does the Mam encourage in Arthur? How does Arthur’s upbringing compare with George’s? What qualities are encouraged in George by his parents? What does the novel imply about one’s parents as a determinant in character development?
3. To what degree do George’s parents try to overlook or deny the social difficulties their mixed marriage has produced for themselves and their children? Are they admirable in their determination to ignore the racial prejudice to which they are subjected?
4. Critic Peter Kemp has commented on Julian Barnes’s interest in fiction that “openly colonises actuality—especially the lives of creative prodigies” (London Times, 26 June 2005). In Arthur & George, the details we read about Arthur’s life are largely true. While the story of George Edalji is an obscure chapter of Doyle’s life, its details as presented here are also based on the historical record. What is the effect, for the reader, when an author blurs the line between fiction and biography, or fiction and history?
5. From early on in a life shaped by stories, Arthur has identified with tales of knights: “If life was a chivalric quest, then he had rescued the fair Touie, he had conquered the city, and been rewarded with gold. . . . What did a knight errant do when he came home to a wife and two children in South Norwood?” (60). Is it common to find characters like Arthur in our own day? How have the ideas of masculinity changed between Edwardian times and the present?
6. George has trouble believing that he was a victim of race prejudice (235). Why is this difficult for him to believe? Is it difficult for him to imagine that others don’t see him as he sees himself? Does George’s misfortune seem to be juxtaposed ironically with his family’s firm belief in the Christian faith?
7. The small section on pages 79–80, called “George & Arthur” describes an unnamed man approaching a horse in a field on a cold night. What is the effect of this section, coming into the novel when it does, and named as it is?
8. Inspector Campbell tells Captain Anson that the man who did the mutilations would be someone who was “accustomed to handling animals” (84); this assumption would clearly rule out George. Yet George is pursued as the single suspect. Campbell also notes that Sergeant Upton is neither intelligent nor competent at his job (86). What motivates Campbell as he examines George’s clothing and his knife, and proceeds to have George arrested (102–7)?
9. George’s lawyer, Mr. Meek, is amused at George’s sense of outrage when he reads the factual errors and outright lies in the newspapers’ reports of his case (119–20; 122–23). Why is Mr. Meek not more sympathetic?
10. George’s arrest for committing “the Great Wyrley Outrages” (153) causes a sensation in England just a few years following the sensational killing spree of Jack the Ripper that sold millions of newspapers throughout England. Are the newspapers, and the public appetite for sensational stories, partly responsible for the crime against George Edalji?
11. How does Barnes convey the feeling of the historical period of which he writes? What details and stylistic effects are noticeable?
12. England was extremely proud of its legal system; Queen Victoria had expressed her outrage against the injustice in the trumped-up case against Alfred Dreyfus, which had occurred a few years earlier in France. Yet the Edalji case seems to present an even greater outrage against justice, and again because of the race of the accused. Why might the Home Office have refused to pay damages to Edalji?
13. For nine years, Arthur carries on a chaste love affair with Jean Leckie. Yet he feels miserable after the death of his wife Touie, particularly when he learns from his daughter Mary that Touie assumed that Arthur would remarry (215–17). Why is Arthur thrown into “the great Grimpen Mire” by his freedom to marry Jean (220)? Why does he believe that “if Touie knew, then he was destroyed” (267)? Has he, as he fears, behaved dishonorably to both women? What does the dilemma do to his sense of personal honor?
14. Why is the real perpetrator of the animal killings never identified? In a Sherlock Holmes story the criminal is always caught and convicted, but Doyle gets no such satisfaction with this real world case. How disturbing is the fact that Edalji is never truly vindicated and never compensated for the injustice he suffered? Does Barnes’s fictional enlargement of George Edalji’s life act as a kind of compensation?
15. Arthur & George presents a world that seems less evolved than our own in its assumptions about race and human nature, and justice and evidence, as well as in its examples of human innocence and idealism. Does this world seem so remote in time as to be, in a sense, unbelievable? Or might American readers recognize a similar situation in a story like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or more recent news stories about racial injustice?
16. The story ends with George’s attendance at the memorial service for Arthur. What is most moving about this episode?