Synopses & Reviews
Brilliantly imagined and irresistibly readable, Arthur & George
is a major new novel from Julian Barnes, a wonderful combination of playfulness, pathos and wisdom.
Searching for clues, no one would ever guess that the lives of Arthur and George might intersect. Growing up in shabby-genteel nineteenth-century Edinburgh, Arthur is saddled with a dad who is a disgrace and a mum he wishes to protect, and is propelled into a life of action. To his astonishment, his career as a self-made man of letters brings him riches and fame and, in the world at large, he becomes the perfect picture of the honourable English gentlemen.
George is irredeemably an outsider, and has no hope of becoming such a picture. Though he's dogged and logical, a vicar's son from rural Staffordshire, he is set apart, and he and his family are targeted in his boyhood by a poison-pen campaign. George finds safe harbour in the reliability of rules, and grows up to become a solicitor, putting his faith in the insulating value of British justice.
Then crisis upsets the uneasy equilibrium of both men's lives. Arthur is knocked for a loop by guilt and other dishonourable emotions. George is put to the sorest test, accused of a horrible crime. And from that point on their lives weave together in the most profound and surprising way, as each man becomes the other's salvation.
Arthur & George is a masterful novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race. Most of all, it's a profound and witty meditation on the fateful differences between what we believe, what we know and what we can prove.
"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.)
"[A] finely evocative historical novel as well as a morally and psychologically astute glimpse into the worlds of two men." Los Angeles Times
"[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
"[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
"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
Set against the backdrop of the British Empire, an intriguing novel by the author of Flaubert's Parrot chronicles the lives of two boys--George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, growing up in Edinburgh--one who is forgotten by history, and one who becomes the creator of the world's most famous detective, as they pursue their separate destinies until they meet in a remarkable alliance. Reprint. 75,000 first printing.
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 introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups conversation about Arthur & George, Julian Barness 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” [p. 4]. George is deeply attached to the facts, while Arthur discovers early in life the “essential connection between narrative and reward” [p. 14]. 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 Arthurs upbringing compare with Georges? What qualities are encouraged in George by his parents? What does the novel imply about ones parents as a determinant in character development?
3. To what degree do Georges 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 Barness interest in fiction that “openly colonises actualityespecially the lives of creative prodigies” [The Sunday Times (London), June 26, 2005]. In Arthur & George, the details we read about Arthurs life are largely true. While the story of George Edalji is an obscure chapter of Doyles 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?” [p. 69]. 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 racial prejudice [p. 264]. Why is this difficult for him to believe? Is it difficult for him to imagine that others dont see him as he sees himself? Does Georges misfortune seem to be juxtaposed ironically with his familys firm belief in the Christian faith?
7. The small section on pages 91–92, 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” [p. 97]; 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 [p. 99]. What motivates Campbell as he examines Georges clothing and his knife, and proceeds to have George arrested
9. Georges lawyer, Mr. Meek, is amused at Georges sense of outrage when he reads the factual errors and outright lies in the newspapers reports of his case [p. 137; 140–141]. Why is Mr. Meek not more sympathetic?
10. Georges arrest for committing “the Great Wyrley Outrages” [p. 176] causes a stir in England just a few years following the sensational killing spree of Jack the Ripper, which sold millions of newspapers. 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 outrage over the injustice in the dubious case against Alfred Dreyfus, which had occurred a few years earlier in France. Yet the Edalji case seems to present an even greater injustice, and again because of the ethnicity 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 Arthur would remarry [pp. 247–49]. Why is Arthur thrown into “the great Grimpen Mire” by his freedom to marry Jean [p. 253]? Why does he believe that “if Touie knew, then he was destroyed” [p. 305]? 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 George is never truly vindicated and never compensated for the injustice he suffered? Does Barness fictional enlargement of George Edaljis 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, justice and evidence, and 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 Lees To Kill a Mockingbird, or more recent news stories about racial injustice?
16. The story ends with Georges attendance at the memorial service for Arthur. What is most moving about this episode?