Arthur & George

By Julian Barnes

Arthur & George is a very English novel. In part this is because the two main characters, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, are both “unofficial Englishmen,” which leads to their subconscious over-identifying with the role of the official sort. Doyle, a Scot, is fascinated by things like family heraldry and the gentlemanly code of honour. Edalji, whose father is a former Parsee from Bombay, is even more obsessed with fitting in – or at least not sticking out. As a successful solicitor his professional reputation and public image means everything to him.

But what really makes Barnes’s novel so English is its sense of restraint. Everything about the presentation is understated. Taking as its subject the real-life story of Edalji’s false imprisonment for the maiming of various animals in 1903 and his later vindication after a campaign led by Doyle, it avoids the sort of loud, dramatic scenes and narrative screw-tightening you might expect. While Sir Arthur would like to make George’s case into a judicial cause célèbre, the dignified solicitor won’t hear of it. And Sir Arthur can understand because he too is a stoic, reserved figure, albeit in other dimensions. They both behave like very official Englishmen of their time. Which is to say they are both horribly repressed.

Arthur & George is a novel cloaked in repression. Usually when we think of repression these days it’s in a sexual context, and that does get a work-out here. As his first wife descends into a long, terminal convalescence, Arthur, who is literally bursting with pent-up animal spirits, strays in a very proper way. He clears things with his mother. He keeps his disingenuously “platonic” relationship with the other woman (eventually, after a dutiful period of mourning, to become his second wife), emotionally compartmentalized. He reacts strongly against any whispers of impropriety, though he knows that what he’s doing is wrong. How he knows!

Arthur found something near a groan about to break from him, which he suppressed for the sake of the other first-class passengers. And that was all part of it – the way you were obliged to live. You stifled a groan, you lied about your love, you deceived your legal wife, and all in the name of honour. That was the damned paradox of it: in order to behave well, you had to behave badly.

George, in the meanwhile, is an asexual figure whose supposed “mental infirmity” is seen by one amateur authority as being the result of “sexual frustration.” Which has the ring of truth to a modern understanding of such things, trained by Freud, but which is nonetheless completely wrong with regard to George.

His repression is something different and further submerged. As a lawyer he believes that life should follow certain rules. He believes in system. And this faith is tested in his trial and subsequent incarceration. After all, it is the corruption of the legal system and the rule of law he so identifies with that destroys him. What he fights to repress is not just his expression of outrage, but in fact any conscious sense of anger. He feels rage, we can feel it too, but it is muffled in layers of interior pleading and casuistry. Looking back, he rationalizes his legal nightmare: “It has happened, now let us forget about it and carry on as before: such was the English way.” The system, his system, will repair itself, “so let us pretend that nothing much was wrong in the first place.” “This was England, and George could understand England’s point of view, because George was English himself.”

Except he isn’t. As much as George tries to deny it (to himself of course), Arthur is right in calling them both unofficial Englishmen. If George had been an official Englishman – that is, white – he would never have been arrested, much less gone to jail. Race hatred isn’t part of the official system, but it’s there all the same.

In addition to being a capably researched historical novel buttressed with material taken from various public and private documents, Arthur & George is also a mystery. Arthur – the medical doctor turned author – and George – the solicitor – are professional problem-solvers. They have detective personalities. As a child George adopts the practices of “all the best detectives” in trying to discover who is writing poison-pen letters to his family. And even when under suspicion he offers the police suggestions for imaginative yet practical methods of finding the real villain. Arthur, of course, is the creator of the world’s most famous detective, a figure he increasingly comes to identify with in his private investigations into the Great Wyrley case.

And yet that mystery is never officially resolved. Nor is the matter of Arthur’s strange belief in spiritualism, which provides the novel with a thrilling climax at a memorial séance held in Sir Arthur’s honour at Albert Hall. There is something here for the rational detective, some dark relation between individual belief and public truth, but for George to experience it himself would involve too great a sacrifice. “Stop thinking rationally about such matters,” he tells himself in the midst of the decidedly “unEnglish fervour” of the séance. But he can’t.

He can never stop being the proper Englishman. Which, Barnes wants us to believe, is not a bad thing. Propriety, not passion, is his salvation. Not the official propriety of appearance, but the mysterious, sustaining propriety within.

Review first published online May 23, 2006.


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