Arthur and George is Julian Barnes’ well-researched, dramatised version of the events surrounding George Edalji’s arrest, release and the fight to be pardoned. Julian Barnes has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Man Booker Prize, for which this book was short-listed. His writing style is so easy to read: it is effortlessly gripping, subtle, and beautiful, which work together to take you on a journey from Arthur and George’s childhood to their encounter and beyond.
Barnes deals with some very complex and delicate issues, like race and justice, with nuanced sensitivity. For example, Barnes could easily have interpreted the events as a case of opposites: oriental vs white, good vs evil, conservative vs liberal, etc. but the narrative works over time to make it very clear that this is not a hero and villains story. The book is split into chapters that concentrate on Arthur and George mostly, with a couple of chapters from the perspective of other characters. These work to lend a different light to the case and to the characters, viewing the others from different perspectives.
What I love about this book is the complexity of the characters, because although based on true events, the character of Arthur Conan Doyle could easily be seen as a Superman figure, impervious to doing wrong and rescuing poor victims from evil super villains, but he has flaws that not only make him human, but could be judged to be ‘unbecoming’ of an English gentleman. George, also, escapes being pigeon-holed as a victim: you are brought to an understanding of his strength of character; he is not helpless or unable to make the arguments Doyle is and he is without friends whom will defend him, but he needed Doyle’s help. The narrative appreciates the strengths and weaknesses of all its characters, often giving reasons or context for decisions that may not be the same as your own, especially with those chapters that peer into the mind of George’s accusers. It is this subtlety and complexity that makes this book so naturalistic and appealing.
Arthur and George is a semi-biographical novel and includes many events in Conan Doyle’s life from his autobiography and other places. It covers a span of many years, including before George and Arthur meet. It lays the ground work for the characters, which can be a little slow at times if you are in a rush to get to the events that bring them together, but the wait is worth it and the insight into the minds of the characters is fascinating. The emotional journey Barnes’ took me on, particularly with George, his family and the years of harassment they suffered before the rippings even began, both broke my heart and filled it with indignation that anyone could be subjected to the things they were: dead birds in the garden, hundreds of deliveries in their name but without their consent, horrific letters written to them threatening their lives and their reputations. Race, it seems, is the driving force for the Edalji family’s tormentor, but even this is not clear-cut and George outright refuses to believe anyone could dislike a man for his racial background (Parsee), which in itself is an interesting commentary.
I highly recommend this book for reading: it is a fascinating look into the lives and characters of George Edalji and Arthur Conan Doyle, even without the horrific events that bring them together. It is a wonderful journey of emotions from happy to sad, confusion to clarity, outrage to acceptance and it is a perfect example of Arthur Conan Doyle’s social activism and his commitment to justice. For those who know Conan Doyle well, Barnes brings him to life in a way that is respectful but not without its critique, which makes it seem all the more faithful to the man and makes you appreciate him in a whole new way.