Arthur & George
Narrated by Nigel Anthony
Unless you've been clued in early on, the story sneaks up on you. Two kids, one from Edinburgh, the other from Great Wyrley in the West Midlands, appear here, growing up in the late 1800s.
Arthur, with his huge family, and his mother, and his drunken father, and the streets of Edinburgh. While his father is out boozing (ultimately to end up in a madhouse), the one Arthur loves the most is "The Mam." Her stories of knights, and the glory years and chivalry from the past, scintillate him. Stories so thrilling that he soon takes on her style of narration.
His school chums like the way he spins these tales. He learns to stop at the most exciting part. Until they give him something. A sweet, an apple, payment for his gift of gab.
The other one is George Edalji. His father, Shapurji Edalji, is the vicar of Great Wyrley, the place originally called Wereleia - - - "bog myrtle" - - - there in the Western Midlands. The older Edalji is a stern cleric, raises his three children to be humble, to never lie. They are English, second generation, but their forefathers are Parsi, from India.
There are few Indians in Wyrley, and even though George is quiet and studious in school, his fellows don't much like him. When one of the ruffians steals his bow-tie, the master gets on his case. Because he is told by his Parsi parents never to lie, George reveals that it was the Henshaw boy "who knocked me and took it," a boy, he thinks, who "smells of cows." Bad move. After class, one of the boy's friends, Wallie Sharp, stands in George's path, blocking his way, says, "You're not a right sort."
Wallie's family will come back later to cause George, and his mother and father, much pain.
§ § §
Arthur and George. Barnes moves the early narrative deftly back and forth between the two of them until we figure out (at last!) that Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, the father of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character he has grown to loathe (he keeps trying to kill him off - - - the readers won't allow it).
George, the cleric's older son, studies, works hard, becomes a barrister; but he is, at age twenty-five, accused in the "The Great Wyrley Outrage" - - - a series of slashings of horses, cows and sheep.
This quiet, studious lawyer, working patiently in his office, is, they say, secretly going around at night sticking knives into the underbellies of horses and cows. And, according to the police, he then writes anonymous, ghoulish, illiterate letters, ones that arrive at the vicarage, accusing him of sticking it to horses and cows. (The letter-writer is one Wallie Sharp, but the police prefer to accuse Arthur.)
There is a trial but Arthur, being logical, having faith in English jurisprudence, is sure he will be acquitted. The day of the verdict, George hears "Guilty," and
No, that's wrong, George thought. He looked at the foreman, a white-haired, schoolmasterly fellow with a light Staffordshire accent. You just said the wrong words. Unsay them. You meant to say, Not guilty. That is the correct answer to the question.
Oh the injustice. We readers are steaming. "They can't put this shy, self-effacing character away, can they?" What's wrong with the police? Are they blind?
Well, in a word, yes. There is the answer which George refuses to permit. But when Conan Doyle comes into the case, we can see that the cause is as simple as the nose on George's young, dark, and - - - to some - - - weird face.
George gets shipped away to Lewes prison, later to the stockade at Portland, sentenced to seven years. He "decided that Portland was a better place than Lewes. There was less red-tape, and no idiotic regulation about being shaved and barbered in the open air."
Also, the rules governing conversation between prisoners were more relaxed. The food was better too. He was able to inform his parents that there was a different dinner every day, and two kinds of soup. The bread was wholemeal - - - 'Better than baker's bread,' he wrote, not as an attempt to evade censorship or ingratiate himself, but as a true expression of opinion.
The few pages given over to George's imprisonment are, in their elegant reserve, a sign of our author's art. Minimalist. Direct. Exact. The details of the English prison system at the end of the nineteenth century. The prison library ("No turning down of pages"), the exercise yard, the occasional escapes, the body searches: "Then you were obliged to undergo humiliations - - - raising your legs, bending over, opening your mouth, putting out your tongue. George though it must be hateful to the officers since the clothes of many inmates were dirty and greasy from their work . . . Some officers were very careful in their searches, while others would not notice if a prisoner had a hammer and chisel concealed about his person."
Every six months his parents came from Staffordshire. "These visits were excruciating to George: not because he did not love his parents, but because he hated to see their suffering."
George found it hard to strike the proper tone with them: if he was cheerful, they would think he was putting it on; if gloomy, he would make them gloomier themselves.Like all subtle authors, sometimes it is not what is said, but rather what is left out that tells the story. Julian Barnes has the ability to build not only a boisterous, funny, demanding Conan Doyle here, but to set up the opposite: an off-putting George, a sterling, sympathetic, heroic character; and doing so not by using the words ("sympathetic . . . heroic") but showing him and his thoughts and what transpires in his heart after he has been thrust into a system of vicious injustice because of his innocence and his difference.
§ § §
The word is never used; that charged word that would force a gentle outsider away from his quiet life into a deranged justice system, with the insult of prison.
The good man refuses to acknowledge, much less permit, this concept: "racism." The idea of "racial prejudice" simply doesn't parse for him. He doesn't get it, therefore it doesn't exist. This makes George one of the original innocents . . . one who came on the scene before people started to separate their feelings: one for black, another different for brown, the easiest for white.
This is what George offers to Conan Doyle, as they are discussing the man, Royen Sharp, one who had worked so hard to place this innocent man in prison.
George: "I never knew him . . . it must have been his brother I was at school with when I was little. Though I have no memory of him either."
Arthur nods. Come on, man, is what he is thinking. I have not just exonerated you, I have produced the criminal bound hand and foot for arrest and trial. Is this not the very least, news to you? Against all his temperament, he waits.
"I am surprised, George finally says. Why should he wish to harm me?"
Arthur does not reply. He has already offered his replies. He thinks it is time George did some work on his own behalf.
I am aware that you consider race prejudice to be a factor in the case, Sir Arthur. But I have already said, I cannot agree. Sharp and I do not know one another. To dislike someone you have to know them. And when you find the reason for disliking them? And then you find the reason for disliking them. And then, perhaps if you cannot find a satisfactory reason, you blame your dislike on some oddity of theirs, such as the colour of their skin. But as I say, Sharp does not know me. I have been trying to think of some action of mine that he might have taken as a slight or an injury. Perhaps he is related to someone to whom I gave professional advice . . . " Arthur does not comment; he thinks that you can only point out the obvious so many times.
This is an artfully crafted novel. George and Conan Doyle are equally represented, but the one that wins is the innocent George. The picture of Doyle is of a feisty self-assured type . . . whose heart is in the right place. He volunteered, after all, to get George freed and recompensated for the years he spent in jail. Doyle's wife "Touie" has died; he is now in love with Jean Elizabeth Leckie. When he meets George, who wrote him from jail a note about his troubles, Conan Doyle takes on, at once, the task of using all his fame and writerly ability to make sure that George's name is cleared. He does this by the simple act of turning himself into Sherlock Holmes, investigating by turning the case on its head, examining each element, looking at it in a way that no one else has thought to do. He knows prejudice when it turns up; but he's never able to convince his gentle friend, the gentle Parsi.
The reading here is by Nigel Anthony. The accents are perfect; the pace is measured; the result - - - perfect. This is one to be treasured.--- Richard Saturday