Best known for such postmodern novels of ideas as Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), A History of the World in Ten and One-Half Chapters (1989), and England, England (1999), Julian Barnes makes a major departure with Arthur and George. Inspired by real events in Victorian and Edwardian England, the novel has a more linear narrative and more fully developed characters than is typical for Barnes. It does, however, resemble his earlier works in looking at how individuals cope with the complexities of their times.
Sharpurji Edalji is a Church of England vicar in Great Wyrley, Staffordshire. The Indian immigrant and his English wife have three children, George, Maud, and Horace. After the Reverend Edalji fires a servant in 1893, the family receives a string of anonymous, threatening letters for two years. In 1903, the hate mail resumes, around the same time as a series of mutilations of farm animals. On the flimsiest of evidence, George, now a Birmingham lawyer and author of a popular book on the rights of railway passengers, is convicted of the crimes and sentenced to seven years in prison. Then, after serving three years, he is suddenly released. Freedom, however, is not enough, as he says: “I want my name back again. . . . To live a quiet, useful life. A normal life.” He writes to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of the most famous Englishmen in the world because of the popularity of his Sherlock Holmes stories. The outraged Arthur sets out to prove George’s innocence.
In addition to alternating the stories of Arthur and George, Barnes draws sharp portraits of each and contrasts their quite different personalities. Though Arthur is the artist and George the attorney, George is the more contemplative one, living his life inwardly compared to Arthur’s rambunctiousness. George, “acute at sensing the expectations of others,” tries to accomplish what will please his family and more firmly establish him as an Englishman. Growing up in the vicarage, he models his behavior after his father’s teachings. Though George outgrows his father’s religion, he remains firmly grounded as a moral person who perceives the world as orderly and expects to see correct behavior rewarded and lawbreakers punished.
While George is passive, Arthur, who grows up reading about chivalric ideals, longs to right wrongs himself. Arthur must serve George’s cause, less for the man himself than for the principles involved. Just as George fervently tries to believe that the truth will protect him, the adult Arthur sees the world in the clear, black-and-white terms exemplified by the adventure tales of his boyhood favorite, Captain Mayne Reid.
Arthur begins writing not only because of the failure of his medical practice but also to make up for his artist father’s failures as a man and a husband. He writes stories to rescue his abandoned mother by describing the fictional rescue of others. Literary success, however, is not enough: “What did a knight errant do when he came home to a wife and two children in South Norwood?”
Arthur’s belief in a chivalric code has a counterpoint in George’s faith in the law, which gives order to his world. This faith makes the unfairness of his ordeal all the more painful. George’s sense of fair play results in his refusal to accept the possibility that racial prejudice contributes to his dilemma. When he is told, as a boy, that he is “not a right sort,” he pretends not to know what is meant.
Both characters long to believe in a world in which all “is clear and true and happy, as everything ought to be.” Even in prison, George adapts, feeling “a sense of order that was almost edging towards contentment.” George finds a similar peace in rules and routine as Arthur does in such rules-driven sports as cricket and golf. The two characters are also alike in having multiple selves. George is both the prisoner reconciled to his fate and the innocent victim longing for freedom, understanding how people go “mad from missing ordinary things.” Arthur is a successful writer and loving husband and father who feels a deep...
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