The Arthur of Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the bombastic ophthalmologist who vaulted to fame in 1887 when he invented a sleuth named Sherlock Holmes. George is George Edalji, the obscure half-Indian lawyer who, in 1903, was wrongly convicted of ripping the bellies out of farm animals in rural Staffordshire and was exonerated three years later, with help from Arthur. And Barnes is the British author of sly, experimental fiction who has transformed the brief, momentous real-life relationship between these two men into a stout, satisfying, and uncharacteristically old-fashioned novel.
Fans of Barnes’ slender and nimble early books may find the first chapters of Arthur & George maddeningly slow, as he methodically walks us through the development of his two protagonists from earliest boyhood. Arthur is popular, sporty, and fired up by romantic legends. The literature that most influences shy George is the anonymous hate mail that floods his Indian father’s mailbox. Arthur becomes a doctor, a writer, an avid golfer, and a paterfamilias; George — ever insecure about his place in society — remains a bachelor, sets up a legal practice, and writes a pamphlet about his passion: railroad law. ”George marvels at how the British, who gave railways to the world, treat them as a mere means of convenient transport, rather than as an intense nexus of multiple rights and responsibilities.”
The ungarnished facts of what follows — grotesque crime, overt racism, an unjust conviction, flamboyant celebrity intervention — make a juicy story. But while Barnes re-creates the legal imbroglio in scrupulous, horrifying detail, quoting verbatim from letters and court documents, his ambitions go beyond a critique of Edwardian justice. He has imagined rich, believable inner lives for his Arthur and George, lives that began long before the Edalji case and continue for decades after. And so we get the story of Arthur’s sexless marriage to the invalid Touie (”He has loved her as best a man can, given that he did not love her”), George’s deeply tender relationship with his sister Maud, and, above all, a brilliant illustration of the eternal division between faith and reason. Arthur is a romantic, prone to strong feelings and certainties. ”I do not believe you are innocent,” Arthur announces when he meets George. ”I know you are innocent.” This capacity for absolute faith underlies Arthur’s passion for righting the injustice done George. It also leads him to spiritualism — to séances and clairvoyants — late in life. At his gargantuan 1930 funeral — the stunning last scene in Barnes’ novel — his favorite medium sways, her arms upraised, and channels the dead, Arthur among them, for a rapt audience.
Rapt, save George: ”Regretfully, he judges Sir Arthur credulous.” Unable to experience faith, George must rely entirely on reason, and whether that is his strength or his curse, neither he nor the reader can be completely sure. While Arthur is the more colorful character — and he was certainly the more successful man — Barnes’ George, thoughtful and cautious, is the greater creation, a tragic yet strangely noble little figure who may linger in your memory long after you have closed this marvelous book.