Arthur and George

Written by Julian Barnes
Review by Doug Kemp

I should perhaps point out that as Julian Barnes is one of my favourite contemporary prose writers, I approached his new novel in a spirit of confident anticipation. And indeed, his precise, measured and elegant writing did not disappoint. Fictional and television portrayals of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the Arthur of the title) seem to be a crowded field in recent years, but this is excellent historical fiction, with a story that both carries the reader along while the narrative is impeccably delivered and the historical context is sound.

The novel is founded on historical events: the George Edalji case in the early years of the 20th century. Edalji, a solicitor in his twenties, was found guilty of, and served a three year prison sentence for, cruelly mutilating farm animals in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. On meeting Edalji after his release, Doyle was convinced of his complete innocence and invigorated the existing campaign to exonerate the wronged man. But it is the wider lives of these two men, their background and differing characters (indeed, they only meet in the final third of the novel) that is the essence of the book. Edalji is a quiet, unobtrusive, conscientious and reflective man, while Doyle, the world-famous writer, is assertive and thunderously direct. AC Doyle is successful in his campaign for George, but the reader is ultimately left to reflect whether it is Edalji who more understands the nature of the human condition, while the much-feted Doyle was later to be naively whirled off into the enthusiastic world of blissful spiritualism.

An excellent novel, and a good start if you have yet to read any of the novels of Julian Barnes.