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A Matter of English Justice

From the novelist’s point of view, reality all too often suffers from bad taste. The classic example concerns a true story that contains a perfect kernel of narrative but is fatally encrusted with the kind of events that reality, in its lax way, doesn’t mind, but which are horribly damaging to a work of fiction. Coincidence, for example, is rife in life but ruinous in fiction; ditto melodrama; ditto the more obvious kinds of hubris and dramatic irony. Henry James had the irritating habit, when someone was telling him an anecdote, of holding up his hand and stopping his interlocutor when he felt he had got the kernel of the story, before hearing the fatal extra details—a habit that must have been annoying, but that also makes sense. A novelist must have a strong intuition of when enough is enough. Reality couldn’t care less. In the words of Geoffrey Braithwaite, the sad, dyspeptic narrator of Julian Barnes’s wonderful novel Flaubert’s Parrot:

I don’t much care for coincidences. There’s something spooky about them: you sense momentarily what it must be like to live in an ordered, God-run universe, with Himself looking over your shoulder and helpfully dropping coarse hints about a cosmic plan. I prefer to feel that things are chaotic, free-wheeling, permanently as well as temporarily crazy—to feel the certainty of human ignorance, brutality and folly. “Whatever else happens,” Flaubert wrote when the Franco-Prussian war broke out, “we shall remain stupid.” Mere boastful pessimism? Or a necessary razing of expectation before anything can be properly thought, or done, or written? I don’t even care for harmless, comic coincidences. I once went out to dinner and discovered that the seven other people present had all just finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time. I didn’t relish this: not least because it meant that I didn’t break my silence until the cheese course. And as for coincidences in books—there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help always seeming aesthetically gimcrack.

There are, however, pieces of history that can give the novelist the feeling that they have been lying around impatiently waiting for someone to notice them and incorporate them into a work of fiction. The story at the heart of Julian Barnes’s highly satisfying new novel, Arthur & George, is the kind which causes other writers to smack their foreheads into their palms and wish that they had heard of it first. The novel can be summarized without too much betrayal: it tells the story of a (once) famous miscarriage of justice, suffered by George Edalji, a solicitor, in England in 1903, and overturned (or partly overturned) thanks in large part to the efforts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Barnes has for years been interested in Englishness, and more generally in questions of national identity; it is one of his primary concerns in Arthur & George. He likes fictional structures with an underpinning of mystery, but without the formal trappings of the detective story. (As it happens he did write four detective stories, under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.) He was trained as a barrister. More important than any of this, the new novel brings together his interests in—to put it simply—fact and fiction. Barnes’s books have always been about the real world, and about real things, and they have also had a strong tug toward fantasy; he has written ten novels and at the same time seems not absolutely at his ease with the traditional novel form. His fiction seems happiest when playing with the conventions of fiction, or holding them at a certain distance. He doesn’t belong in the—in truth, slightly tired—tradition of the well-made novel; nor is he a fully-fledged ludic novelist, a game-player in the European mode. He doesn’t belong to the English tradition of the anti-novel—Ronald Firbank, Thomas Love Peacock, and the recently rediscovered experimental writer B.S. Johnson—but at the same time readers who dislike his work often find it too essayistic. Sometimes his books feel as if they don’t have quite the right specific gravity; A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, for instance, is entertaining and amusing, but doesn’t quite feel right as a novel. Arthur & George, on the other hand, does feel right. It balances a certain formal tension—not quite play with the form of the novel, but just enough pressure on it to keep things interesting—with a richer, three-dimensional fictional world; there is a great deal in it of factual interest, but this is blended with the fully imagined inner worlds of good fiction. It is not a playful book, but it is not without humor. Both its jokes and its sadnesses are earned.

The novel’s two main characters don’t even meet until page 227. The book alternates between their life stories, and it begins right at the beginning, with first memories. Arthur’s, appropriately, are of being left alone in an Edinburgh room with the corpse of his grandmother:

The small boy stared; and over half a century later the adult man was still staring. Quite what a “thing” amounted to—or, to put it more exactly, quite what happened when the tremendous change took place, leaving only a “thing” behind—was to become of central importance to Arthur.

An interest in death, in looking hard at things, and at what happens at the moment of death, when the spirit, if there is a spirit, leaves the body—these are to be central to Arthur’s life. As for George:

George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it is too late. He has no recollection obviously preceding all others—not of being picked up, cuddled, laughed at or chastised…. Neither a first sight, nor a first smell: whether of a scented mother or a carbolicy maid-of-all-work.

He is a shy, earnest boy, acute at sensing the expectations of others. At times he feels he is letting his parents down: a dutiful child should remember being cared for from the first.

The characters of the two boys become the characters of the two men. Arthur is a strange mixture of the stolid and the imaginative; from earliest childhood, he loves tales of chivalry and adventure, and is well aware of the contrast between these stories and the reality of his father’s failure as a commercial artist and “drunkard of the sentimental, open-pursed, self-pitying kind.” Arthur is ambitious, physically robust, and a fine sportsman. The great steadying influence in his life is “the Mam,” his tough, kind, loving mother; his ambition in life is to earn enough to provide her old age with gold glasses, a velvet dress, and a seat by the fire. The way to do this is to earn money, and the way to earn money is to write: “He wrote the sort of tales he enjoyed reading—this seemed to him the most sensible approach to the writing game.” Arthur becomes a doctor, begins to specialize as an ophthalmologist, and while waiting for patients in his fancy new rooms in Devonshire Place, carries on with a new kind of fiction he has, in his energetic, practical, imaginative way, begun to write:

Arthur loved a problem, and the problem went like this. Magazines published two kinds of stories: either lengthy serializations which ensnared the reader week by week and month by month, or single, free-standing tales. The trouble with the tales was that they often didn’t give you enough to bite on. The trouble with the serializations was that if you happened to miss a single issue, you lost the plot. Applying his practical brain to the problem, Arthur envisaged combining the virtues of the two forms: a series of stories, each complete in itself, yet filled with running characters to reignite the reader’s sympathy or disapproval.

Looking for a hero to star in these linked stories, Arthur resuscitates a consulting detective who has already featured in “a couple of his less successful novels”: Sherlock Holmes. More or less immediately he is on course to becoming one of the most admired, and richest, men in England.

George’s path through life is harder. His father Shapurji is a Parsee, born in Bombay and converted to the Church of England in his youth. Shapurji financed his travel to England to study theology by writing a grammar of the Gujarati language. He was ordained as a priest, and married Charlotte Stoneham, the daughter of a respectable county family whose uncle was parish priest in Great Wyrley, a small village in rural Staffordshire. On the uncle’s death, Shapurji was made priest of Wyrley and it was there that George and his two younger siblings were born and brought up. His sister Maud is handicapped—it’s not quite clear how, and it becomes obvious that she is much more capable than her parents think—and she for years shares a bedroom with her mother; George and his father share a bedroom, indeed a bed, and continue to do so even after George has grown into adulthood. His parents are kind but don’t understand the modern world, or how hard things are for George at school.

For one thing, George is extremely shortsighted. He does badly in lessons until his teacher realizes that he can’t see the blackboard; then he is moved to the front of the class, and does better. Bullying and victimization persist, however; George refuses to see the casual, mock-joking cruelty of his schoolmates as racist, though it clearly is. And other kinds of trouble soon begin. Shortly after a maid is dismissed from service by the Edaljis, the family begins to receive poison-pen letters. When the family complains about harassment, the story begins its shift toward nightmare, because the police evidently, and immediately, decide that George himself is the culprit. Both the insane, malign local sergeant, “a red-faced man with the build of a blacksmith,” and the lordly chief constable of Staffordshire think that George is faking the harassment. Their reasons for thinking this have no basis in anything other than George’s odd manner and looks—in other words, no reason other than pure race prejudice.

The abusive letters stop for a few years, long enough for George to qualify as a solicitor, and to write a little-read book, Railway Law for the Man in the Train. He has a deep romance about the law, its ordered rationality and fairness—and this is one reason why he does not lose hope when the persecutions start up again. A series of horrible attacks on horses begins in the Wyrley area; the familiar poison-pen letters reappear at the same time, and the police are still convinced that George is responsible for both. Finally, he is arrested for one of the attacks; evidence is planted, and George goes on trial. He is calm, though, convinced that “those tormentors and these blunderers had delivered him to a place of safety: to his second home, the laws of England.”

The confidence is misplaced. The prosecution successfully attacks George’s alibi, which is based on the fact—highly implausible, like many facts—that George is locked in a shared bedroom with his father every night. The jury is told that the motive for the crimes

was not financial gain, or revenge against an individual, but rather a desire for notoriety, a desire for anonymous self-importance, a desire to cheat the police at every turn, a desire to laugh in the face of society, a desire to prove oneself superior…. It really does seem to point to a person who did these outrages from some diabolical cunning in the corner of his brain.

George is convicted—again, his appearance and manner seem to be the decisive factors. He is sentenced to seven years in prison for maiming horses.

It is obvious to everyone except the Home Office that this is a flagrant miscarriage of justice, and a campaign to have George exonerated begins immediately, but British law has no mechanism to overturn wrongful convictions, and George serves three years before he is, without apology or explanation, suddenly released. He is not pardoned, though, so has no prospect of clearing his name and going back to work as a solicitor—the one thing he wants. So George begins a campaign to clear his name, and in the course of doing so writes a newspaper article which he then sends to the creator of the most famous detective in the world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

There is one big coincidence in the story, and it concerns the timing of this moment. By now—1906—Arthur has become world-famous. But he isn’t happy. He has grown fed up, not so much with his fame as with Sherlock Holmes, the vehicle by which he came to it; so much so that he has already made one attempt at killing Holmes off (by sending him over the Reichenbach Falls locked in mortal combat with his enemy Professor Moriarty, in 1893) before finally giving in to popular demand and bringing him back (in 1903). His wife Touie spent thirteen years dying of tuberculosis before finally succumbing in 1906. He has been in love with Jean Leckie for most of that decade, but has yet to consummate the relationship, in the way that a man less preoccupied with honor and respectability would long since have done. Some of the passion has gone out of the affair since the death of Touie; he isn’t even sure that he wants to marry Jean, a fact so horrible he finds it hard to admit it to himself. And he has become increasingly preoccupied with spiritualism, with séances and the attempt to verify scientifically life after death and the possibility of contact between the living and the dead. One of the paradoxes or ironies of this interest, which to us seems as dottily irrationalist as it possibly can, is that Arthur sees it as a logical part of the development of science:

Science is leading the way, and will bring the scoffers low as it always does. For who would have believed in radio waves? Who would have belived in X-rays? Who would have believed in argon and helium and neon and xenon, all of which have been discovered in the last years? The invisible and the impalpable, which lie just below the surface of the real, just beneath the skin of things, are increasingly being made visible and palpable. The world and its purblind inhabitants are at last learning to see.

Just at this stuck, stalled moment, Arthur gets the letter from George—one of the hundreds of requests for help he receives every year—and for reasons more to do with his life than with George’s is galvanized into action. He meets George and just by looking at him concludes that the key to the case is his extreme shortsightedness, which has two effects: first, his eyes bulge and he looks weird, and second, he couldn’t possibly have seen his way at night to commit the crime for which he was convicted. Arthur zooms around, gathering medical and forensic evidence, interviewing witnesses and searching for clues, and eventually pressing George’s case with the chief constable of Staffordshire, the ineffable Lord Anson, over dinner at his house. (Anson suspects that George did what he allegedly did because of “an urge from centuries back, brought to the surface by this sudden and deplorable miscegenation.”)

Arthur assembles a dossier of evidence, but instead of trying directly to persuade the Home Office it has made a mistake—then, as now, an impossible thing to do—he instead publishes the evidence as an open letter in the Daily Telegraph, and does so with a prominent notice of “No Copyright,” so his writings are taken up and reproduced throughout the world. After a six-week delay to pretend that it isn’t giving in to pressure, the Home Office announces a commission of inquiry (one of whose members is a cousin of Chief Constable Anson) and eventually announces its conclusion: George is, sort of, innocent. In its opinion he wrote the anonymous letters—the ones incriminating and denouncing him—but did not attack the horse. So he is pardoned, but also not pardoned, and refused compensation. This, as Arthur explains,

means…that no one has done anything wrong. It means that the great British solution to everything has been applied. Something terrible has happened, but nobody has done anything wrong. It ought to be retrospectively enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Nothing shall be anybody’s fault, and especially not ours.

The nobody’s-fault solution is to this day the British state’s response to miscarriages and mistakes—it was, for instance, the conclusion of the Hutton and Butler inquiries into the suicide of Dr. David Kelly and the misuse of intelligence over the invasion of Iraq.

Arthur & George is in large part a novel about Englishness, and it is around this subject that the novel gathers its energies. The very fact that the Edalji case is so little known (except by Parsees and lawyers) has a deep Englishness to it, since, as Barnes points out, the equivalent case in France was the Dreyfus affair, a gross miscarriage of justice which had a polarizing, near-revolutionary effect on the whole of society. In England, the Edalji case did not cause an ideological polarization but instead led to a typically practical, empirical outcome: the founding of the Court of Appeal. As George reflects, he had wanted to become a famous solicitor, but instead:

He had a curious kind of fame, or half-fame, or, as the years had passed, quarter-fame. He had wanted to be known as a lawyer, and he had ended up being known as a miscarriage of justice. His case had led to the setting-up of the Court of Criminal Appeal, whose decisions over the last two decades had elaborated the common law of crime to an extent widely recognized as revolutionary.

So in a way, the English missed the point of the Edalji case; in another way, they reacted in the best way possible, by making it the cause of an improvement in the way the law functioned. Both the upside and downside of this super-empirical approach, the novel suggests, are characteristic.

George himself, the novel suggests, missed the point of his own story. He was deeply resistant to seeing race as the central reason for his persecutions, first by the writer of the poison-pen letters and then at the hands of the police and courts. He resisted race as an explanation during his trial, and when in prison, and then in discussing his case with Arthur; in the last article he ever wrote about his own case, in 1934, he was still making no reference to race. (“The great mystery, however, remained unsolved,” George wrote, after a laborer called Enoch Knowles had been convicted for a thirty-year campaign of poison-pen letter-writing. He added that a theory that the horses had been maimed by wild boars seemed “too fantastic to be taken seriously.”) There is an irony, nicely not overstressed by Barnes, that this refusal to see race as a defining motive was one of the most definitively English things about George Edalji.

As for Arthur, the book ends, movingly and comically, with a public séance held by his family at the Albert Hall a week after his death. The family sat on stage, with an empty chair provided for Arthur. Mrs. Roberts, his favorite medium, conducted the séance, and sure enough, it turns out, “He is here! He is here!” In the audience to witness this séance is George Edalji. Arthur had regarded his interest in spiritualism as the most important work he did, and his wife, Jean, had, after initial skepticism, come to agree, following the death of her brother in the First World War. The scene at the Albert Hall catches the audience’s desperate longing to believe, and the scale of the sense of loss and bereavement which underlies it; and there is a strong elegiac undercurrent, not just for Conan Doyle, but for the lost world of certainties, and energies, and solidity, which he has by now in the novel come to represent. Barnes’s hero Flaubert would probably have seen the séance as a giant festival of stupidity. Barnes’s view is gentler. The longing for certainty often leads people toward stupidity, but it is not itself a stupid longing; this is a point which has been made before, but not often with the human warmth of Arthur & George.

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