23 May 2010
First third – up to George’s committal for trial
Julian Barnes is a novelist who also likes true stories – so for him to uncover a curiosity like this is a gift. As soon as we open the book, of course, we start to wonder how true any of it really is: Barnes has created two main characters, and a whole cast of minor ones, who behave in ways that are just as literary as anything to be found in fiction. And so far, plenty of things have happened, and people have had plenty of private thoughts, that no amount of research could have uncovered. So, to all intents and purposes, it’s a novel, right?
Obviously not. The atrocities Barnes describes – and I’m referring to the everyday prejudice and downright racism of late 19th Century Middle England, not the sadistic ‘ripping’ of horses and cattle – take on a harder edge because they are based on events that really happened and, I assume, on existing transcripts of real police interviews. How terrible, we think – but instead of the frisson of Gene Hunt’s casual offensiveness in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes we are appalled to think that a real person’s freedom depended on this kind of attitude. This, we hope, is a true representation of what the Edalji family had to face: if it isn’t, it isn’t much use as a yardstick for judging attitudes against those of our own century. However novelistic it might be, we have to believe in the historical reliability of Barnes’s narrative.
However… so far it’s the novelistic elements that have appealed. In the early chapters we get Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man moments of the child’s perception of the world. The terrors of Arthur’s Catholic school, complete with horrifying sermons about hell and damnation, are straight out of Joyce, but even more Joycean moments come in the present-tense George chapters, in which tiny events assume terrifying significance. Some of these come back to haunt both George and the reader: when he tells the police he is suspicious of cattle after he saw one ‘soiling itself’ when he was young, we know what he means because Barnes told us 100 pages before. To the police it sounds merely bizarre. It’s what I mean by novelistic: Barnes could write the ‘early memory’ chapter because of the transcript of the police interview over 20 years later, but he’s set up this echo to make us sympathetic to this unworldly man.
What’s my point? Obviously, Barnes is extrapolating thoughts and memories from what he can research. And actual interviews as transcribed by constables or court reporters give Barnes enough of a flavour of police attitudes for him to create a world in which anything out of the normal run is regarded with deep suspicion. Throughout the early George chapters we get references first to how the other boys regard him as ‘not a right sort’ and later to a police sergeant, not the brightest in the force, who treats the British-born boy as though he’s some jungle-born carnival exhibit. We’re happy to believe it because, well, maybe some coppers were that thick in a Midlands backwater over a century ago. (I’m sure I’ll come back to something that Barnes relies on a lot: our willingness to believe how unsophisticated people were in the past.)
The other thing established in the George chapters is what a strange fish he is. Barnes scrupulously avoids doing what plenty of 21st Century authors would have gone in for: ascribing George’s behaviour to some kind of condition like Asperger’s syndrome or autism. He doesn’t do it because, frankly, he doesn’t need to. 21st Century British society has plenty of faults, obviously, but we don’t make the mistake of ascribing odd behaviour to criminality or deviance. George’s intelligence, his inability to relate to other people or understand what is expected of everyday interactions, his acceptance of sharing a bedroom with his father into his 20s because that’s what he’s always done… we’ve seen enough Channel 4 documentaries to recognise this sort of stuff as commonplace, whatever it’s called.
All this is in the present tense. Interleaved with it, in the past tense – because a lot of it happens a decade or two before George’s story, I suppose – we get the story of the relentless rise of Arthur. He’s different from George in almost every way, although Barnes the 21st Century writer is bound to highlight points of similarity that seem quaint to us modern sophisticates. There’s always the danger of the quaintness factor in these cases: writers from John Fowles to AS Byatt have delighted in pointing out how different Victorian attitudes and beliefs were from our own: regarding sex, religion and patriotism the past is another planet. Barnes isn’t too blatant about it: sure, Arthur and George are both intensely patriotic, both constantly wrestling with the religious teaching they have gone through – but these are pretty standard in the late 1890s.
But, as I said, they’re different in every other way. Sex? No doubt Arthur’s as interested in that as he is in every other intense physical activity he goes for (cricket, skiing, seal-hunting – the usual). George? Forget it. Travel? Arthur’s been all over the place. George has commuted to Birmingham all his adult life, and has been to Aberystwyth once. Imagination? Arthur yes, George no. But but but: they’re both proud of the distance they’ve travelled towards respectability, even if George can only measure it in inches compared to the miles Arthur has covered from his unpromising Edinburgh beginnings.
Fine. So what’s happened? Arthur has stopped being an over-achieving schoolboy, medical student and doctor and has started being Arthur Conan Doyle. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. He’s got married, had children, built a self-aggrandising house, become interested in spiritualism and nursed his wife through consumption – which he has helped her to beat through sheer determination and a willingness to spend winters all over the bloody place. Oh, and he’s killed off Sherlock Holmes because he wants to write serious fiction.
George has carried on being George. He has survived the hate campaign launched against him and his family – his father, a Parsee, is the first Indian vicar anybody there has ever heard of – and the insinuating comments of the moronic sergeant. He’s become a solicitor, written a book – and undergone another hate campaign. This time, more letters have been written than the first time – and a preposterous interpretation of some circumstantial evidence connected with them has led the (untrained) chief constable to decide that George himself is guilty of the wave of mutilations of horses and cattle. Barnes makes it absolutely plain that this is nonsense – and if a tiny voice in the reader’s head wonders how Barnes can be so sure, well, he or she has to ignore it. George, in the universe Barnes has created, is innocent of all charges.
So, patriot and believer in the British way that he is, George expects the case to be thrown out by the magistrates. It isn’t – and evidence presented by the police shows the case to be a stitch-up. Bail is set high, the magistrates take the police evidence and testimony at face value, and George is remanded for weeks while his solicitor and barrister discuss how it might go. While George assumes that justice will be done, Barnes has no need to tell us that he hasn’t a chance. He’s already told us that George will never again spend a working day like the day before his arrest, and for chapter after chapter he’s presented us with barefaced prejudice and a determination of the police’s part to sew the case up fast. The way things are set up, even a new mutilation, performed while George is in prison, will not be enough to prove his innocence. Oh dear.
To the point where George walks free…
…which is three years after he is sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. For a large section of the book Barnes has been concentrating on George and how things must have seemed from his point of view. First we get the court case, based on transcripts (I assume), but beefed up by George’s thoughts. Some of these might be based on research, if any of George’s letters survive, but… well, I don’t want to bang on about how much Barnes must simply have had to make up. How must it have felt for George to have a story created that has no relation to the truth? To see your own father, the epitome of correctness and strength, reduced to the status of a sad and unreliable old man in the witness box? To see a court case slipping away from you as a clever barrister, in the phrase of George’s solicitor, makes bricks without any straw? I don’t know, but Barnes imagines it for us and we’re as appalled as George is at the verdict.
Then we get George Edalji, the prison years. Again, Barnes presents us with this ‘stolid’ man (to use the word of one of the pressmen) who is so used to the routines and thin pleasures of his first 27 years that he takes to prison life almost comfortably. I was reminded of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in a fictional jail only a couple of decades after George is in a real one. Pennyfeather enjoys solitary confinement so much he asks for it to continue, and we could imagine the retiring George asking for the same, if he dared. Which he doesn’t, obviously. There’s something almost admiring in Barnes’ presentation of his ability to stand outside normal constraints. When a warden tells him that what most prisoners miss most are beer and cigarettes, George simply replies that he doesn’t drink or smoke. He takes wrongful imprisonment entirely in his stride, just as he took wrongful arrest in his stride. Even though he wasn’t expecting the latter as he most certainly had been expecting the former – disastrously, he said so to the police at the time – once he’s presented with the new reality he gets on with it.
He is not allowed newspapers, but within the first few months there’s a 10,000-signature petition for his release. All that happens is he gets transferred to a more secure prison. When he hears in a letter (or on a mercifully rare visit – he hates visits) that a change of government has led to another petition, he ignores the news. And suddenly he’s out. Barnes makes it feel as arbitrary as anything in 1984, and George has no idea why he is not to serve the rest of his sentence. It’s one of the novelist’s oldest tricks: by focusing on George’s point of view he’s kept the reader just as much in the dark as the hapless prisoner. And… suddenly we’re with Arthur, so we’ll have to wait a long time to find out what’s going on.
Arthur, the Jean years, and Arthur and George: their first meeting
What’s a novelist to do when he has to describe the real story of a famous man and his first unexpected taste of physical passion? Make it up, of course. Barnes has to work hard to get us inside the mind – and the mind-set – of a late-Victorian affair. This section has a lot of the tropes of modern writers describing Victorian sex: the point is, or becomes, the fact that it all seems so quaint to us. First we get the man’s shock at what has happened to him, particularly – and I don’t know where Barnes got his information about this – when a first light embrace leads to an enormous ‘cock-stand’ (Barnes scrupulously confines himself to Victorian vocabulary), quickly followed by a spontaneous ejaculation. John Fowles does a similar though not identical thing in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Ian McEwan ditto in On Chesil Beach, in which the attitudes and sexual naivety of the early 1960s are just as weird as anything from the century before.
Barnes doesn’t confine himself to the physical consequences, of course. He presents ‘honour’ as a kind of mantra with Conan Doyle, so his conscience is going to force him into some pretty uncomfortable contortions. His wife is still alive, but from the start he has let Jean know that she is the one for him. He wants to see her as often as he can manage it, but he simply won’t allow himself to make her his mistress. Barnes makes this writer of mediaeval courtly romances regard such an idea as impossible, whatever other men might do, so he has to go through all the stratagems of adultery without the consummation. His wife survives for almost ten years after he first meets Jean, and… nothing. Once – or, at least, once in Barnes’s version – he lets Jean put her arm through his in public, and his sister puts him through the mill for it.
What’s this got to do with the Edalji case? Absolutely nothing. It’s there because… Barnes has set himself the task of giving Conan Doyle a vivid interior life, perhaps in order to let us see why such a successful man might concern himself with this nobody from nowhere. As Barnes presents him, there is something larger-than-life about him and his commitment to, well, absolutely everything he does. We’ve got to know all about his thoroughgoing enthusiasms – for Queen and country, cricket, family, spiritualism – long before he meets either Jean or George, so it isn’t surprising when he gives so much of himself to each of them.
Barnes has dropped enough hints about the way he sublimates his passions, like when he thrashes golf-balls all over the desert as his wife benefits from the climate in an Egyptian hotel, for us to guess that a lot of his hyperactivity is redirected sexual energy. He gets George’s letter a few months after his wife has finally died – but before his overwhelming sense of guilt allows him to do anything about Jean. We 21st Century sophisticates have an idea of what’s going on, even if he doesn’t, when he gets George’s letter and is fired up with an enthusiasm he hasn’t shown in ages. It’s no surprise to us when he decides he’s found a direction for his fervour.
Language note: during the early chapters I wrote that Barnes doesn’t attempt to use modern terminology to label George’s psychological makeup. Maybe I jumped the gun – a lot of his behaviour could be accounted for by his atrocious, and uncorrected, myopia – but Barnes wouldn’t do it anyway. He confines himself to language that would be familiar in the years around 1900, part of (I’m guessing) an attempt to get us inside these alien beings’ minds. Some thoughts can’t be thought because there aren’t the words – and some thoughts can because there are. And another thing: in the long Arthur section focusing on Jean, Barnes uses the present tense he’d only previously used for George. Immediacy, process, uncertainty, I suppose: the way Barnes presents it, for the first time in his confident life Arthur doesn’t know where things are going.
Arthur; Hanson; Arthur and George – investigations and findings
I liked these sections a lot, because Barnes keeps reminding us that we are on shifting sands. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he puts into the mouth of the deeply prejudiced Hanson the line that real investigations are never as straightforward as fictional ones: the reader winces as Arthur constantly comes up against that uncomfortable truth. In fact, nothing is ever simple in what Hanson calls ‘the real world’, and in his own version of early 20th Century reality Barnes is happy to remind us that discovering where reality lies is a slippery business. I can remember having doubts about Barnes’s version right from the beginning – I wrote then that ‘we start to wonder how true any of it really is.’ We’re still wondering. The only thing that’s clear is that it’s not supposed to be easy for us to decide between all the different versions we’re presented with.
What versions we had so far, and what are we getting now? In the first half of the book, approximately, we’ve had the two life-stories, told as completely straightforward narratives: if they hadn’t been covering real lives, the style (if not always the content) could be straight out of any ordinary novel of the last 200 years. Barnes is strict about point of view, scrupulously confining himself to what he, as the omniscient author, knows about what his two characters are going through. (We wonder how he knows all this – and then we get on with reading it, because it’s interesting.) We get Arthur the gung-ho Empire man, pulling himself up by the bootstraps using the resources he has: huge energy and confidence, intelligence, and an ability to write fiction. And we get George doing the best he can, despite all kinds of personal and family limitations, to make a moderate success of his life. Meanwhile, while being innocent of any wrong-doing, he is targeted first for bizarre hate campaigns and then, equally bizarrely, for investigations by the police of crimes he has nothing to do with. Later, we have heard about Arthur’s complicated response to his wife’s illness, and to the arrival of a new love in his life. Barnes presents this, despite all our 21st Century qualms about historical veracity, as truth: we have no more need to suspect him of lying to us than we would of, say, Jane Austen lying about one of her characters.
But that was then. Now, in the second half of the book, things seem less clear-cut. Maybe we remember that even 19th Century novelists didn’t always tell us everything about their characters: some of the best experiences we get as readers are when authors reveal something they’ve hidden all along. Whatever. Barnes isn’t only doing that. First he has a section in which the whole idea of detective fiction and investigative journalism is up for scrutiny, as the boundary between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes becomes blurred. Arthur is making investigations, and he (along with the reader) is constantly reminded that he is not the great detective hero. But he makes some progress, discovers the kinds of things we might expect – such as that the handwriting expert has been proved to be extremely fallible in another case – and writes a report. At the same time, we’re thinking about the neat story Barnes has put together for us. Is it too neat?
Then, for the first time in the novel (I think), we get a chapter written largely from the point of view of someone outside the inner circle: Hanson, the chief constable. Arthur, in this narrative, becomes Doyle, and he’s a naïve, self-important pain in the arse. Barnes has Hanson, as he sees it, completely demolish the neat little narrative that Arthur has constructed. He brings in all his experience of policing, and he also brings in inconvenient new evidence like the begging letters George wrote about his need for a huge loan. In his mind this writer of popular fictions is a rank amateur – and Barnes has us feel Arthur’s embarrassment. Gulp.
It’s short-lived. Even before Hanson has finished we remember how preposterous the case against George is, remember the doubts Arthur has cast on various pieces of evidence. And then we get Hanson at his slimy worst. Barnes makes him a homophobe, racist – in fact, a bigot in almost every way. George looks like he does – Hanson keeps calling him grotesque – because he’s obviously bubbling over with enough sexual frustration to make him go out and commit sadistic crimes. Arthur isn’t subdued by this, he’s enraged. He goes home and starts to make the big noise he promised George when he met him – but not before we’ve been reminded how there are plenty of gapingly different versions of the truth from our own, and that they are often held by some very powerful people.
Arthur investigates a bit more, and uncovers more evidence. The amateur treated so sarcastically by Hanson turns out to be rather effective: he even comes up not only with suspects who – in the story Barnes presents us with – were almost certainly responsible both for the hate-mail and the mutilations, but the weapon one of them almost certainly used. By the time he gets his government inquiry, he’s starting to feel as he does as he nears the end of a novel: his work is almost done. Oh dear: in the tennis match between Arthur and the police establishment he might have rallied after the setback of Hanson’s unexpected lobs, but by now we know enough of this particular narrative not to count on anything. Arthur doesn’t know he’s a character in a tricky 21st Century account, so he is triumphant when he presents his story to George. They’ve practically won, haven’t they?
If so, why is George so subdued as he listens? Arthur tries to account for it, and decides that George has had three years to dwell on his own case, and has no great interest in what Arthur has to say about the men who almost certainly perpetrated the atrocities. Arthur decides not to be annoyed, and we wonder what Barnes has up his sleeve now.
We find out when the point of view switches. We get the list George has made for himself of all the things that his enthusiastic friend – definitely, irrefutably not Sherlock Holmes – has got wrong. It’s bad enough that Arthur has built a case on the same kind of circumstantial evidence that led to George’s own conviction. But far worse is the fact that he has completely wrecked any chance they might have had with the weapon used: by placing Wood, his trusted secretary, in the role of Watson and charging him to ‘stumble upon’ the weapon in the suspect’s house, Arthur has ruled out the best evidence they might have had. It’s no wonder that George didn’t say much: Arthur, the writer of fictions, has neglected the disciplines of real investigative work in favour of sensational revelations. He doesn’t use these words, obviously, but he doesn’t need to. As the chapter ends, we can see Arthur’s opponents lining up to smash him out of the court.
Arthur and George… etc: from the government inquiry’s report to the end
Arthur is disgusted that the publication of the report is buried away on the Friday before a bank holiday weekend. Meanwhile Barnes has George contemplating this three-ha’penny version of his life, to be set alongside all the others he has read since the case was first brought against him. It’s another of Barnes’s little nudges about the provisional nature of any story, but we’re ok with it because we want to know what version the politicians have come up with. We aren’t hopeful.
There are no match-winning smashes, only what Arthur calls blether and balderdash: it’s a fudge. Barnes keeps the two threads running alongside each other, with Arthur and George reading the report separately but, somehow, at the same time. Arthur takes it all as a personal slight – there’s no mention of all the hard work he’s done, or the experts he’s consulted. George… George is appalled at a reference to his mischievous malice in writing the letters: the committee, whilst agreeing that he could not have been guilty of the mutilations, stops short of disagreeing with the jury in its opinion that he wrote the letters.
Both readers are aware of glaring inconsistencies in what the committee chooses to believe, and Arthur is soon writing sarcastic articles about how there is a new verdict in British law: guilty and innocent at the same time. George wonders where this leaves him and his ruined career: he never gets the hoped-for exoneration, or the compensation he deserves. The free pardon he does get appears too little, and for a time it looks as though the case is lost.
In fact, it isn’t. Arthur sets up a fund, and George gets £300. (George doesn’t make a mental note that this is exactly one-tenth of what Arthur had hoped for – but he does make a note that it’s exactly the same sum that Arthur raised for the Italian marathon runner disqualified for being helped over the line at the London Olympics. Three years’ penal servitude equals an athletics race lost, he thinks.) More importantly, he gets back his licence to practise. As he, or Arthur, thinks wryly some time later: it’s a typically English solution. The case has led directly to the setting up of a court of appeal – but once it’s sorted out, everybody seems keen to forget about why it had to be created. It doesn’t feel exactly like a hollow victory, but there are no parades in the streets.
And George slowly comes to realise that the version of his story that will come down through history is… non-existent. It seems to me like a final joke on Barnes’s part after George has been forced to come to terms with life in a goldfish bowl, with every spectator having a different opinion to offer. Very quickly indeed, nobody’s looking any more. But Jean nudges Arthur into inviting George to their wedding, and people are kind. George feels mildly vindicated.
And that’s that. We’ve been given a hugely engaging insight into these two men, into a weird backwater of history – and, most tellingly, into the certainty that there is no such thing as verifiable truth: all we can hope for is a version that fits the known facts. What we’ve been reading is probably, despite all the qualms we might have, as truthful as anything a different writer could have cobbled together about the Edalji case. Was Arthur Conan Doyle really like this? Was George Edalji? Maybe, maybe not – but it makes narrative sense, and that will do.
It’s not over. There’s a long epilogue, based on an event 20 years later. Arthur has died a staunch believer in spiritualism, and there is to be a kind of farewell performance at the Albert Hall. George now lives with his sister above his London office – he never did find anyone to marry – and she persuades him to go. It gives Barnes the opportunity to follow some of his favourite threads for a little bit longer: Arthur’s immense enthusiasm and self-confidence (bordering, let’s face it, on egomania); George’s stolid thoroughness; and the contingent nature of truth. First, we get yet another account of the events we’ve been reading about, as presented in the sections of Arthur’s autobiography that George is re-reading. As always, he notices the inaccuracies in the great man’s version. So it goes.
He’s going to take binoculars to the Albert Hall. Again, it’s his sister’s suggestion – and both of them are reminded of the day in Aberystwyth just before his arrest. He remembers it as the last time he was truly happy. She remembers it as full of dread: she had only agreed to go because their father was worried that George was suffering too much stress. In this universe even family memories, like those of great men in their memoirs, are unreliable.
He arrives too early, so he uses the binoculars to look at the Albert Memorial. His gaze sweeps down from the inert statuary to the lively scene of lovers and families out for a stroll, and back to the statue of the dead prince. And he realises that everyone he sees will one day be dead. The Memorial becomes a memento mori not only for George, but for the reader as he thinks about the ultimate end of everyone in his sight right down to the tiniest baby. We realise that his anticipation of their fates, by the time we are reading about it, must have come true. Goodness.
This last section might appear to have nothing to do with the main subject of the book up to this point: the Edalji case. But the way that Barnes has George reacting to the performance of a Spiritualist medium becomes a kind of coda to it. George brings his entirely rational approach to bear on the evidence before him: a young woman purports to be in contact with spirits of dead people who wish to communicate with relatives in the hall. He is profoundly sceptical, coming up with explanations for everything he sees: it could all be faked. And then Barnes takes us through the moments when it seems as though George’s own dead father wants to speak to him – and all his scepticism disappears: why is his father so keen to communicate?
Suddenly there is a moment of deliberate bathos: the name of the deeply spiritual man brought up in India and who died aged around 75, the one whose name begins with S is… Stewart. This time, George has not been singled out – and he can go back to his sceptical views. Except he doesn’t. By the time the medium has declared the presence of Arthur himself in the hall and there has been an audience with the great man, George does not see things so clearly. Some things were faked, he is sure of that – but this woman definitely has powers beyond science as we know it.
As he leaves the hall he goes back to contemplating the mortality of everyone present. And Barnes seems to have caught the mood: in his Author’s Note he tells us exactly when everybody in the book eventually dies. I’m not sure why he does this, unless it’s to remind us that whatever we might think of his account of these people’s lives, well, they’ve all been dead a long time now. As Barnes has Arthur contemplating in an earlier chapter, very few people’s graves get fresh flowers put on them for very long. And how many people get books written about their lives decades after they’ve died? Long before his own death, George assumes his own story to have been entirely forgotten – except, as Barnes has him wryly think, as a legal footnote. Well, he’s been remembered now. And if you get to live again, even if only in a highly fictionalised biography, doesn’t that count as a kind of immortality? Maybe.