Barnes' novel is a fictionalization of an episode in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1906, Doyle was petitioned by a George Edalji, a Staffordshire lawyer, who had been convicted of mutilating a horse and sending threatening letters to himself. Although the evidence against Edalji was slight, and there was every indication that the local police had settled on him as a suspect because of his non-white lineage (Edalji's father, the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, was converted to Christianity in his youth, married a Scottish woman, and at the time of the trial had served his congregation for several decades), and although the mutilations continued while Edalji was remanded and awaiting trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. A letter-writing campaign resulted in his release after three years, but with no explanation. With a criminal conviction on his record, Edalji couldn't practice law, and he turned to Doyle for help in obtaining a pardon and compensation from the Home Office (although significantly altered, the Edalji case was obviously an inspiration for a sub-plot in Michael Chabon's novella The Final Solution).
The book's title, and even its cover design, which depicts two men standing together in silent camaraderie, suggests that Barnes' focus is the relationship between Arthur and George. In truth, the two don't even meet until more than halfway through the novel, and spend very little time together after that initial meeting. George never plays Watson to Arthur's Holmes (and frankly, if there's a Holmes between the two it is the dispassionate, observant George), and the interactions between them are never more than polite. Barnes is far more concerned with describing the two men as individuals--George, brought up in quiet asceticism, an unimaginative and asocial man; Arthur, driven by notions of honor and chivalry, given to grand gestures and elaborate demonstrations of affection.
Barnes' prose throughout the novel, although by no means unlovely or underperforming--as I've already said, the novel effortlessly evokes its period--is dry and utilitarian. His purpose is to describe locations, characters and events, but at no point do his descriptions elicit emotion. Instead of forcing his readers to feel as he wants them to feel, Barnes politely invites them to sympathize, not empathize, with his characters. Even his descriptions of high emotion have a clinical, detached quality.
And then his capacity for calm professional analysis ran out. He felt immensely tired and yet also over-excited. His sequential thoughts lost their steady pace; they lurched, they plunged ahead, they followed emotional gravity. It was suddenly borne in upon him that until minutes ago only a few people--mostly policemen, and perhaps some foolishly ignorant members of the public, the sort who would beat on the doors of a passing cab--had actually assumed him guilty. But now--and shame broke over him at the realization--now almost everyone would think him so.The emotion that Arthur & George does elicit is borrowed from its readers, and from history itself. Barnes is relying on us to react with outrage and horror at the indignities that George Edalji and his family experience. For years, the family received abusive letters and threatening messages (the same letters which George was accused and convicted of writing). Barnes describes this harassment in chilly, matter-of-fact terms, and leaves it to us to imagine the stifling horror of this relentless assault. Similarly, there is very little editorializing in his descriptions of George's patently unjustified and unfair trial and conviction--Barnes obviously assumes that we can be relied on to be horrified by this miscarriage of justice*.
This analytical, emotionless approach to character exploration invariably succeeds with George, but fails with Arthur. Arthur's problems aren't as grand and as affecting as George's. It's easy to get worked up over the thought of a blameless and decent man being convicted of a crime he didn't commit, but how exercised are we supposed to get over Arthur's marital difficulties, especially when juxtaposed with George's problems? In almost every respect, Arthur & George is a stronger novel when dealing with the latter character. When introducing his two protagonists, Barnes coyly avoids acknowledging their respective idiosyncrasies--that Arthur is the famous novelist and creator of Sherlock Holmes; that George is a middle-class Englishman of Indian descent in the 19th century (which, I suspect, means that readers who approached the novel without any prior knowledge of either the characters or the affair that brought them together had a reading experience that was quite different from mine). But the revelation that George is not white has a bite--it comes when a brutish police sergeant forces George to spell his unusual last name--whereas the discovery of Arthur's true identity smacks of playfulness: "Arthur had initially called his detective Sheridan Hope. But the name felt unsatisfactory, and in the writing Sheridan Hope had changed first into Sherringford Holmes and then--inevitably as it seemed thereafter--into Sherlock Holmes."
Most importantly, Arthur is a much less interesting character than George. There's no question which of the two would make for a more interesting dinner companion--Arthur would be able to talk about the great men of day, recount amusing stories from his past, and just in general be jovial and entertaining, whereas George's greatest contribution to the world of letters seems to have been a pamphlet about railroad law. But as a literary character, Arthur is very nearly one-note. Barnes sums him up in a few sentences--he is a man desperate to believe in chivalry and to act according to a personal code, who inevitably finds that conviction challenged by the realities of his life. Once this fairly mundane crisis is established, there is very little that the novel can tell us about Arthur that we haven't already worked out for ourselves. George, in contrast, is constantly confounding our expectations. This is due in part to Barnes stacking the deck--in the earlier segments of the novel, George's lack of appreciation for the finer nuances of social interaction is very nearly autistic ("How d'you do, my name's George" he says to the schoolyard bully, and when the above-mentioned sergeant asks for it, the sixteen year old George responds that he knows his own name). We are surprised, therefore, when we meet George as an adult and discover an observant, thoughtful individual, full of appreciation for the quirks of human behavior--even the kind he doesn't participate in himself. Once the initial surprise wears off, however, we continue to be impressed by George's ability to observe people, and to make unprejudiced and compassionate observations about them. George is also capable of turning that keen insight on himself, and of not taking himself very seriously. Ultimately, George is a thoroughly likable person, a mensch, whose quiet civility puts Arthur's blustering sentimentality to shame.
Sight, and observation, are a recurrent theme in Arthur & George, which seems only appropriate for a novel over which the ghost of the Great Detective must inevitably hover. Once again history seems to be on Barnes' side--Doyle trained as an opthamologist, and Edalji suffered from a severe myopia which, according to Doyle, was his first indication that the mild-mannered lawyer was incapable of traipsing across unfamiliar fields in the dead of night to slaughter livestock. Barnes himself seems to engage in a great deal of dispassionate observation--it is at the core of his approach to the entire novel, and primarily to the characters--and his characters attempt, with varying degrees of success, to do the same. But of greater interest to Barnes is the failure of this attempt at unprejudiced observation. Some of his characters see what they want to see--which in certain cases might be called faith, and in others self-delusion, and in others yet racism. Others refuse to see what is right in front of them, such as George's insistence that the persecution of his family and his own conviction were not motivated by racial prejudice. And then of course there are those who are obsessed with believing that which can never be seen. Doyle was famously a proponent of spiritualism, a patron of psychics and mediums, and Barnes concentrates on Arthur's relentless quest to prove--empirically, with visible evidence--that these men and women were truly contacting the world beyond.
Ultimately, however, Arthur's belief in the afterlife is not a question of evidence but of faith, and Barnes obviously expects us to consider the difference between the kind of knowledge that is supported by observation and evidence and the kind that doesn't require either. Here, unfortunately, is where history, which had previously buoyed the novel up, begins to box it in. The 19th century medium has become synonymous, in our culture, with the charlatan and the snake-oil salesman**. We can't respect Arthur's faith in the survival of the spirit because the terms in which it is couched are, to us, emblematic of self-delusion. The question is answered before it can even be asked, and the entire sub-plot--which might, I suspect, have been the point of the novel--collapses in upon itself. What's left is the historical recreation.
I read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a few months ago, and was particularly struck by the book's first segment, which follows Herbert Clutter and his family on the last day of their lives. Capote describes the Clutters as decent, hardworking, generous people, whose lives were as charmed as it is likely that any human life could be--riddled with niggling inconveniences and not-inconsiderable sorrows, but ultimately happy and productive. I couldn't help but wonder how accurate Capote's image of the Clutters was--whether he, or their grief-struck neighbors, had smoothed over the rough edges. I had no such doubts when I read Arthur & George--I believe whole-heartedly that Barnes has captured the essence of both Doyle and Edalji's personalities, and the truth of the events that brought them together. As a recreation of a moment in history, a fictionalization of real-life events, Arthur & George is unquestionably a success. It is a nearly-journalistic account, and a very readable and fascinating one at that, but I honestly don't think that it can be called a novel.
* The one instance in which this approach fails is in the descriptions of George's life in prison. George is a solitary, stoic individual, used to a very simple life and not given to complaining, which explains his ability to withstand his incarceration as well as he does. Ultimately, however, this resilience makes George's prison term seem less like a grave injustice and more like a dull, overlong holiday, on which he has the opportunity to read the great classic novels. It's interesting to compare Barnes' descriptions of prison life with Sarah Waters' similar recreation in her novel, Affinity. I found the novel quite tedious, but there's no question that Waters manages to bring across the horror of prison life.
** Which, if I may be allowed to segue again to Waters' Affinity, is one of the reasons I didn't care for the book--it never occurred to me that the medium character was anything but a fraud.