Mining the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, Julian Barnes replays history with novel results
Arthur & George
By Julian Barnes
Knopf, 386 pp., $24.95
History can be a mixed blessing for the novelist: an elixir of possibility or a wildebeest that keeps hogging the stage. If you insist on returning to the archives of reality to tether and justify your plot, you can't avoid two glaringly connected facts: The story you seek to fictionalize -- to elevate, tinker with, reinterpret -- has already happened. And if you're going to use the past, you must respect its scaffolding of truth, so anything you try to do with your twice-told tale will be both beholden to history and imprisoned by it.
The prolific English writer Julian Barnes got around most of these snares between fact and fiction with his celebrated 1985 novel ''Flaubert's Parrot"; in depicting a narrator's obsession with Gustave Flaubert, Barnes relied on Flaubert's life and then left it behind for a pyrotechnical treatise on art and reality. His novels and stories in the ensuing years have taken similar liberties of style and substance, but ''Arthur & George," his 12th work of fiction, which returns to the chronicles of Arthur Conan Doyle for its meaty plot, is a less radical imagining. The novel received rave reviews in Britain and was considered a favorite for last fall's Man Booker Prize; English readers seemed particularly fond of the realism Barnes had employed -- no metafiction here, no jumping-off points for postmodern narrative. Instead Barnes has focused on a passionate subplot of Doyle's life -- a miscarriage of justice that occurred in late 19th-century rural England -- and given it microscopic detail and life. The results are mostly admirable, as Barnes has created brilliantly intimate portraits of two men whose crossed paths will define them both. But perhaps because ''Arthur & George" is a piece of rich history transformed into fiction, it also suffers from its own excesses: too much information, particularly in the last half of the novel, about local color and the specificities of Edwardian England. Let's just say it succumbs to a form of literary gout.
The most elegant part of the novel occurs in its beginning chapters, when we meet the boy who will go on to invent Sherlock Holmes, and the young fellow in Staffordshire who will share the title of Barnes's novel. While Doyle (of Irish and Scottish descent) is growing up in Edinburgh, George lives with his family in the vicarage in a village called Great Wyrley. He is shy and studious, modeling his beliefs on his parents' beloved Church of England. He does not make friends easily -- ''you're not a right sort," one troublemaker whispers to him in the schoolyard -- and he has trouble seeing the blackboard. Still, George does all right -- he loves his sister Maud, loves the truth of books, has his heart set on studying the law. And then, when he is 16, a series of hoaxes begin to infect Great Wyrley -- first pranks, then threatening letters. When the local police come to investigate, it is George to whom they turn. They tell him to state his last name. ''You know my surname," George says politely. ''It's the same as my father's. And my mother's." The sergeant presses him, until he replies.
''Ah, yes," says the menacing Sergeant. ''Now I think you'd better spell that out for me."
Thus it is that in a few sentences, we realize that the George we've been imagining, the upright C of E vicar's son, is the child of an Indian (Parsee) father and Scottish mother. Not a right sort, indeed: The strangeness he's been accused of throughout his childhood has to do with his brown skin. In this exquisitely well-timed delivery of George Edalji, Barnes has borrowed from Doyle's genius in constructing his Holmesian universe: It's not just what you tell the reader, but when and in what context.
So begins the sickening downfall of a proper young man, felled by anonymous hatred and the lackluster and racist iniquity of the townfolk. When the meanness targeting George escalates and expands to accusations of animal mutilation, he is railroaded into a seven-year prison term. He manages to survive jail with the same inner resources he used to counter bullies and despair, and in three years he is set free. His release happens without much reason, fuss, or publicity, which is the way proper England tends to its improper dust piles of injustice.
While the dignified half-Parsee was falling through the space created by England's provincial cruelties, Arthur the boy has been becoming Arthur the bon vivant. The oldest son of an alcoholic father, he takes shelter in the imagination, first glimpsed when his Mam regales him with fabulous tales in the kitchen. Eschewing his first love for a more pragmatic one, Arthur chooses to study medicine, but his languishing ophthalmology practice allows him to write detective stories during off hours. He marries properly and with some luck: Touie is a long-suffering woman who bears his children and his moods, then even harder tests as the years go by.
Barnes's depiction of both his characters -- one the somber, fastidious law student, the other a roguish and irrepressible Scotsman -- is elaborately constructed; by the time they meet, more than halfway through the novel, we sense that one will save the other. Not just that Doyle, by now a celebrated novelist with an international reputation, will save the forgotten lawyer-turned-prisoner. But that -- more poignant, perhaps more important -- George Edalji, with his circumspect ways and unimpeachable character, will manage to save Arthur.
When Arthur first gets wind of the outrage committed against George, he flies into action. So ''Arthur & George" soon takes on the sheen and momentum of an Arthur Conan Doyle detective story, replete with who-might-have-dunits and breathtaking moments of hope and desolation in the quest to restore George's reputation. The novel possesses a narrative intelligence that fleshes out its plot with psychological acuity: Arthur knows, for instance, when faced with the opportunity of having what he has long craved -- a legitimate relationship with a woman other than his wife -- that getting what you thought you had to have is dangerous business: ''wanting the impossible canonizes the wanting." Barnes tosses off such wisdoms with dazzling aplomb, but they have a tendency to get lost in all the material he couldn't bear to omit. Doyle's spiritualist period, the possible guilt and innocence of every scalawag within range of Great Wyrley, even George's treatise on railway law -- all are thrown into the teeming mix with exuberant good cheer.
What with less usually being more, I wearied of Barnes the historian. The indelible portrait he delivers of George Edalji is worth a score of authentic newspaper headlines from the day. Still, ''Arthur & George" will greatly please those who want a Dickensian sprawl of a novel with one or two heroes and a sometimes thrilling story line. And its capture of the bitter realities of a lily-white English village -- the message of which, Arthur considers, is that ''I and my kind own the land around here, and the people, and the justice" -- suggests a myopia of the heart that George himself, nearsighted saint, will never have to bear.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at email@example.com.