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Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Arthur & George (2005), Julian Barnes' fin de siecle historical novel, is an arrow pointing backward to a moment that saw itself - without a doubt - pointing forward.

Set in the final decades of the 19th century around central England (Birmingham, Staffordshire), Arthur & George describes a point of intimacy between a beleaguered lawyer - George Edalji, son of the vicar of Great Wyrley - and opthalmologist-turned-novelist Arthur Conan Doyle.

Barnes threads the stories together in the most concrete fashion: by alternating sections of narrative, one after the other, until the two finally meet.

The meeting Barnes describes is historically significant because it led - due to Doyle's media campaign - to establishing the Court of Appeals.

But Barnes is not content to enjoy only this. In tracing similarities between then - a time of religious confusion, due to the success of science, when peoples' expectations about everything were changing - and now, Barnes brings into focus not only the pressing issue of pre-judgement (racist attitudes) but also the moment when secular gods started to claw out a space for themselves.

In the closing scene, however, Barnes shows that these men (and women) were granted passage to a position of exaltedness. As George scans the Albert Hall, he is witnessing a kind of grotesque baptism. Members of the audience stand and shout "He is here!" as the medium, Mrs Roberts, proclaims the presence of the Doyle's spirit in the crowded house.

A man at the back of the hall stands and shouts the phrase in the same way that lay preachers might do at an open air gathering. The English midlands were a redoubt of the Nonconformists from the Renaissance to this point - second decade of the 20th century.

In a sense, Barnes employs historical fact along with the kind of sensibility the student gains through long exposure to his (or her) subject. You get to a point where not even the utterances of the individual are allowed to carry only their explicit meaning.

As a result, we feel intimate with both George and Arthur. In this privileged environment, we are less likely to 'take sides'. And more likely to infer similarities, where conventional wisdom asks us to agree on specious differences.

This was a very interesting time in the developed world. The 'lower orders' were influenced by the attitudes of people like chief constable Anson - such as that miscegenation was bad because

'An irreconcilable division is set up. Why does human society everywhere abhor the half-caste? Because his soul is torn between the impulse to civilization and the pull of barbarism.'
  'And is it the Scottish or the Parsee blood you hold responsible for barbarism?'

In the absence of religious superiority (this was when comparitive religious studies began to gather impetus), another kind of superiority must be established. Miners' sons and farm hands cannot abide a mixed race boy bettering them in their own schoolroom.

In their own parish; 'parochial' derives from the same root as 'parish'.

Indeed, the crime and its eventual resolution are less interesting than the associated dramas that play out in society. George, who went to gaol for three years, received a pardon, and practiced law happily for three decades (before the seance at the Albert Hall), feels something else, too.

And it's also related to the fact of a globalised world. It's about being watched: the necessary concommittant of globalisation because, now, you are never alone. (Shades of sci-fi movie titles, here: "You are not alone".)

Sitting in the hall, George thinks he is to be singled out by the medium for the sake of his father - dead 12 years - who he starts matching with the spirit Mrs Roberts has identified among the audience.

George starts to panic, wishing and dreading being pointed out. After the panic passes, he reflects on his feelings.

It was most disconcerting to see oneself described not by some provincial penny-a-liner but by the most famous writer of the day. It made him feel like several overlapping people at the same time: a victim seeking redress; a solicitor facing the highest tribunal in the country; and a character in a novel.

Barnes is obviously enjoying his clear advantage given by hindsight. But here we see something quite interesting: the appearance of the notion of the 'persona'.

No longer just oneself but, as Gore Vidal proposed in Myra Breckinridge, a set of disparate (sometimes self-made) 'selves' able to be inhabited at different times, in different places, and with different people.

Perhaps, though, this kind of assumption is what gave George all the trouble in the first place. The Staffordshire constabulary took his personal characteristics - retiring, quiet, unmarried, odd, somewhat dark in pigmentation, unsocial - and moulded these into a convincing portrait.

Enough to convince a jury of twelve, but not enough to convince Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And perhaps this is why we are so comfortable in this peculiar, intimate resort of the mind - which Doyle exploited and help to mould - that is the detective novel.

Indeed, a crisis of confidence caused Doyle to latch onto the Edalji affair in the first place. Just prior - from his qualms about having a lover while his consumptive wife was still alive - he had been on the brink of psychic collapse:

No, he must stop. He knew this spiral too well already, he knew its descending temptations, and exactly where it led: to lethargy, despair and self-contempt. No, he must stick to know facts.

At her wedding, Jean picks out George in the crowd because, she says, without the Edalji case to pursue, Doyle may not have even married her. And she thanks him.

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