Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Julian Barnes – ‘Arthur & George’

The appeal of Arthur & George is obvious, to anyone who likes Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur acts the sleuth! Barmy Sir Arthur, an engaging fellow who believed in fairies but managed to keep them out of the Holmes books, thankfully. Because they wouldn’t have fitted? Don’t be so sure: one aside here tells of the brief disappearance of Agatha Christie, during which our hero was called in to work his magic. Instead of applying pure deductive reasoning as one would usually understand it, he obtained a glove of Christie’s, and took it to a psychic, using the latter as a spiritual bloodhound. Arthur himself would, a little stubbornly perhaps, have failed to see the distinction. His point about Spiritualism was that it is just another science: why have advances in every other area of understanding, but leave spiritual knowledge at the level which was set 2000 years ago? Let’s get to the bottom of it! The objective truth!

It’s a queer argument, but one which fits perfectly with his character as set down here and elsewhere. Arthur is deeply respectful of society’s rules (especially English society’s rules) as he understands them, but – ironically – he understands the letter better than the spirit. Because the age says ‘progress!’ and because it is unquestionable that there is something to this religion business, he draws the skewed conclusion that religion should be turned into a science. He has a blind spot where it comes to the Church’s own rules, because they don’t fit in with his pet theory. A less respectful man (or a more modern one) would look at these rules and, disliking them, would turn to atheism and that would be that. Why is it unquestionable that there is something to this religion business? Because it’s traditional, it’s the rules.

Arthur has a similar approach to marriage: when his first wife Touie becomes an invalid through her tuberculosis, he eventually falls in love with the woman who is to be his second, Jean. They go on country walks together, they go arm in arm to the cricket, they arrange secretive meetings. This Arthur deems consistent with his idea of honour because the relationship is never consummated until Touie dies and they do eventually marry. It is put to him that this is just as bad as adultery because people will assume that she is his mistress on account of their public behaviour, but he can’t see it. Once again, two forces have collided within him, and rather than let one win, he makes things immensely more difficult for himself and everyone involved by letting both have their way: religion and science, marriage and love, Touie and Jean. He is a big man, he can encompass all.

George Edalji is not a big man, but he is a sensible one, and one also in thrall to rules. He is after all a solicitor, and the author of Railway Law for the “Man in the Train”. He serves two purposes here: as a foil to the more expansive Arthur, and as someone to whom occurs a series of unfortunate but interesting events. You’ll know the plot: some vicious anonymous notes are received, some horses are slashed, George takes the rap for wholly circumstantial reasons, and, out of gaol but robbed of his livelihood, Arthur steps in to shake things up a bit. Based on a true story, and pretty damn closely. George’s spell in gaol is comparable to Arthur and Jean’s interminable wait for legitimacy (and, not to put too fine a point on it, sex), but his equanimity is far greater. George, too, hopes to be married ‘in general’, which Arthur laughs at, recommending ‘in particular’ as the preferable state. Of course, he never is, and therefore has a much longer wait than Arthur in this regard (though equally, it’s harder to pine for a generality). The prosecution at his trial make much of George’s undoubted virginity, claiming the horse maimings to be the result of unfulfilled sexual longing. Here’s George musing on a different kind of abstention:

Abstention could be taken as proof either of moderation or extremity. It might be a sign of a fellow able to control his human urges; or equally of someone who resisted vice in order to concentrate his mind on other, more essential things – someone a touch inhuman, even fanatical. (p. 417)

The word ‘fanatical’ made me sit up – could Arthur & George, for all its painstaking Victorian / Edwardian-ness, be an allegory for our times? In part. While never less than fond of its protagonists, it mocks their reliance on rules, and shows how ludicrous things can follow from them, how government judgements can be fallible and political. The Home Office Report of the Gladstone Committee which fudges George’s eventual pardon can’t fail to bring to mind the more recent Hutton Report, and the Edalji case reminded people at the time of Drayfus. Justice the province of the press when official procedures prove unsatisfactory, and a popular patron can be found. And that can’t be right.

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