Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The discussion questions,
topics, and suggested reading that follow are intended to enhance your group's
conversation about Arthur & George, Julian Barnes's moving account of
the intersection of the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle, world-famous writer of the
Sherlock Holmes stories, and George Edalji, a Birmingham solicitor imprisoned
for dreadfully gruesome crimes.
About This Book
Julian Barnes brings his
unparalleled narrative and investigative skills to the story of two men born in
Britain in the late nineteenth century. Arthur, the son of an improvident father
and an intelligent, capable Scottish mother, trains as an eye doctor, but
becomes instead the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. George
Edalji is the son of a Scottish mother and a Church of England vicar who was
born a Parsee in Bombay. And herein his racial differencelies George's
From his earliest school years he has been jeered at by farm boys and the local
police. Highly intelligent, straitlaced and conscientious, George becomes a
solicitor and writes a book about railway law of which he is very proud. But
minding his own business does him no good: when a series of animal mutilations
brings terror to his local village, George is the only person pursued by the
police. On trumped-up evidence he is convicted and sentenced to seven years'
hard labor. After three years he is released but not cleared of guilt, so he
cannot resume his working life. In desperation, he writes to Arthur Conan Doyle,
who brings to his aid all of the investigative know-how of Sherlock Holmes.
With Arthur & George, Julian Barnes re-creates the detailed world of
the Edwardian past, and with extraordinary empathy and imagination invites
readers into the relationship between two men whose paths would never have
crossed but for a terrible miscarriage of justice.
One of the first things
we learn about George is that "For a start, he lacks imagination" (4).
George is deeply attached to the facts, while early in life Arthur discovers the
"essential connection between narrative and reward" (12). How does this
temperamental difference determine their approaches to life? Does Barnes use
Arthur and George to explore the very different attractions of truth telling and
What qualities does the
Mam encourage in Arthur? How does Arthur's upbringing compare with George's?
What qualities are encouraged in George by his parents? What does the novel
imply about one's parents as a determinant in character development?
To what degree do
George's parents try to overlook or deny the social difficulties their mixed
marriage has produced for themselves and their children? Are they admirable in
their determination to ignore the racial prejudice to which they are subjected?
Critic Peter Kemp has
commented on Julian Barnes's interest in fiction that "openly colonises
actualityespecially the lives of creative prodigies" (London Times,
26 June 2005). In Arthur & George, the details we read about Arthur's
life are largely true. While the story of George Edalji is an obscure chapter of
Doyle's life, its details as presented here are also based on the historical
record. What is the effect, for the reader, when an author blurs the line
between fiction and biography, or fiction and history?
From early on in a life
shaped by stories, Arthur has identified with tales of knights: "If life was a
chivalric quest, then he had rescued the fair Touie, he had conquered the city,
and been rewarded with gold. . . . What did a knight errant do when he came home
to a wife and two children in South Norwood?" (60). Is it common to find
characters like Arthur in our own day? How have the ideas of masculinity changed
between Edwardian times and the present?
George has trouble
believing that he was a victim of race prejudice (235). Why is this difficult
for him to believe? Is it difficult for him to imagine that others don't see him
as he sees himself? Does George's misfortune seem to be juxtaposed ironically
with his family's firm belief in the Christian faith?
The small section on
pages 7980, called "George & Arthur" describes an unnamed man
approaching a horse in a field on a cold night. What is the effect of this
section, coming into the novel when it does, and named as it is?
tells Captain Anson that the man who did the mutilations would be someone who
was "accustomed to handling animals" (84); this assumption would clearly
rule out George. Yet George is pursued as the single suspect. Campbell also
notes that Sergeant Upton is neither intelligent nor competent at his job (86).
What motivates Campbell as he examines George's clothing and his knife, and
proceeds to have George arrested (1027)?
George's lawyer, Mr.
Meek, is amused at George's sense of outrage when he reads the factual errors
and outright lies in the newspapers' reports of his case (11920; 12223).
Why is Mr. Meek not more sympathetic?
George's arrest for
committing "the Great Wyrley Outrages" (153) causes a sensation in England
just a few years following the sensational killing spree of Jack the Ripper that
sold millions of newspapers throughout England. Are the newspapers, and the
public appetite for sensational stories, partly responsible for the crime
against George Edalji?
How does Barnes convey
the feeling of the historical period of which he writes? What details and
stylistic effects are noticeable?
England was extremely
proud of its legal system; Queen Victoria had expressed her outrage against the
injustice in the trumped-up case against Alfred Dreyfus, which had occurred a
few years earlier in France. Yet the Edalji case seems to present an even
greater outrage against justice, and again because of the race of the accused.
Why might the Home Office have refused to pay damages to Edalji?
For nine years, Arthur
carries on a chaste love affair with Jean Leckie. Yet he feels miserable after
the death of his wife Touie, particularly when he learns from his daughter Mary
that Touie assumed that Arthur would remarry (21517). Why is Arthur thrown
into "the great Grimpen Mire" by his freedom to marry Jean (220)? Why does
he believe that "if Touie knew, then he was destroyed" (267)? Has he, as he
fears, behaved dishonorably to both women? What does the dilemma do to his sense
of personal honor?
Why is the real
perpetrator of the animal killings never identified? In a Sherlock Holmes story
the criminal is always caught and convicted, but Doyle gets no such satisfaction
with this real world case. How disturbing is the fact that Edalji is never truly
vindicated and never compensated for the injustice he suffered? Does Barnes's
fictional enlargement of George Edalji's life act as a kind of compensation?
Arthur & George
presents a world that seems less evolved than our own in its assumptions
about race and human nature, and justice and evidence, as well as in its
examples of human innocence and idealism. Does this world seem so remote in time
as to be, in a sense, unbelievable? Or might American readers recognize a
similar situation in a story like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, or
more recent news stories about racial injustice?
The story ends with
George's attendance at the memorial service for Arthur. What is most moving
about this episode?
Andrea Barrett, The Voyage
of the Narwhal; Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders; Joseph Conrad, Lord
Jim; Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes and Memories
and Adventures; E. M. Forster, A Passage to India; John Galsworthy, The
Man of Property; Rudyard Kipling, Kim; Rohinton Mistry, Family
Matters; Colm Tóibín, The Master; W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz; Daniel
Stashower, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Page numbers refer to the USA hardcover edition, and may vary in other
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Jonathan Cape.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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