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An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

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