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Posts tagged ‘Conan Doyle’

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

22. Why Read?

I was a sickly child. But I was fortunate in having a mother who was ambitious for me and who had a long shelf for my books built above my bed. I could reach my entire library without having to get up. Nearest to the pillow end were the ten volumes of my Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia. I don’t know who Arthur was, but he did a cracking encyclopaedia. It was not arranged alphabetically but quite arbitrarily, so it was perfect for browsing, rather like the London Library. It moved seamlessly from Mme. Roland ascending the scaffold (‘Oh Liberty! What crimes are committed in your name!’), a line I have never forgotten, through a cutaway drawing of the engine room of RMS Queen Mary to ‘Dusky Beauties’, pictures of women of the British Empire, always naked to the waist and frequently with discs the size of soup plates set into their lower lips, or long sharp pegs through their noses, parallel to the ground, as if they had been ambushed by someone with a bow and arrow.

Solid reading came next with the complete Sherlock Holmes long and short stories and then Conan Doyle’s Historical Romances. I particularly liked The White Company. Next on the shelf came my Arthur Ransome’s packaged by Jonathan Cape in handsome green covers. People call them the Swallows and Amazons books but that title is one of the dullest. Pigeon Post and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea were my favourites. That reminds me of Enemy Coast Ahead, another great favourite; a shabby little Pan book about Guy Gibson. ‘It takes strength to fly a Lancaster’ it told me. Well, I could imagine corkscrewing the plane in an emergency and spiralling out of those dazzling searchlights. Next would be my Observers Book of Aircraft, small enough to fit in my blazer pocket, but actually I didn’t need it if I was out with my binoculars because I knew every aeroplane in the skies of England at the time. No, its well-executed three-views of the Hawker Hunter, the Avro 504 and the Bristol Brabazon (for example) were a kind of roughage for the imagination; I saw myself in them, or making models of them, or improving on them – another jet here, more sweepback there.

Herbert Ponting’s book about being the photographer on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole didn’t make me want to be an explorer, but may have led to my training as a photographer. There were books that one got out of the library but didn’t own. W. E. Johns’ Biggles books passed the time but didn’t win shelf room. I found books in other peoples’ houses that I would have liked to own. Emil and the Detectives (Kästner) was a joy to me and lives on in my mind 60 years later, and so does an American children’s book called Little Britches. I liked Hornblower and would have adored Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey novels; if only they had been available then! On the bedroom shelf was a curious little Penguin that I liked very much called I Was Graf Spee’s Prisoner, the true story of a merchant seaman whose ship had been sunk by the German pocket battleship. The war had only been over for seven years when I was ten and cast a long, strong shadow. I had two volumes of the government’s propagandist Britain at War series, one RAF, one Royal Navy. I pored over the pictures, but the text was unreadable. H. E. Marshall’s Our Island Story taught me some history and was useful if one had history prep. Also useful for prep was Pear’s Cyclopaedia which I was given every Christmas by an uncle. But this was a dangerous book, for its medical dictionary convinced me that I had a terminal pulmonary tuberculosis and ruined one Christmas as I waited for the blow to fall. If there were other books on my shelf, I have forgotten them. They failed, then, to be memorable and that is the first thing that a good read should be. Why read? Well, why live? Why think? Why dream?

 George Pownall