Anyone who claims you should never judge a book by its cover has obviously never been to a book shop. I love book covers. I find the physicality of the book – the smell and texture of the paper and print – enhances the contents. I wander through Waterstones dreamily running my fingers over the stacked volumes, usually earning some dirty looks from the staff, especially in the middle of a swine flu epidemic.
The cover of Arthur & George, my current favourite on the bookshelf, is a lovely, aged, textured cream with an engraved pattern in brown. The engraving shows two men standing side-by-side, one distinctly taller than the other, their backs to the viewer. The eponymous Arthur and George, we presume. It’s a beautifully understated, conservative looking design that says a lot about the book itself – old-fashioned, unshowy, touchingly human.
It’s a story of two men who grow up in immensely different circumstances in late nineteenth-century Britain, and are unexpectedly brought together by a sensational event dubbed ‘The Great Wyrley Outrages’ in the newspapers of the time. The book begins as a biography, alternating between short chapters of ‘Arthur’ and ‘George’, detailing their respective childhoods: Arthur, born into an old but impoverished family in Edinburgh, training to become an ophthalmologist; George, the oldest son of a parson in a rural Staffordshire village, becoming an unremarkable solicitor in Birmingham. The two young men also differ in terms of temperament: Arthur is rambunctious, chivalrous and high-spirited, a natural storyteller thanks to his immersion in courtly romances as a child. George is stolid, trustworthy, a quiet optimist unable to believe that his unpleasant encounters with school fellows and policemen are motivated by his half-Parsee parentage. It’s a measure of the author’s generosity that exactly the same time is devoted to both characters, for it’s not until some 60 pages in, when Arthur invents a detective hero called Sherlock Holmes, that we realise who he is.
At this point, George’s story is becoming more eventful. The family suffers persecution for several years, and after a series of cattle-mutilations in the area, George is arrested, tried and convicted on increasingly spurious evidence. It’s a frustrating business reading about the horrendously bigoted investigation and trial, but Barnes is as adept at capturing the low-level corruption and mismanagement surrounding George as he is at describing the glittering social circle of Arthur. The lives of the two men are delineated with such care that by the time they finally meet, the reader feels familiar with both, and the scenes in which Arthur attempts to solve the crime for which George was convicted are richly satisfying as well as lively and entertaining. I enjoyed it all the more, of course, because the main events are true: Conan Doyle’s popular newspaper campaign about the injustices in the George Edalji case led to a Home Office inquiry and the inception of the Court of Appeals in 1907.
This wonderful book is many things: a detective story, a literary biography, a historical novel. Most of all, it’s an affectionate portrait of two men equally worthy of our attention, in which the life and concerns of an obscure, introverted solicitor forgotten by history can mean just as much as one of the greatest men of the age. George is touchingly pleased, late in life, to find himself mentioned in Arthur’s autobiography. I am just as pleased, I think, that Julian Barnes considers George to be worth a biography of his own.
Arthur and George – unlikely counterparts