Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

book cover

Bury Library Readers’ Group met recently to share their view on Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.

Arthur and George grow up worlds and miles apart in late 19th century Britain – Arthur in shabby-genteel Edinburgh, George in the vicarage of a small Staffordshire village. As the new century begins, they are brought together by a sequence of events which make sensational headlines at the time as The Great Wyrley Outrages.

Whilst it was the overall consensus that the book is very well written and thoroughly researched; it was also noted by many that it was very long, drawn out and failed to keep the reader interested. There were lots of different aspects of the story that the group discussed including racism, Arthur Conan Doyle’s upbringing, spiritualism and the character of George. This is a good book for group work as it prompted detailed and lengthy discussions; quite a few of us left without definite answers to our questions. A top tip from one of our members is that Julian Barnes’s novels aren’t usually this long! Knowing that, I think a few of our group will be tempted to read more by this author.

This month we are lucky enough to have the comments of two of our group for me to share with you in full.

” These are some of my thoughts about the book.
I loved it. I do know the story as I have seen the film (on tv recently for at least the second time) and I have always been fascinated with Conan Doyle. I used to read his Sherlock Holmes books avidly.
I had no idea about Doyle’s beginnings; the large family and alcoholic father.  His mother was certainly his rock.
The ‘justice’ and prejudice in those days was awful. I also thought it was interesting how the prisoners could change the prison they were sent to by putting a pick axe through their foot on purpose or saying they were a different religion (page 157).
George was in the right place at the right time for Doyle to take up his cause; another day George would not have had a champion in Doyle.
Things that made me smile:
ACD wanted to send hardened activists to the Scottish island of Tiree (page 330) and he set up a trust fund for an Italian who was helped over the line at the end of a marathon so that the Italian could start a bakery.
It was interesting that this case led to the setting up of the Court of Appeal.
All in all, ACD was as influential figure of his time as I had thought.” Rosemary

“Told through alternating chapters on the two characters, Barnes takes the reader from their early childhood development to their ultimate deaths. Two protagonists who could not be more different in upbringing and personality…

Arthur Conan Doyle is a born storyteller; helped no doubt by his Scottish ‘Mam’s’ Arthurian tales, told to Arthur as she cooked in her kitchen. Arthur is a boy with many talents for sport, wit and a fertile imagination, who grows up to become the famous author of the Sherlock Holmes books.

George is the complete opposite. Born of a Scottish mother and an Indian father he grows up in a rural vicarage where his father presides over his parish. They are poor and George leads a solitary, friendless existence. Totally devoid of imagination the contrast in personalities between the two characters helps to drive the narrative.

George is stolid and trains as a solicitor. However, in 1903 he is falsely accused and convicted of mutilating cattle. He serves seven years. On his release the two protagonists’ lives merge when Doyle turns detective to exact a pardon for George.

The book offers much in the way of social history of the times and indeed, a very clear picture of racist and class divides. There is much to be commended about this novel but, at times, particularly two thirds of the way through I was hanging on by my fingertips in order not to give up on it. I found the book overly long and as poor, myopic George failed to have one redeeming feature I found I simply didn’t care as to whether he was pardoned or not. Of course it was always going to be Conan Doyle’s story and ultimately that what the denouement was.” Denise.




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