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Edwardian England: lofty ideals vs. hypocrisy,
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This review is from: Arthur & George (Hardcover)
After reading The Sense of an Ending I was eager, no desperate, to find something else by Julian Barnes: Arthur and George, whilst considerably longer and slower than Sense of an Ending, did not disappoint. In the same way that Kate Summerscale's "Suspicions of Mr Whicher" used the murder of a child to give a portrait of the English middle classes in Victorian times, this work uses a series of livestock mutilations to throw a huge amount of insight into the mindset of Edwardian England, employing the magnificent, bombastic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the introspective, humble George Edalji as the spotlights. As one would expect from Barnes, the writing itself was always precise and intelligent. He has a way of asking all the questions that ought to be asked and supplying enough different answers to satisfy the most diverse of readers: by the end of the book it seemed to me that he identified himself more closely with George - who wrote a modestly successful manual on the subject of railway law- than with the literary giant Arthur: which is somewhat ironic. One thing I particularly like about his style is the way he dissects elegantly a simple statement or fact and then draws out a whole host of unexpected conclusions. He is also highly skilled in portraying the drama of some of the encounters: the meeting between Sir Arthur and the police chief Anson is a masterpiece.
For me the book was not quite as perfect as Sense of an Ending: there were a few "boring bits". In the middle of the book, for example, I felt there was a period of stagnation where the description of Arthur's relationship with Jean Leckie spent too long going nowhere: cleverly written, but ultimately superfluous. The final thirty pages of the book, dealing with George's attendance at a seance in the Albert Hall, struck me as pointless: it seemed that Barnes wanted to say a few words on the subject of spiritism and used this book as a vehicle: and Conan Doyle's proclivity for the subject as an excuse. Perhaps the fault is mine for not being interested in spiritism.
All in all, despite these minor criticisms, this is a superb contribution to English literature and I am frankly amazed that anyone can juggle simultaneously with as many multiplex ideas as Julian Barnes does: indeed he seems to make it look easy.