Friday, April 14, 2006

"Arthur & George"

Julian BarnesArthur & George is one of the better novels I’ve read in the past year. Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; George Edalji is a small-town son of vicar who grows up to become a lawyer in Birmingham. Almost half the novel passes before they meet, which they finally do when George is convicted and jailed for the evisceration of large farm animals and the case comes to the attention of Conan Doyle.

I was almost finished the novel before I learned that it is very closely based on an actual historical episode. You can learn the basic outline of the case here.

Right about now, frequent readers of the blog may be thinking: a man jailed? Is this yet another post about a novel about habeas corpus? The answer: No, Edalji’s arrest and trial and conviction are all in accord with the accepted legal practices of Victorian England.

Yet Arthur & George may be a useful novel to help understand what Andrew Grant-Thomas and others call “structural racism.”

One of the paradoxes of the Edalji case is that while his initial implication in the attacks on farm animals stemmed from the obvious racism of a few members of the local police—George Edalji was the son of a man born in India and a Scottish mother—his very appearance is what convinced Conan Doyle that Edalji could not have committed the crimes: he was not only very slight in build but chronically short-sighted, which would have made it very difficult to sneak up on and stab large farm animals.

So, there is considerable old-fashioned racism in Arthur & George: without it, there probably would not have been a story. But the reason I think the novel may be useful for understanding structural racism is that most people who mattered in the administration of justice at the time would not be considered racists, and indeed would have looked down on racists. Incredibly enough, George himself—because racism is illogical and George is supremely rational—does not believe racism has anything to do with his predicament.

And yet…. There is obviously considerable latent and institutional racism at work at almost every stage in George’s path to grief. It is unbelievable that an exceedingly mild-mannered educated and articulate son of a Church of England vicar would wind up in prison based on the (very slender) evidence arrayed against George—were George a white man. But George is dark, like his father the vicar; moreover, the vicar is married to a white, Scottish woman.

Although this kind of racism isn’t conscious “Archie Bunker-style racism,” I don't think it meets the criteria for structural racism sketched by Grant-Thomas. We're still talking mostly about inside-the-head racism, even if it is institutionalized. I think there are perhaps elements of the story that would support a broader charge of structural racism but closer analysis of events would be required. I am curious about what other readers would make of the case.

No one today would think a young, bookish lawyer with Indian coloring and features would be capable of such a crime based on the thin evidence and lack of motive in the Edalji case. The stereotype would in fact work to his advantage. But I don’t think we can say the same about a young man with African coloring and features.

Do you have an interpretation of the book that would support—or undermine—the applicability of structural racism to the Edalji case? Even without reading the book, can you imagine what conditions would be necessary to make such a claim given what you've learned about the novel here and from reviews? Email me with your thoughts and conjectures. Grant-Thomas has a useful example of how structural racism applies to some American schools here; even if Arthur & George doesn't fit the bill, maybe the reasons why it doesn't will help refine the theory.

In addition to its usefulness in social, legal, and racial history, Arthur & George is a wonderful read. Much of the novel is taken up with Arthur Conan Doyle's romantic life and the pages turn in anticipation of how Sir Arthur will navigate some personal ethical minefields. As Barnes says (of the Edalji case), "It's about what you can prove, not just in the criminal sense but the emotional sense."

See a profile and interview with Julian Barnes here. Listen to Maureen Corrigan's "Fresh Air" review of the novel here.

--Marshal Zeringue