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Channelling the Past: Arthur & George and the Neo-Victorian Uncanny

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Abstract

In his 2005 novel, Arthur & George, Julian Barnes centres on a specific form of cultural afterlife: neo-historical biofiction. This emergent literary genre, which fuses fact and fiction, has achieved increasing popularity in recent years, resulting in bestsellers and prizewinning novels such as Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004) and David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004), both of which offer fictionalised versions of the life of Henry James and the Victorian milieu in which he lived and wrote. Like Tóibín’s and Lodge’s works, Arthur & George appropriates historical figures – in this case, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji – and uses factual knowledge and fictive reconstruction to re-present known events through an imaginative lens. In 1903 Edalji, a young solicitor of Parsee extraction, was found guilty and condemned to seven years’ penal servitude for mutilating cattle. In choosing the Edalji case as his topic, Barnes – while explicitly writing of Doyle, who took up Edalji’s case and campaigned for a reversal of this judgement – also implicitly resurrects Sherlock Holmes, as it is in response to this case that Doyle dons his creation’s mantle and turns detective.1 The background to Doyle’s involvement with Edalji is outlined by Martin Booth, who explains that late in 1906, Doyle came across the case in an article entitled ‘Edalji Protests His Innocence’ which appeared in an edition of Umpire, a sports-based magazine that included general news items (1997: 263). Following the publication of Edalji’s side of the story, Doyle became convinced of his innocence and later wrote, ‘the unmistakeable accent of truth forced itself upon my attention, and I realized that I was in the presence of an appalling tragedy, and that I was called upon to do what I could to set it right’ (qtd. in Booth 1997: 265). From December 1906 to August 1907, he responded to that call and conducted a detailed investigation into the matter.

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© Patricia Pulham 2013

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