Julian Barnes: Resurrecting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

His new novel resurrects Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a real-life mystery. He talks to Robert Hanks about history, speculation - and sex

It's a little bit like what Barnes does in Arthur & George (Cape, £17.99). George is a young Birmingham solicitor, son of a country vicar, who in 1903 was convicted, on the flimsiest evidence, of maiming horses around his father's parish of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire. His story alternates with that of Arthur - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was inspired by the manifest injustices of his case to become his own Sherlock Holmes and set out to prove George's innocence. The Great Wyrley Outrages created an uproar a century ago, and its aftermath included the setting up of the Appeals Court. But now, Barnes says, "It makes not a ripple anywhere, it's gone. I wrote about it because I couldn't read about it."

Sitting in his north London local, breaking off occasionally to watch Roger Federer cruise through the semis at Wimbledon, Barnes told me about his first encounter with the Great Wyrley Outrages. It came in a book on the Dreyfus Affair by the late Douglas Johnson. In an aside, Johnson pointed out the parallels between the two cases. Both involved manipulation of evidence by authorities certain they had found the right man, forgery, a miscarriage of justice, hard labour, and a racial element: George's clergyman father was a converted Parsee from Bombay. In both cases, a famous writer came to the rescue: Zola of Dreyfus, Conan Doyle of George. Why, then, had George's case vanished? True, the Dreyfus Affair involved treason, while the Great Wyrley Outrage involved mutilation of animals; but then the British are probably more shocked by mutilation of animals than by treason.

Within this obscure affair lies a patch of darker obscurity: George himself . This was itself an attraction. "It's a challenge to have one character who's extremely well known and well documented and someone who you have to invent from scratch," says Barnes. "Because there's not much material, George doesn't exist in the historical record. George exists in Conan Doyle's account of him, with a brief characterisation of him which I have George disagree with in the book, and he wrote a few newspaper articles and he wrote a book about railway law." Barnes set about deducing George's character from, among other things, the legal prose of the railway book: "There was a sort of humour in it which I hadn't expected somehow from what I'd read about him."

The novel includes some of the examples George chose, such as the case of the hugely fat Frenchman whose bulk prevented him from passing through the narrow doors of second- or third-class compartments, but who refused to pay for a first-class ticket. "Clearly a very clever young man," says Barnes. "And that makes it all the more poignant - he'd arrived, he'd created his life, he was an authority." And then came the scandal.

"In some ways it was easier writing George, and in some ways more rewarding," he confesses. With Arthur, though, "there's too much there already, and it was harder selecting and yet still being true to what is known." He researched Conan Doyle's life in great detail - visiting the places he had visited, checking the railway timetables to find out how he could have got from A to B, where he would have stopped on the way.

Most of this knowledge is never used, but not useless. Barnes cites his literary hero, Flaubert: "Flaubert said 'I need to know lots of stuff, I need to furnish the room but not always describe all the furniture in it. For instance, Homais, in Madame Bovary, I always think of as lightly pockmarked and yet I never mention it in the novel.' Brilliant example: actually, if you read the novel he does mention that he's lightly pockmarked. Good example of the novelist forgetting. It's also a good example of the sort of things you know whether from research or from imagination, but don't use, but you need to have them there."

During the Boer War, Conan Doyle volunteered for service as a medical officer, spending some months on campaign and, in what Barnes makes an epiphanic moment, stumbling across the corpse of a nameless British trooper. "I need to send him to South Africa because there's this key moment with the dead soldier on the veldt. But how much else do I need? I know what his purpose, his publicly stated purpose was in going there, but what was his novelistic purpose?"

In among all the facts, there remained "this great, great black hole in the middle of him which is the novelist's natural territory", somewhere for the woodworm imagination to get to work: "These years when he was married to his first wife, chastely, and in love with his second wife, also chastely." Or not: for most of the decade that his first wife, Louise, was ill with consumption, Conan Doyle was courting his second, Jean Leckie. The official account is that their relationship was not consummated until their marriage, which took place after a decent interval of mourning for Louise. But many assumed that he could not have remained the preux chevalier all those years. "What was going on there was a sort of parallel case of guilt and innocence in the private life. I thought, one can play this off - this is explaining it fairly crudely."

The novel is written mainly from the points of view of Arthur and George, so that it is implicitly their own versions of their cases that the reader accepts. But there are points in the novel where ambiguity seems, just for a moment or two, to flourish. Whether Barnes himself believes wholeheartedly in their innocence is another matter. "I simply don't know," he says. "My reading and other people's reading of his character is he probably was more or less as good as his word. On the other hand, I spoke to one Doyle biographer who said, 'I think he had a Clinton moment.'" The novel suggests what this Clinton moment - not quite a betrayal of marriage vows - might have been.

As for George, "In terms of the case presented against him, of course he should never have been found guilty." But "the only person I know who knows more about this case than I do, who's followed the case for 20 to 30 years, actually happens to think he's guilty." For Barnes, "I happen to think he was a classic scapegoat whose face didn't fit. That's my opinion as reader. My opinion as writer is it's more complicated than that."

In the novel, Conan Doyle's absolute faith in George's innocence is shaken when the chief constable of Staffordshire shows him a begging letter George wrote, explaining that he owed more than £200 to three moneylenders. Barnes himself turned the letter up in the Birmingham Central Library. "When I saw that in front of me I thought 'Urnh. It is more complicated. Maybe something is going on.' He wasn't as clean as that, maybe. On the other hand, maybe he was."

The quality in Arthur & George I liked the most - apart, of course, from Barnes's preternaturally smooth and readable prose - was the way it avoids condescension to the past, always going with the grain of the characters' beliefs. One aspect of this is Barnes's treatment of Conan Doyle's sex life, never bowing to the modern orthodoxy that regards Victorian morals as purely a matter of repression and hypocrisy. Another is his treatment of religion. Barnes himself says he has never had "even glimmerings" of belief, but he presents without irony George's devout Anglicanism and Conan Doyle's wackier spiritualist creed.

To Barnes, this is one of the pleasures of writing fiction: "It's creating people who are fundamentally different in their beliefs... You take things that people believe in as seriously as they believe in them." Perhaps this is, in the end, what makes Barnes's writing so attractive: though he writes with an elegant, undercutting wit, it is always the novelist and the enterprise of writing novels that he is making fun of. His readers and his characters: them he takes seriously, whether they are world-famous authors, obscure country solicitors, or just woodworm.

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