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Boxes in Boxes: Julian Barnes, Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Edalji Case
1Seton Hall University School of Law
Citation Information: International Commentary on Evidence. Volume 4, Issue 2, Pages –, ISSN (Online) 1554-4567, DOI: 10.2202/1554-4567.1044, February 2007
- Published Online:
The topic of this symposium has allowed me to indulge myself in addressing a number of pet complaints, ranging from the pernicious effects of Sherlock Holmes on the self-image of forensic scientists, to the dangers of relying on fiction in the teaching of evidence. It is not often that one has the opportunity to deal with such a diverse catalogue of peeves in a single piece, and still claim that they are central to the topic set out by a symposium organizer. We owe this to the special nature of the subject for this symposium: A novel about the actual investigation of a real criminal case by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who of course is best remembered as the writer who created Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character (for those of you who were unsure). What we are to examine is art imitating life imitating art imitating life.The first ``art" in that sentence is the art brought to bear by the novelist Julian Barnes in the creation of his 2005 novel Arthur & George. This novel is a novel of a particular sort. It is based on an actual episode of crime and punishment, and is peopled dominantly with characters who had real historical existence. If all fictional art must imitate life in some broad sense, in order to be intelligible as fiction about worlds bearing on our own, such a work as Arthur & George promises to ``imitate life" in a special way not applicable to other fiction. Thus, such a novel is a creative exercise under the special constraint of staying reasonably close to the historical record, and we will have occasion to examine how well Barnes performs under this constraint.In order to know how well Barnes' art imitates life in this special way, we will have to know something about the lives being imitated, and their relevant factual details and contexts.The central characters to be examined are, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, George was the elder son of an unlikely couple in Victorian rural Staffordshire. His father, Shapurji Edalji, was a Bombay-born Parsi convert to Christianity who became a minister of the Church of England, found himself essentially stranded in England after his ordination, and in 1874 married a twenty-nine-year-old Englishwoman named Charlotte Stoneham. As a wedding gift, one of Charlotte's clergyman uncles arranged for the appointment of Shapurji to be his replacement as vicar of St. Mark's parish in the village of Great Wyrley, Staffordshire, upon the uncle's retirement. Shapurji became vicar in December of 1875 when Charlotte was nearing the end of her first pregnancy. George was born in the vicarage of St. Mark's on January 22, 1876. The story of the Edalji family, from George's childhood to his conviction in connection with a series of nocturnal animal maimings in 1903, is in some ways almost literally incredible, and it is one of two main foci of Barnes' novel. Of necessity, the day-to-day details of the lives of George and his family, and the community in which they were embedded, are less well-known and well-documented than those of the much more famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As might be expected, the relative paucity of information seems to have tempted Barnes to give himself wide latitude in portraying those lives and that community. Whether Barnes yielded too far to that temptation in ways that violate the special constraints of such a work, by failing to investigate and take into account the actual details of what is known, is a subject to which the article devotes considerable examination.Conan Doyle next. And Holmes. The special popular allure of the Edalji case arises from the fact that Conan Doyle decided that George had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, and set out to right it by investigating the ``real facts" of the case. In essence, the creator of Sherlock Holmes set out to play Sherlock Holmes in real life. So if Conan Doyle's fictional Holmes himself in some way claimed to imitate life (as I have already said all fiction in some sense must), now Conan Doyle was setting out to imitate the product of his literary art, Sherlock Holmes, in real life. In order to see the significance of these characters, real and fictional, (whichever is which in the given context), the article examines at length the meaning of Holmes in late Victorian culture and thereafter, and also examines Conan Doyle at length, to see how he compares to Holmes, and to the Conan Doyle of Arthur & George.