|The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes|
Reviews and Comments
Got it last week, read it over the weekend, loved it. Your book is certainly the best thing there is concerning the Edalji case on every count.
D. Michael Risinger, John J. Gibbons Professor of Law, Seton Hall University School of Law, One Newark Center, Newark, New Jersey, USA. Author of 'Boxes in Boxes: Julian Barnes, Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and the Edalji Case'.
I'd enjoyed Barnes's novel, and your book is an excellent companion piece to it.
Jane Leaper, Canada
As a lifelong resident of Great Wyrley (the village at the centre of this book's events) I found Roger Oldfield's Outrage breathed invigorating life into the true events of one of this country's most fascinating and influential stories - a story still so important and significant on many levels.
Only a local historian could recreate this community in the way Oldfield does and, for the wider audience, it is good to see his excellent and unbiased dissection of both Weaver's and Barnes' books. Oldfield's analysis of their strengths, weaknesses and (essentially) their historical inaccuracies is absolutely intriguing.
This book is as by far the best written on the subject and grips the reader from start to finish. Highly recommended.
Emerson Mayes, Great Wyrley, England. Writing a play about the case of George Edalji.
Now that I've finished reading Outrage I congratulate you on your tour de force; you've clearly spent much of your life on this matter and brought together many different strands, many I never knew about. The book should stand as a 'book end', closing a chapter, although someone else may come along with another 'book end'.
Steuart Campbell, Scotland. Grandson of John Campbell, the Police Inspector who directed the investigations leading to the arrest and conviction of George Edalji in 1903.
. . . unlikely to be surpassed as a comprehensive, intelligent, balanced and intensely readable account.
Newsletter of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London
There are as many different kinds of family life as there are families. Like the individuals that compose them families are unique. The family which is the subject of this book however has a place in history on two clear counts. First because the father, Shapurji Edalji was probably the first Asian parish priest with a living in England, being a Bombay (Mumbai today) born Parsi who left his family of origin to convert to Christianity. Secondly there was later the controversial conviction of the eldest son George which led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. The telling of this story shines a light on the complexities and intractability of racism, 'the stain' of the British Empire.
It was in 1971 that Roger Oldfield started teaching at Great Wyrley High School and encountered the story of the Edalji family for the first time. The family becomes entangled in a story of horse mutilations and various series of anonymous letters in this parish. This eventually became a matter of national notoriety. Roger Oldfield taught the descendants of many of the local families, some caught up in the story. He includes pictures of some forebears in this book, and he used the story as the basis for some of his teaching, sharing with the class slides of the various anonymous letters at which he says they stared wondering what 'lunatic' could possibly have written them. Over time the Edaljis became his substitute family, at least until 2010 when this book was published. His reaction to the publication in 2005 of Julian Barnes' book 'Arthur and George' about the same subject humorously reveals how devoted Roger Oldfield felt to the family. He says of Julian Barnes,
'How dare this interloper march in and whisk the Edalji's away? Just because he can write a bit?....This man is exactly the same age as me, attended the same university...and now is in control of my substitute family.' p326
In spite of this attachment, or possibly because of it, Roger Oldfield is scrupulous in presenting the evidence of the Edalji case even-handedly. He is careful to distinguish at all times between fact and speculation by himself and others. This produces a very different book from that of Julian Barnes, at times heavier going and dense but with the reassuring sense of reaching after reality and not an imaginative foray into the case, good read though the Barnes book was.
The book also recounts a personal journey for the author and to that extent is also biographical. The personal journey is one into a deeper understanding of racism. It is in many ways a similar journey to that taken by Charlotte Edalji who writing in 1904 to the MP for Birmingham says:
'I am an English woman, and I feel that there is in many people a prejudice against those who are not English, and I cannot help feeling that it is owing to that prejudice that my son has been falsely accused.' p266
As Charlotte married Shapurji Edalji and since he seems to have encountered no prejudice from her family, her uncle in fact recommending him for the Great Wyrley living, we can assume there was an acceptance of him as an equal. For those with this perspective the extent of negative attitudes and readiness to do down those who are 'not English' or even those who are English but have a different skin tone is always surprising. Roger Oldfield goes on this journey where he begins to see what many chose to hide from or ignore, the true ingrainedness of racist attitudes. His book is explicitly informed by this perspective, he says at the start:
'I am thankful beyond words for my six years in multicultural education when ... I learnt so much about the consequences of Britain's imperialist past...' Acknowledgements, p.15.
Looking back to 1986 he tells us
'As a fledgling Advisory teacher for Multicultural Education I am getting used to grappling daily with the ugly evil of racism...' p.135
But what he hears in Salman Rushdie's Channel 4 broadcast about the ubiquity of racism resulting from imperialism is a hard perspective even for him to easily comprehend.
George Edalji was seen by many as a man of great promise and in effect the outcome of his life, that this promise is blighted and the family is visited with the most enormous amount of pain and suffering, may be seen as a victory for racism. An outcome which has generated a surprising amount of subsequent literature on the subject as may be seen in the bibliography at the end of this carefully researched and referenced book.
The book brings to the fore questions of the extent to which conscious and/or unconscious racism influenced the arrest and conviction of George Edalji. Since the facts of this case are so complex the answer is not clear cut but central to it is the huge stand-off between Conan Doyle and Anson, the Staffordshire Chief Constable. There are faults on both sides in this battle. Anson remains central to the issues arising from the case which continues to this day to give rise to books and articles. Michael Harley (mentioned as researching the case for a book) dismisses the suggestion that Anson was racially prejudiced p. 317. But of Gordon Weaver's book 'Conan Doyle and the Parson's Son', which Roger Oldfield regards as more fully tied to fact, and which is informed by Salman Rushdie's analysis of racism, Roger Oldfield comments
'Anson is condemned throughout not just for racial prejudice but for utter bigotry' p337.
Roger Oldfield gives us the benefit of these cross cutting arguments and is scrupulously fair and even handed in his assessment of them.
This book is fully footnoted, referenced and indexed. The author is by training a historian. However this book is not a dry academic text, it is peppered with observations relating to the author's journey and his understanding of the family, for example he says of Shapurji Edalji
'Shapurji in particular, was a man of such strong principle and sense of moral duty that it is hard to believe that he would have covered up for a wayward son and deliberately implicated an innocent person.' p. 313.
Then there are the comments to Maud which intersperse the text and a letter which Roger Oldfield drafts to Julian Barnes as if from Maud, pointing out the likely family reaction to his book (p. 328). The book therefore is many things, a family history, a social history, an account of an injustice with possible racist motivations, a journey towards understanding aspects of racism, a detective story and an imagined relationship with a family no longer extant. What it does not fully celebrate, though it does draw it to our attention, is the warmth and support for the Edalji family from the parish. This is common decency and it needs to be celebrated; in Maud's letter to Hesketh Pearson in 1956 she says:
'I have been to Great Wyrley many times since my father was vicar and I always got a good welcome from the people, for, though many who lived there when we were there are now dead, there are still a good many left, and they always speak of my parents and my brother with real affection.'
The reference is here to brother, not brothers, though she had two. Readers will find the explanation for this in the book along with the many other twists and turns the story takes. The book is a good read though it does not fall clearly into any particular genre. I liked its honesty and sense of personal relationship to the subjects. The depth and reach of the research undertaken is masterly and it is refreshing to have a book which pulls away from the magnetising fascination with the creator of Sherlock Holmes and looks with respect and understanding at the Edalji family. It is a history for our time if not of our time. It is a tale of the human spirit turned malign, of corruption but also of the decency of people. It tells of how one family essentially survived, though not without casualty, circumstances that would have destroyed many others. The behaviours and attitudes of which it speaks are still part of our lives today.
Berry Dicker, Lichfield, England, July 2011
|Copyright © Roger Oldfield 2013|