Mystery fans, who like other book readers doubtlessly are an opinionated lot, have been known to pass judgments on the books they read in the form of comments written in the margins of the pages. In some cases this “marginalia,” as it is known, can attain its own marked interest—perhaps more so, indeed, than a given book itself. Such is the case with the marvelous marginalia which Lieutenant General Coote Synge-Hutchinson left scattered throughout his copy of a Victorian sensation novel, Great Porter Square: A Mystery (1885), by then popular British author Benjamin Farjeon. The lieutenant general’s marginalia is a work of art in itself.
Coote Synge-Hutchinson was born in 1832 to Francis Synge-Hutchinson and Lady Louisa Frances Synge-Hutchinson. His grandfather, Sir Samuel Synge-Hutchinson, was an Anglo-Irish baronet. Young Coote’s elder brother inherited the Synge-Hutchinson baronetcy upon their grandfather’s death in 1846 (their father having predeceased him), leaving Coote to enter the British army, a classic course for younger sons of baronets. This action put the young man on a path toward momentous martial events in India in the 1850s. As a major in the Second Dragoon Guards, Coote, while still in his twenties, was awarded the Indian Mutiny Medal, with Lucknow clasp, for his service at the Siege of Lucknow during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (once known as the Sepoy Mutiny). Later the Army promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant General. In 1888, the fifty-six year old Coote, long retired from the field of bloody colonial battles, married Emily Charlotte Jecks, by whom he had previously fathered a son, Charles, and a daughter, Haidee. He passed away in 1902, at the age of sixty-nine. (You might say he lived to be an old Coote.)
In 1885, a near exact contemporary of the lieutenant general, prolific author Benjamin Leopold Farjeon (1838-1903), published Great Porter Square: A Mystery, one of his most popular novels. Benjamin Farjeon himself called the novel “my first great success in sensational fiction.” Although I am an admirer of Farjeon’s crime novel Devlin the Barber (1888) and another, lesser-known mystery by him called The Nine of Hearts (1886), however, I find Great Porter Square one of those extremely long Victorian sensation novels—too rife with sententious and sentimental utterance—that tends to try my patience. Benjamin Farjeon himself reflected that he had no idea where the plot of Great Porter Square was going from day to day, recalling: “Each installment of that story ended with a sensation, and I never knew when I wrote it what the sensation was to lead to.” In my estimation this perhaps was not the greatest recipe for attaining higher artistic success in a murder mystery. Apparently neither was it such for Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson.
Benjamin Farjeon, who was described in a magazine in 1891 as “below the medium height, with a jolly, round face and small side-whiskers,” was a loving, open-hearted family man with a wife, Maggie Jefferson, daughter of the American actor Joseph Jefferson, and four delightful, precocious children: Harry (a future musical composer and critic), Joe (future Golden Age thriller writer Jefferson Farjeon, named for his paternal grandfather), Nelly (future children’s author Eleanor Farjeon) and Bertie. One surmises that Benjamin Farjeon was as well somewhat politically liberal for the day, though he was a staunch supporter of the British monarchy. (Certainly like Charles Dickens he was much concerned with the plight of the poor and disadvantaged.) All in all, Ben Farjeon doubtlessly was a wonderful fellow, the best one could expect of a family man at the height of the Victorian age. In tribute to his beloved father, Jefferson Farjeon named his beloved tramp series sleuth, immortalized in director Alfred Hitchock’s film No. 17, Ben.
Was Coote Synge-Hutchinson rather more the choleric, conservative, intolerant and imperious ex-Indian army man, so familiar a fictional stereotype to generations of Agatha Christie readers? (“Major Porter, late Indian army, rustled his newspaper and cleared his throat. Everyone avoided his eye, but it was no use….”—see Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery, 1964.) Judging by the marginalia he left behind in his copy of Benjamin Farjeon’s Great Porter Square, which I now own, it most definitely would seem to have been so. In his copy Coote wrote words in the margins of sixty-nine out of 372 pages, nearly a fifth of them. Additionally, there are copious lines, question marks and squiggles. If these marks of decided protest are included in the count, scarcely a page has been left unscathed by the disputatious lieutenant general.
Some modern readers have declared over the years that they find the sentimentality and plot contrivances of many Victorian sensation novels unbearable. Coote Synge-Hutchinson, though a Victorian himself, in this respect appears to have belonged firmly in this company of the scoffing moderns. Initially Coote contented himself with making question marks challenging the author on a number of points concerning simple logic or matters of politics. In regard to the latter, Coote questioned, for example, aspersions cast by the author on the police. When Farjeon writes that “It is a peculiarity of policemen in private clothes that they are always ready to suspect, and that in their eyes every poor-looking person with whose face they are not familiar is a disreputable character,” this elicits a protesting question mark (?) from the lieutenant general in the margin of page thirty-five.
It is not until page fifty, however, that Coote apparently felt compelled to put words to paper to protest the course of the events in the tale. As represented by Farjeon, the character Antony Cowlrick has been released by the court on the grounds of the prosecution’s not being able to present any evidence against him on the charge of murder. Cowlrick attempts to evade the mob outside the court and is pursued by it, its bloodlust having been stirred. After the chase has gone on a bit, Cowlrick’s attorney, Mr. Goldberry, and the novel’s heroic reporter character (dubbed our Reporter) step up and defuse the situation. “How,” demands Coote querulously, “did Mr. Goldberry and the Reporter manage to be here considering that AC has been represented as running though several streets?”
Once he started in this vein, Coote evidently found it hard to stop. When Farjeon tells of a lady who “was young, and an orphan” and “whose relatives were far away in the country” so that “she was alone in London,” Coote responds: “a curious position for a young lady to be in?
Much of Farjeon’s novel is told in the form of ostensible newspaper accounts from our Reporter. Often Coote doubted the plausibility of these accounts, such as this one:
Amused, and, as he declared to her, charmed out of himself, our Reporter said, somewhat jocosely:
“Why, what would you have done if you had been born a man instead of a woman?”
“I am afraid,” she said, in a half-whisper, and with her finger on her lips, as though enjoining him not to betray her, “I am afraid I should have been a dreadful rake.”
To this Coote dryly declares: “curious conversation to put into a newspaper.”
Sometimes Coote’s protests involve not logical points but philosophical or political ones. When Cowlrick tells Mr. Goldberry that he is not grateful to him for his legal service, because God would not have allowed an innocent man like himself to be convicted of the murder and God does not need the assistance of lawyers, Coote points outs, in a challenge to this piece of high-flown and arguably fatuous oratory: “Yet he [God] has ordered us to use human means.”
When a character pronounces, with fine democratic idealism, that a certain woman is a “daughter of Eve, and therefore the equal of a queen,” Coote rejoins disgustedly: “What utter rot: I suppose the author goes in for manhood suffrage!”
When a character approvingly refers to the United States as “the wonderful country which one day is to rule the world,” the patriotic Coote really got his dander up, vehemently scribbling: “Bah! Stuff! Nonsense!” Yes, upper class Victorians really did talk like that, if you ever wondered.
In marked contrast with Farjeon, Coote seems to hold the press in contempt. When our Reporter assures Cowlrick that the press will keep covering his story because newspaper readers are eager for details about anyone “connected with an atrocious crime,” Coote disapprovingly queries: “Is not that pandering to a morbid sentiment?”
When Farjeon writes “Such is the power of the newspaper. To convey to remote distances, into village and city, to the firesides of the poor and rich, the records of ennobling deeds,” Coote again is having none of it, countering: “Papers, I should say, have been a far greater curse than a blessing.”
Our Reporter offers what the great anti-Victorian mystery writer John Dickson Carr no doubt would have called a pious hymn, to the effect that “more happiness is to be found among the poor than among the rich” (this in the section where the author introduces to us a sweet-natured street waif named Fanny, who is, I kid you not, a little match girl). To this Coote scoffs:
After the first one hundred pages of Great Porter Square, Coote was no longer able to restrain himself at what he saw as the novel’s illogic and sentimentalism and began openly denouncing various characters as absolute idiots, often adding his seemingly favorite exclamations, “Bosh!” “Rot!” and “Stuff!”
When Coote finds that the young orphan lady’s bonds, her sole source of income, are forgeries and that her prospective banker, the symbolically named Mr. Holdfast, generously declares he will cover her loss, Coote is thunderstruck at this act of charity: “What an idiot he must have been!”
When the young lady lightly confesses to Mr. Holdfast that the purse of money he gave her was snatched from her in the streets of London and that she spent her last coins buying cakes for two poor children, Mr. Holdfast is “almost overcome with delight…at her childish innocence, simplicity, and kindness.” Not our Coote, who sneers: “Oh crikey, what an idiot.”
When one character reflects that a young man’s fondness for a young woman is nothing to worry about, because “He is but a boy,” Coote, who himself had been around the block, if you will, before his marriage, counters: “What an idiot!”
Coote frequently was unmoved and unpersuaded by the author’s depiction of events. When the little match-girl Fanny and her protector Becky happen in the streets of London to stumble into each other after considerable time has passed, Coote is not touched but disparaging of the fortuitous coincidence: “How is it all these convenient things happen in novels?”Coote is not touched but disparaging of the fortuitous coincidence: “How is it all these convenient things happen in novels?”
Similarly, when a woman drops a ring and earring at the crime scene and cannot find them (mystery writer and critic Carolyn Wells called these oh-so convenient droppings “gravity clues”), Coote declares: “Bosh. Why should she not find them? All these things so conveniently happen in novels.”
It is the ingenuous character of Frederick Holdfast (the son of Mr. Holdfast) who most gets Coote’s goat, however. Frederick Holdfast informs us that a male character set up a female character, a lady thrown on hard times, in a house in the suburbs, but that the relationship was completely platonic: “[T]he intimacy between the two was perfectly innocent…Sydney treated and regarded Grace with such love and respect as he would have bestowed upon a beloved sister. It was not as a sister he loved her, but there was no guilt in their association.”
Concedes Frederick Holdfast: “To believe this of most men would have been difficult.” To which Coote, no doubt mindful of his own personal history, responds knowingly: “I should say so, indeed.”
When Frederick explains that Sydney was able to cajole London society into treating Grace respectfully, Coote demurs: “Utter bosh. London society, however bad it may be, cannot be cajoled.”
When Frederick finds the woman his father loves is a ruthless schemer, he holds his tongue, provoking Coote to comment: “What utter stuff. He must have been a queer son never to have said anything to his father.”
When Fredrick like an absolute ninny continues to allow himself to be bamboozled by this designing adventuress, on account of her womanly pleading, Coote writes disgustedly: “The author appears to have collected about the greatest lot of idiots I ever came across.” A few pages later he simply writes “Bah!”
When Frederick gets a condemnatory letter ostensibly composed by his father, Coote sensibly asks: “Was it in his father’s handwriting?”
Sure enough, it wasn’t, but Frederick, like all the nice people in Farjeon’s novel, naively steps right into the villain’s snare. “Oh indeed!” reiterates a triumphant Coote when this predictably happens, “Does he not know, as a son, his father’s handwriting?”
As should be clear by now, I find the marvelous marginalia which Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson left us to have rather greater entertainment value than the novel which prompted him, with exquisite vinegar and vim, to put his own writing implement vigorously to work. Sometimes for our pleasures we have to look between, or rather beside, the lines. Coote Synge-Hutchinson may well have been an ultra-conservative reactionary with a dim, if not to say bleak, view of humanity, but he also had a bracing and mordantly amusing perception of, and lack of tolerance for, what he inevitably would have termed bosh, rot and stuff.