Tuesday, April 10, 2012

"Bosh!": The Marvelous Marginalia of Lieutenant-General Coote Synge-Hutchinson (1832-1902), Part 2

Note: For Part One of Bosh! see here.

In his personal copy of Great Porter Square: A Mystery (1885), Benjamin Farjeon's first sensation novel, Coote Synge-Hutchinson writes 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 the marks are included, scarcely a page is left unscathed.

Coote Synge-Hutchinson found this novel
something less than sensational
Some modern readers have declared over the years that they find the sentimentality and plot contrivances of some Victorian sensation novels unbearable.

Coote Synge-Hutchinson (let's call him CSH from here on out), though a Victorian himself, in this respect appears to belong in the company of the scoffing moderns.

CSH initially 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, CSH 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 earns a ? from CSH in the margin of page 35.

It is not until page fifty, however, that CSH 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 (called our Reporter) step up and defuse the situation.  "How," demands CSH

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, CSH 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," CSH responds:

a curious position for a young lady to be in?

Much of Farjeon's novel is told in the form of ostensible newsppaer accounts from our Reporter.  Often CSH 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 CSH dryly declared:

curious conversation to put into a newspaper

Sometimes CSH'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, CSH points outs, in a challenge to this piece of high-flown 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," CSH is disgusted:

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," CSH patriotically is having none of that, vehemently scribbling:

Bah! Stuff! Nonsense!

Unlike Farjeon, CSH 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," CSH 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," CSH again is having none of it:

Papers, I should say, have been a far greater curse than a blessing.

Farjeon gives us Fanny, the plucky little match girl,
though Coote Synge-Hutchinson disputes
 the contention that more happiness
 is to be found among the poor than the rich
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 CSH scoffs:

Oh really!

After the first 100 pages, CSH 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 asolute idiots, often adding his seemingly favorite exclamations, "Bosh!" "Rot!" and "Stuff!"  

When CSH finds that the young orphan lady's bonds, her sole source of income, are forgeries and that her prospective banker, Mr. Holdfast, generously declares he will cover her loss, CSH is thunderstruck:

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 absolutely last coins buying cakes for two poor children, Mr. Holdfast is "almost overcome with delight...at her childish innocence, simplicity, and kindness."  Not CSH, 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," CSH counters:

What an idiot!

CSH 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 some time has passed, CSH is not touched but disgusted:

How is it all these convenient things happen in novels?

In the early 20th century Carolyn Wells
declared that gravity clues were overdone
Coote Synge-Hutchinson would have agreed!
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"), CSH declares:

Bosh.  Why should she not find them.  All these things so conveniently happen in novels.

It is the ingenuous character of Frederick Holdfast (son of Mr. Holdfast) who most gets CSH'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."

"To believe this of most men would have been difficult," concedes Frederick Holdfast, to which CSH responds knowingly:

I should say so, indeed.

When Frederick explains that Sydney was able to cajole London society into treating Grace respectfully, CSH 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 CSH 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 adventuress, on account of her womanly pleading, CSH 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 from his father, CSH 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 into the bad people's snare.

"Oh indeed," reiterates a triumphant CSH, "does he not know, as a son, his father's handwriting?"

As perhaps is clear by now, I enjoyed the marginalia of Coote Synge-Hutchinson more than the novel itself.  For me his acerbic commentary made an excessively sentimental tale much more bearable.  But about these matters perhaps I am as cynical as the Lieutenant-General appears to have been.


  1. Well, I found this a very fascinating read!

  2. A wonderful find. The experience seems not unlike watching a bad film beside a curmudgeonly friend. This is much better, of course: running criticism of a Victorian novel through a pair of Victorian eyes. Would that we could find more books from the lieutenant-general's library!

  3. I suspect I would have enjoyed Coote.

    Thanks for sharing this -- a delight.

  4. Thanks, I'm so glad you enjoyed. I did feel it was something a little different! I quoted less than a fourth of his comments, but I thought the piece was long enough as it was!


    indeed, this is the only book he owned that I ever found. How I wish there had been a lot of them offered! I hope perhaps that I may hear from family representatives someday. I would love to see what "Coote" looked like and learn more about him.

  5. Hysterical! The voice of the Victorian gentleman reaching out to us over the centuries. It's hard to believe that he actually used the expressions "Bosh!" "Stuff!" and "Utter rot!" They seem like such made up movie dialog cliches. But here they are from the horse's mouth - so to speak. The man seems to have no sense of humor at all nor any appreciation for the creative powers of a writer of fiction. So condemning of novels -- why do you think he bothered to finish reading the book? Must've needed it as some sort of Victorian therapy. Better to scribble away derisive comments in a book than seek out the author and give him a punch in the snoot.

    This was my favorite attack: "London society, however bad it may be, cannot be cajoled." He doesn't even seem to have any faith in his own citizenry. Love it!

    Thanks for this brilliant idea of a post. I only wish I had a book so entertainingly vandalized in my collection.

  6. John,

    I'd love to know whether "Coote" read other novels and what he thought of them. He definitely didn't like coincidences and improbabilities. I wonder whether he ever read Conan Doyle in the 1890s?

    I do have to admit in that in the Farjeon book I myself lost patience with some of the characters (I'm a great admirer of some of Farjeon's shorter books though). But to feel so strongly about it as the Lt.-General did and to keep trudging on with it to the end--well, you do wonder why. That comment about newspapers being more a curse than a blessing is on the last page of the novel, so he stuck it out to the very end! I guess if he survived the Siege of Lucknow he could endure one reading of Great Porter Square. Maybe it was a test of character!

    He does seem a determined man! Like you I was delighted to see he actually used all those expressions. You read them so much in books they start to seem like fictive creations after a awhile. But this real man was one of Christie's Anglo-Indian majors (in Christie they are always majors) brought to life.

    He's an interesting contrast with Farjeon. Farjeon seems more the gentle, domestic family man, CSH the hard-nosed imperialist who stood no nonsense and only married and had a child when he was nearing sixty. I'm not surprised that, in contrast with Farjeon, he disliked the press, criticism of the police, "manhood suffrage," London society and the United States. But he was right that if the son had not been such a ninny a lot of difficulties in Great Porter Square could have been avoided!

    Anyway, I'm very pleased you enjoyed it. Like you I am fascinated by books themselves, their design, provenance and so on. The marginalia in this one was so striking I just felt I had to blog about it.

  7. Dear Passing Tramp,
    I am Coote Synge-Hutchinson's great, great granddaugher (granddaughter of Patrick Synge-Hutchinson 1912-1998, great niece of Joan Synge-Hutchinson Wilson 1911-2004).
    I have a number of his other books - all adorned with his florid signature and some with a name stamp - but none of them have marginalia. This is perhaps because they are all more serious reference books or in latin! I have some of his military regalia too.
    I enjoyed reading your blog - I can just imagine my grandfather saying 'what utter rot!'
    best regards Penny Williams

  8. Dear Penny,

    I am so glad to hear from you. I wonder whether you might have a photo of CSH I could use for a blog update? I would love to find out whether he read any more novels and made commentary (maybe this book put him off them). If you want to drop me a line click my about me link on the lower right (contact info is in my profile). I thought it wonderful the way your ancestor came to life so vividly from his marginalia. He must have been quite a memorable person.

  9. Glorious stuff!

    We have a rather depressing attitude towards marginalia today, in that we just see it as something akin to graffiti. I've been shown Renaissance books where the original owner(s) have written in them and then the 19th century owners have scrubbed the annotations out, to the despair of later historians who really wanted to see what the original owner had to say. All the way up to (I think) the 18th / 19th century (so slightly before Lieutenant Hutchinson!) and marginalia would just be the reader's way of interacting with the text, the way we do when we post on blogs! Which is great, because we get stories like these.

    Incidentally, I'd like to think that Nelly Farjeon would be the same person as Eleanor Farjeon, as then the author of 'Nursery Rhymes of Old London Town' would actually be American!


    1. Thanks for this comment and I apologize for the late reply (four years!). I am so glad this marginalia survived! Such a window into the reality of a prior age, rather than merely the rhetoric.