The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

119 Great Porter Square (1881)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

119 Great Porter Square and its sequel The Mystery of Felix (1890) were written by B.L. Farjeon. Benjamin Leopold Farjeon (1833-1903) was an author of novels, short stories, and dime novels. Although better known as the father of composer and pianist Harry Farjeon and children’s author Eleanor Farjeon, Farjeon was also an early Jewish novelist whose fiction portrayed non-stereotypical Jews, a comparative rarity in Victorian fiction.

Robert Agnold is a young reporter for the London Evening Moon who turns detective. He is unnamed in 119 Great Porter Square and is referred to only as Our Reporter. Both Agnold novels are more like early police procedural novels than standard mysteries, containing long excerpts of criminal trials, longer statements by the suspects—one such statement is over eighty pages long—and spending a great deal of time on the lives of those directly and indirectly involved in the crimes or in the central love stories. Both novels are really slice of life novels rather than mysteries proper. Lengthy sections of both books consist of letters between main characters. These letters are epistolary infodumps which move the plot along and give the reader necessary information but which serve no other purpose and do not entertain. Farjeon was a functional, utilitarian writer, but not much else besides, and both Robert Agnold novels are tepid mixes of mystery and romance plot.

What is notable about both novels is their police procedural approach and the amount of space which Farjeon spends describing the lives of the poor. 119 Great Porter Square was written only three years after Anna Katherine Green’s The Leavenworth Case and was clearly influenced by Green’s use of multi-media elements such as trial statements and her use of the casebook approach of realistic, point-by-point investigation. That Farjeon should be influenced by Green is not surprising, as Green’s fame was considerable in 1881. But Farjeon’s style did not improve in the nine years between the publication of 119 Great Porter Square and the publication of The Mystery of M. Felix, despite the changes in the mystery genre brought about by the popularity of The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries. 1890 was a late date for a novelist to be sticking with a by-then outdated approach to mystery novels, and it is no surprise that Farjeon did not continue writing mystery novels after M. Felix.

Interestingly, Farjeon's sympathies were clearly with the underclass, rather than the upper classes or the police. Although the casebook detectives like Tom Fox (see: Tom Fox; or, The Revelations of a Detective) and Thomas Waters (see: The Waters Mysteries) often worked among the lower classes and dealt with the crimes that were common among them, Farjeon’s contemporaries had moved away from depictions of street-level crimes and criminals and, following the lead of the sensation novelists, especially Wilkie Collins (see: The Woman in White), wrote mysteries featuring and aimed at the middle and upper classes. Few of Farjeon’s contemporaries exhibited much concern or sympathy for the destitute of Victorian London; Farjeon, by contrast, obviously identifies with them rather than with the presumed audience of his novels.

Recommended Edition

Print: B.L. Farjeon, Great Porter Square: A Mystery. London: Ward and Downey, 1890.