Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 12, 1898 --- Sir Tatton and Lady Sykes

The eccentric "Lord of the Yorkshire Wolds," Sir Tatton Sykes is sued by a London moneylender to whom the Baronet's wife owes 16,000 pounds.  Daniel Jay, who lends at the usurious rate of 60% interest, holds promissory notes allegedly signed by Sir Tatton.  The latter disclaims them as forgeries.

Sir Tatton and Lady Jessica have been married for 24 years, he is thirty years her senior. He prefers to remain at Sledmere, his estate in the East Riding, where he raises horses and restores churches. She prefers London where it is whispered "Lady Satin Tights" has squandered a million pounds on drink, gambling and the stock exchange.

In the words of Sir Tatton's counsel, "A case more painful to an English gentleman could not be imagined." The baronet testifies that for years his wife has forged his name to notes and he finally took the step of announcing in The Times that he would no longer be responsible for her debts. Lady Sykes insists that the signatures are genuine, suggesting Sir Tatton is addled enough not to remember what he has signed.  She complains of his parsimony and tiresome arguments over pin money.  Most memorable, however, is her description of Sir Tatton's peculiarities, e.g. rather than pay to heat Sledmere, Sir Tatton began each day wearing two pairs of pants and six coats, shedding them as the temperatures rose and vice versa.  Even his defenders must acknowledge that Sir Tatton is "extremely whimsical."

Despite hours of testimony from handwriting experts, the trial comes down to Sir Tatton the man, not his signature. In the words of his lawyer, after years of feeding his wife's extravagances, the time had come at last when "this had to be stopped."  For the other side, the jury is told that Sir Tatton would rather dishonor his wife than honor her debts.  In less than an hour, the jury (all men, of course) ruled the notes to be forgeries.  The Spectator, although declaring a "more sordidly discreditable suit was never heard," nonetheless refused to subscribe to the "irrational astonishment created by the fact that while the world has been so advancing in intelligence, individuals within it have remained as bad as ever."

The Sykes lived out their unhappy marriage until both died shortly before World War 1.

[Caricature from Vanity Fair]

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