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Mr Dickens and Master Betty

By Alan Stockwell
Vesper Hawk Publishing £7.95
190 pages

Dateline: 16th August, 2010

In 1838 Charles Dickens edited and rewrote the memoirs of the great clown Joseph Grimaldi from a version already edited from a manuscript dictated by the man himself. Alan Stockwell in this novel imagines him doing something similar three years earlier, when, having honed his shorthand in Doctor's Commons, he has become a parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle. In this case it is William Betty who engages him to take down his memoirs, which he intends to publish to help support his son's debut as an actor.

Betty had been famous; this would have been a celebrity memoir, had it ever been written. He planned it to boost the fledgling career of his son, about to make his debut as an actor at Gravesend. But who was Betty?

You've probably heard of him, but probably under the sobriquet with which was so often blazoned on the playbills of the years of his greatest success 1804-1806: 'The Young Roscius.' At that time he was the highest paid performer on the British stage. He packed the Theatres Royal of both Drury Lane and Covent Garden when, at thirteen or fourteen years old, he appeared in such leading roles in the popular repertoire of the days as Hamlet, Romeo, Rolla in Pizarro and Norval in Douglas.

Stockwell has imagined Betty dictating a text which he presents as they may have been worked up by Dickens, as a third person narrative, and presents it interspersed with dialogues between the middle-aged Betty and his amanuensis. These dialogues entertainingly allow a further exploration of the character of both men and introduce a picture of Dickens's early life as well as giving an opportunity for comment on Betty's contemporaries which might have been deemed inappropriate in a public publication.

The memoirs themselves, if not the most beautifully crafted piece of writing - and of course, they are presented as a reworked version of Betty's dictation, not a polished piece of authorship - are cleverly constructed and full of information about the theatre and personalities of the period and are an imaginative presentation of considerable research. They also form a touching story of a child being exploited by a parent, of a career that faltered with the loss of childish treble. Despite his proud primness he seems extremely likeable and indeed is known to have lived modestly and to have devoted himself to good works and theatrical charities after his early but comfortable retirement from the stage in his thirties following an unsuccessful attempt to launch a fresh stage career after university at Cambridge and service as a cavalry captain.

If you have an interest in theatre and don't already know about Master Betty, The Young Roscius, you will find this a fascinating story and a 'good read.' Even if you are aware of his brief fame you will almost certainly find plenty of information here to intrigue you together with an amusing picture of the somewhat prickly nature of Mr Betty and Mr Dickens imaginary relationship.

Howard Loxton

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©Peter Lathan 2010