I read about the subject of this historical novel in an article in the May 2022 edition of “The Oldie” magazine. It was written by the author and entitled “The First Child Star”. I knew of Michael Arditti but have never read him (I do have a copy of his “The Celibate” on my shelves) and was totally fascinated by his account of his latest hero.
William Betty (1791-1874) became a hugely celebrated actor in his early teens, playing to huge acclaim and intimidating other very popular performers into semi-retirement and playing roles he was far too young to act. This fame ended suddenly as it would do for myriads of child stars to the present day. This novel begins when at the age of 20 he attempts to make a comeback.
In Arditti’s novel we see William going it alone. The tutor who had so inspired and believed in him was dismissed by his manager father who has subsequently died. His first-person narrative feels authentic. He does seem to have only sketchy memories of the time of his fame, even though it was just a few years before and is trying to piece together what caused him to fall out of favour. This lack of memory is an effective device within the narrative but is quite a big ask for the reader to take on board and I admit to getting confused at times between the switches from Master Betty to the now Mr Betty’s attempts to emulate his success.
It is a slim novel and didn’t really get going in the way I was expecting it to. Technically, it is impressive but perhaps the author had over-whetted my appetite in “The Oldie” article and I would have liked this fascinating, now pretty much forgotten subject to have been opened up more. I do have a fascination for the fleeting nature of celebrity and this very early historical example is certainly worth a read. It was always enjoyable even if it did not quite make the impression on me that I was anticipating.
The Young Pretender was published by Arcadia Books in 2022.