Bettymania refers to the extraordinary adulation by the British public of the boy actor William Henry West Betty (13 September 1791 – 24 August 1874), better known as Master Betty, from August 1803 to May 1806, when he was a beautiful pubescent aged nearly twelve to fourteen and two thirds. Thereafter, he faded into obscurity nearly as dramatically as he had risen.
The most thorough study of his life is The Prodigy. A Study of the Strange Life of Master Betty by English historian Giles Playfair (1910-96), published by Secker and Warburg of London in 1967. Though a general biography, Playfair sought, above all, to explain the reasons for Bettymania, and concluded that it was a pederastic phenomenon, driven by widespread and mostly male excitement over an exceptionally beautiful boy (albeit never directly acknowledged, since this was the era in which British antagonism towards homosexuality in general was at its peak). Presented here are a selection of passages either indicating this or showing the heights to which Bettymania ascended.
Everybody here is mad about this Boy Actor…. We go to town tomorrow to see him, and from what I have heard, I own I shall be disappointed if he is not a prodigy.
CHARLES JAMES FOX in a letter to Lord Holland, December 17th, 1804
Curious it undoubtedly was, this life of the child actor of all time and the theatre’s monumental has-been. But though there is rather more to tell about the person who led it than has been told hitherto, he himself matters less today than what happened to him and what happened matters less in turn than how it could have happened at all.
History has dodged that question, or rather it has obscured the point of asking it. In the Dictionary of National Biography, and in other encyclopaedias where Master Betty’s name is listed, his story is reduced to a freakish episode that has no surviving relevance. The mania he caused, one gathers, extraordinary though it may have been while it lasted, was bound to be short-lived, because it was wholly irrational; and one is provided with an extreme exemplification of its remoteness from anything that could conceivably recur. There was an ‘occasion’ when the House of Commons, on the motion of Mr. Pitt himself, adjourned in order to see this thirteen-year-old boy as Hamlet. Or so one is informed. […]
Was the boy a true prodigy? History says, emphatically, that he was not. But why, then, should he have been accorded, even briefly, such acclaim as one? Because, History says, the public went temporarily out of its mind. But in that case what sent the public out of its mind, and, come to that, what eventually brought it back to its senses? […]
His story is essentially a familiar one of Fashion’s favour won and lost. The losing was, perhaps, inevitable, although it might have been delayed longer than it was, had the boy’s Friends avoided some of the mistakes they made. But before the winning there was the courting, and it is this which gives the story its continuing importance. When one begins to see that Bettymania was not, as History implies, something that merely happened, but was, on the contrary, the result of a carefully planned appeal to Fashion, one ceases to view it as a remote or even unrepeatable phenomenon. […]
On the dismissal of William Hough, Betty’s tutor, who had coached him in acting and been instrumental in his early success:
[…] So long as he remained a Friend, he rightly believed , for reasons we shall see, that as little attention as possible should be drawn to himself and his work; and though he threatened after his dismissal to publish some startling revelations, he was eventually silenced—allegedly with a small settlement. Consequently he remains a very shadowy figure, […]. He was thought to have been treated extremely badly when he was dismissed from Master Betty’s service […].
When Hough was dismissed, the newspapers talked of a minor falling out between him and Mr Betty [the actor’s father]. The latter, despite the charges of base ingratitude that he had to face, never tried to correct this impression, although it was far from his usual practice to remain silent under Press attack. Hough, for his part, showed signs of being in a weak bargaining position, for the settlement that he accepted, and that supposedly shut his mouth, amounted to only fifty guineas a year. Considering that he might have done at least as well financially with the threatened publication of his revelations, it seems odd that he did not hold out for more, unless he was afraid of what Mr Betty, if he were pushed too far, might in his turn reveal.
So it looks as though there must have been something far more serious behind the quarrel than was ever made public, and that this had to do with behavior on Hough’s part which, whether forgivable or not by the father, alienated the son traumatically. A scurrilous pamphlet, that was addressed to the boy soon afterwards in the form of a mock application for the vacant post of his tutor, contains the lines:
For I’ve a wondrous rod in pickle
Your pretty little Bum to tickle
Perhaps it was to just such a temptation that Hough eventually yielded—or just such a practice in which he surreptitiously indulged until his pupil could bear it no longer. It is hard to imagine what other or lesser kind of affront could have made Master Betty, who never had any say in the conduct of his own boyhood career, dislike Hough so intensely forty years later he should have wanted the man’s existence symbolically obliterated.
All this is mere speculation, of course, and although there may be pertinence in adding that Hough was evidently a bachelor, one is still left with a very flimsy basis on which to accuse him of perverted tendencies. But the possibility inevitably intrudes itself, because of its relevance to the whole story. The point is that for any man who was sexually attracted to small boys, the opportunity of being Master Betty’s tutor might in itself have been irresistible. For Master Betty was a boy of extraordinary physical beauty; and his physical beauty, one may venture to say here and now, prove, from the point of view of his Friends, to be his chief asset. In this lay their fortune—and his fate.
Not that it was his only asset. Indeed, if it had been, it would have been unusable. Physical beauty or appeal does not of itself command admiration from the stage; there is art needed to reveal it, and it is a delusion to imagine otherwise. The extent to which the public, in its worship of Master Betty’s form, was to deceive itself, or rather was to be willingly deceived, into exaggerating his histrionic abilities is a matter for detailed consideration later on, but the boy would have got nowhere if he had been talentless. […]
Equally, one does not know if Hough perceived that the unique and golden thing about Master Betty was his appearance. One may suspect that he did, if only because it was the thing he was in effect to exploit. But it is possible that he was as successful in concealing this knowledge from himself as he was from everybody else; the cleverest and most successful of promoters, after all, are usually the dupes of their own propaganda. In any case, it was something he could never admit to. There would have been no hope of selling Master Betty to either the managers or the public on the grounds that he was a little of boy of exceptional appeal; for though that, ultimately, was the reason why he was to prove so saleable, or at any rate so immensely profitable, he had to be packaged under a very different sort of labour, if people were to be persuaded to buy what they might otherwise have felt ashamed of wanting. Meanwhile, Hough was faced with a more formidable task than preparing his pupil for the stage. And that was to get him on it.
Discussing the successful early promotion of Betty as a “second Garrick”, the actor David Garrick (who had died twenty-five years earlier) being still enormously revered:
What is lacking there, of course, is any attempt to explain why the people of England should have been willing, even momentarily, to accept the child as a second Garrick; why, to put the matter in cruder and more up-to-date language, they should have fallen for so unlikely, even grotesque, a line. But that is the very question that History has refused to face. It is enough to say here that if the line had not been proffered, there could have been no Bettymania—no nation-wide worship of a beautiful boy. In a word, the people of England fell for it because they wanted to.
On Betty’s initial theatrical success in Ireland in 1803, which preceded his appearance as an actor in England:
Had it been the custom then, as it is now, to extract the most favourable Press comments on a theatrical performance for advertising purposes, a playbill announcing the last of the boy’s appearances in Ireland could have included from the commendations he had gathered during the preceding months:
‘So wonderful a collection of natural powers never have been witnessed in so young a creature’—Faulkner’s Dublin Journal
‘Literally astonished the audience … this most wonderful boy … so perfect and interesting an exhibition has not been witnessed for many years’—Dublin Evening Post
‘The audience seemed sometimes as if lost in wonder … no difficulty can be felt in stating this youthful performer’s vast pretensions to the title … of the Infant Roscius’—Freeman’s Journal
‘Osman was inconceivably well performed … we have never seen it better performed nor ever acted by talents of such promise’—Cork Mercantile Chronicle
‘Drenched the audience in tears’—Dublin Evening Post
Yet it seems unlikely that puffing of this magnitude could or would have continued, if the public had remained obstinately unpersuaded by it, or, in other words, if it had not succeeded in its purpose. […]
And, a few days afterwards [by comparison with 7 December 1804] Faulkner’s Dublin Journal was to add: ‘Criticism and panegyrics upon the Young Roscius, as he is called, exclude almost every other matter from the columns of the London newspapers. Buonaparte, and his Invasion, and his Coronation, are all alike forgotten and disregarded.’
II. The Gold Rush
Describing the conduct of William Chisholme, a lawyer sent by R. B. Sheridan, the manager of Drury Lane (a leading theatre in London) to Birmingham (where Betty was then performing prior to his first appearance in London) to negotiate a contract with Betty’s father:
In a letter to Sheridan next day, he reported that the boy was worth a ‘ton of wealth’ from what he had heard and seen of him. ‘Never did I on any similar occasion behold such crowds as were flocking from every part of the country to see the prodigy. Vehicles of every kind, and at the principal inns scarce a bed to be had … I went to the theatre an hour before the performance began to see Macready and then found every corner crowded by persons [trying?] to gain admission, but the house even at that early hour was overflowing….’
Describing the public reception of Betty during his successful pre-London provincial tour in the autumn of 1804:
The public demand for him was certainly prodigious. In Stockport, they rang the church bells to celebrate the news of his agreement to give an extra performance. During his engagement at Sheffield, ‘Theatrical Coaches’ appeared at the Doncaster Races ‘to carry six insides to see the Young Roscius’. In Liverpool, according to an account in the Annual Register, drawn from J. Merritt, a local memoirist, ‘the difficulty of gaining admittance was such, that in a few hours the house was filled—nay, the pressure, in a morning, to take places was such, that all the standing rigging of the pressors was carried away; and hats, wigs, boots, muffs, spencers and tippets, flew about in all directions’. An anonymous London memoirist in referring to these wild goings-on at Liverpool ‘regrets to mention that a lady was killed’. ‘We hope, therefore,’ he adds, ‘this will actuate as a caution to the females of this metropolis to avoid so disastrous a fate.’ But, as a matter of fact, such provincial manifestations of Bettymania were no more than a foretaste of what London was going to prove itself capable of.
The profits were likewise immense. […]
III. The Idol
Master Betty and his entourage reached London on November 25th . […]
Several medals of the boy had already been struck and likenesses of him were on sale in the print shops, with one immediate result which The Times reported on November 27th: ‘The Young Roscius was at Covent Garden last night, and being soon recognised he was obliged to dislodge. After changing his situation to avoid observance, he at last took refuge in Mr. Harris’s private box, the next to the Gallery, on the Prince's side, where he remained perdu until the conclusion of the pantomime.’ If he hadn't taken refuge, as another account makes clear, he would undoubtedly have been mobbed; and that, let it be emphasised, within twenty four hours of his reaching town.
On Saturday, December 1st, he made his début on the Covent Garden stage as Achmet in a forgotten tragedy called Barbarossa. On the following Monday, The Daily Advertiser outdid itself with four headlines: YOUNG ROSCIUS IN LONDON―Covent Garden Theatre―THE CROWD―YOUNG ROSCIUS APPEARS. There followed five whole columns of report and comment, occupying well over half the total editorial space that The Daily Advertiser (or any other newspaper of the period) had at its disposal. The Times gave the story two and a half columns. ‘The first appearance of Master Betty in London’, The Times began, as if in self-justification for making so much of it, ‘may be considered as a remarkable epoch in the history of the English stage.’ To judge from the assessment of newsworthiness that the entire London Press put on the story, it was a remarkable ‘epoch’ in the history of the English nation; and The Times for its part has yet to discover another ‘epoch’ in the history of British entertainment meriting anything near a quarter of its space. One may doubt if The Times ever will.
There were really two separate and distinct stories to be told: of the performance itself and of the battle to see it. Only the topmost leaders of Fashion―the privileged owners of private boxes―could afford to turn up at their leisure. His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, was among them, and according to The Times, ‘appeared to applaud ... with particular and marked enthusiasm’. But The Times also noted that ‘there were but few persons of fashion in the lower boxes, although they were almost all taken in fashionable names. The apprehension of the danger they were to encounter, detained the timid from the Theatre.’
It was a danger that the hardiest of today’s pop-struck teenagers might shrink from. At about ten o’clock in the morning, a crowd of Fashion’s slaves, in which men outnumbered Women by some twenty to one, began to mass, not queue outside the theatre. By the early afternoon, in the words of The Daily Advertiser, it ‘stretched out in long, thick-wedged, impenetrable columns, to the extremity of the Piazzas in Covent Garden, and quite across Bow Street. Many who did not mean to get in, lined the streets and windows, contemplating with sentiments of awe and fear the tremendous accumulation of numbers.’
There would probably have been a concentrated attempt to break into the theatre, if police officers hadn’t been present in force to prevent it. As it was, people in the vanguard of the crowd found themselves trapped in the narrow passageways between the outer doors and the barred inner doors, unable to move foward and being pressed harder and harder from behind. When some of them fainted, and others, half suffocated, started shrieking to get out, a ‘strong detachment' of guards had to be called for to clear the entrances.
Police and soldiers acquitted themselves manfully, it was said―with as much tact and kindness as efficiency. But when the doors were opened at last, nothing could stop the ensuing pandemonium. ‘The rush was terrific’, The Daily Advertiser’s report continues. ‘In the space of a few minutes, the two galleries ... seemed as one compact solid mass. Gentlemen who knew there were no places untaken in the boxes, paid for admission, and poured from the front boxes into the pit in twenties and thirties at a time. Even after the pit was crammed, the gentlemen crowded the front boxes, and ... police officers fruitlessly attempted to clear the other rows for those who had taken them … The heat in every part of the House became excessive soon after it was filled ... The Ladies in one or two boxes were employed almost the whole night in fanning the Gentlemen beneath them in the pit. Upwards of twenty gentlemen who … fainted were dragged up into the boxes; we observed several more raising their hands, as if in the act of supplication for mercy and pity.’
They had an hour and a half to wait, this tortured, jam-packed audience, before the performance was due to begin. When Charles Kemble, John Philip’s brother, finally appeared to deliver an address that had been specially written for the occasion by J. Taylor, a former editor of The Morning Post, they would not listen to him. ‘Off! Off!’ they yelled, and, louder and louder, ‘Off! Off! Off!’ They didn’t intend any disrespect or hostility to Charles Kemble himself. They wanted to drown out the sound of something which, in their agonised state of suspense, they mistakenly assumed he was going to say and which they couldn’t bear to hear. They thought he had come forward to make an apology―to tell them that the boy was unable to appear. And the hubbub persisted during the whole of the first act of Barbarossa, which might as well have been played in dumb-show. But this wasn’t, as it might be today, because of the presence of their idol; it was because of his absence. Achmet doesn’t make his entrance until midway through the second act.
Accounts differ as to what happened when that climatic moment arrived. ‘For two or three minutes before,’ according to The Times, ‘an universal buz or murmur pervaded every part of the house, which burst forth into repeated peals of the loudest applause, and most general acclamations, that we have ever heard as soon as he presented himself.’ The Daily Advertiser agreed about the thunderous reception, but was deaf to any buzz or murmur immediately beforehand: ‘... the whole House was wrapt in the deepest attention, and not a whisper was heard.’
For Joseph Farington, diarist and landscape painter, who was a guest of the John Philip Kembles in their private box, the climactic moment was somewhat anti-climactic. ‘I saw him standing between the scenes, and conversing quite at his ease sometime before He came forward. He was greeted warmly, but the applause was quite temperate…’ But Farington soon found things warming up. ‘... In the third act He excited such feelings as produced a thundering crack of applause such as I thought I never heard before. A second time he did the same.‘ […]
But though Kemble apparently allowed himself to hope that the boy would fail the test, one may see in retrospect that there was never the least chance of it. The build-up had been too great to be torn down in a night. Fashion was already pledged to him before he reached London; and the Press was largely then, as it is largely now, Fashion’s mouthpiece. Collectively, the audience at his Covent Garden début did not come to judge him. They came to affirm their faith in his supremacy: to embrace him as a kind of creed.
‘He and Buonaparte now divide the world,’ James Northcote, the artist, wrote to William Knighton, a few, days later. For others there was no question of the boy's dividing anything with anyone. ‘And the war and Buonaparte were for a time unheeded and forgotten,’ The Morning Post said glowingly of his opening performance at Covent Garden. The same thought was in many people’s minds. It was echoed a few days later by Lady Elizabeth Foster, second Duchess of Devonshire to be, in a letter to her son:
‘As for politicks, though every day an account of Buonaparte’s coronation and Russia's decision is expected, nothing is hardly seen or talked of but this young Roscius. I saw him his first night ... I saw him last night as Norval in Douglas. He is but thirteen, and yet I never saw anything to compare to him. His is the inspiration of genius, with the correctness of taste belonging to experience and study alone, feeling far beyond his years, and a knowledge of the stage equal to any performer, and far more graceful. In short, he has changed the life of London. People dine at four, go to the play, and think of nothing but the play.’
Immediately after his opening night, the Countess of Bessborough wrote to Lord Granville Leveson Gower, then British Ambassador in St Petersburg, telling him that Bess and Caro [Lady Caroline Lamb to be] had just come in ‘raving wild with Master Betty’. ‘You would not suspect’, she added, ‘that there were any great political discussions going on, or that Europe was in the state of warfare and bondage; it seems as if the whole people of England had but one interest, one occupation—to decide on the merits of Master Betty—puis parlez moi du phlegme anglois.’
The Courier reported on December 8th that during the past two days a great deal of discussion had been going on in the Royal Family about the Young Roscius. Apparently, H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge believed him to be the best actor in the world: an opinion warmly endorsed by H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex. However, H.R.H. the Duke of Kent was inclined to be less enthusiastic. ‘Their Majesties’, The Courier added, ‘are much amused by this new style of conversation.’
It must have amused statesmen, too, Mr Pitt in particular, to find the news value of Napoleon’s Coronation on December 2nd so undermined by a theatrical event on the home front that had taken place the night before. One would like to imagine—and perhaps it is just conceivable—that the politicians deliberately fostered Bettymania as a means of diverting attention from the continued cost and inconvenience of the war, and the overhanging threat of invasion. Certainly, they did nothing to discourage it; and, if one particular poetic outburst was truly reflective of the situation, the coming of Master Betty brought as much happiness to the masses as it gave the ruling class the opportunity for a grand social diversion.
What sounds confus’d my ears?
From Priests, from Poets, Actors, Peers!
What mania fills the town?
Smiles, greetings, salutations, all
One buz of joy ‘mongst great and small,
The world’s sure upside down
Oh! blesh my heart—old Levi cries,
Dear me!—the Christian Miss replies;
Ben Block, too, aids the clatter:
Huzzas augment the swelling tide,
Pleasure prevails on ev’ry side,
John Bull cries, What’s the matter?
The matter, John! thy ears stretch wide,
Thy wig set straight, whate’er betide,
The Bard the news shall tell:
To gain the truth, he has contriv’d,
Know, Master Betty’s just arriv’d
At RICHARDSON’S Hotel!!
However, one must not exaggerate the significance of Bettymania as a form of escapism. The Napoleonic wars hurt the poor, but the rich suffered little from them in blood, and less than nothing from them in treasure. Besides, fear of Buonaparte, to the extent that it existed, was certainly not as profound a sociological influence as fear of the Bomb is today. Inasmuch as Master Betty was Fashion’s discovery, what he provided was an escape from tedium rather than anxiety: a ‘new style of conversation’ to replace the topic of Napoleon and his invasion threat, which was presumably becoming a bore. In the same way, it may be noted, the Beatles ousted the Profumo scandal late in 1963.
But if it is true—and it may be—that Master Betty appeared at precisely the right psychological moment, and that had he appeared a little later or earlier he might have been ignored, this does not explain why he received the inordinate amount of attention that he did receive. The suggestion has been made from the beginning that faith in the Young Roscius creed was a pretext for worshipping a beautiful boy. And even if there were no evidence at all, direct or indirect, to support this theory, one would arrive at it by a process of elimination.
Conceivably, Master Betty was, for as long as he held his position, all that his most fervent admirers claimed that he was. Conceivably, he possessed, fleetingly, such consummate genius that he could make audiences forget the essential incongruity of his playing grown-up parts in the same sense that Laurence Olivier, for example, who in fact had rather weak vocal cords, can give the illusion of being endowed with exceptionally strong and powerful ones. Conceivably, as Jackson averred, ‘when he became warmed into action, his soul expanded, and his frame seemed to rise to a gigantic height’.
But apart from this possibility--and the very fact that Fashion, and consequently History, rejected it so soon makes it appear too faint a one to be seriously considered—how else is Bettymania to be accounted for?
It is true, as an incredulous foreign visitor remarked after attending one of the boy's performances, that if a rabbit can be taught to beat a drum, however ineffectively by human standards, the result is a show that people may flock to see. That is what is meant by ‘novelty’ appeal. But novelty appeal is limited. The same people will not flock, night after night, to see the same rabbit beat other sorts of drum in the same ineffective way.
Granted that this analogy is inapposite to the extent that any thirteen-year-old child can be taught to act more convincingly than an animal can be taught to play a musical instrument, it is hardly imaginable that people who saw Master Betty once would have returned to see him over and over again, merely because of the novelty inherent in a small boy’s incongruous attempt to impersonate such characters as Hamlet and Richard III. ‘The violence of the desire to see him either on or off the stage’, James Northcote told Dr Knighton, ‘is like a madness in the people.’ Why should it have been, if in reality he could give no sufficient illusion of being another Garrick? There is only one possibility left: that the ‘madness’ to see him was due to the very fact that he wasn’t a man, but an overwhelmingly attractive boy. And when one begins to note the emphasis that contemporary comment placed on his physical attributes, this possibility becomes a virtual certainty. Bettymania must have been basically, however disguisedly, a sexual phenomenon.
The Times correspondent, who reported Master Betty’s visit to Covent Garden on the night after his arrival in town, seems to have been a trifle disappointed, though at the same time he plainly indicated what he was looking for. ‘He has the appearance of an arrant schoolboy, and was rather slovenly dressed, wearing a brown great coat, and a coloured handkerchief round his neck. His features seem handsome and rather feminine….’
But on that occasion his Friends evidently weren’t prepared for him to be recognised, or more care might have been taken to show him off at his best. He made a better impression on Mrs Jordan a couple of nights later, when he was taken to see her in her dressing-room at Drury Lane. ‘He was anxious to be introduced to me,’ she wrote to her royal lover on November 29th; ‘therefore Wilson and his father brought him. He has a most prepossessing countenance-with great diffidence and sweetness of manner.’
One may wonder, parenthetically, whether the boy himself really asked to meet Mrs Jordan or whether his father or Wilson or both thought it would be a good idea for him to get on the right side of her. But for the moment that question doesn’t matter. The point is that his looks were an asset to be exploited off the stage as well as on.
One gets, perhaps, the most vivid idea of this from a letter written to The Daily Telegraph shortly after Master Betty's death in 1874. The writer, who signs herself ‘An Old Actress’, says that as a very young girl she remembers the boy’s arrival for his first rehearsal in Birmingham, because her mother was a member of the company. ‘There was a great assembly in the Green Room, and everybody evinced the utmost anxiety and curiosity to see him. He came attended by Mr. Hough. To my childish sight he was a complete vision of beauty in the broad daylight, without the night's appliances ... [He] bowed in an elegant manner as Mr. Macready presented him and his tutor to the company. The latter kept aloof. The boy went round the room, and shook hands with all in a winning easy manner, yet was totally devoid of either bashfulness or boldness. He made his first appearance in Birmingham, in the character of Young Norval. His looks upon his entrance fascinated and rivetted the attention of the audience. His youthful figure was graceful in the extreme, and the picturesque Highland costume displayed it to the utmost advantage. His features were delicate, but somewhat feminine; his eyes were a full, bright and shining blue; his fair hair was long, and hung in ringlets over his shoulders; in the daytime those abundant tresses were confined with a comb, which still more gave the idea of a female in male costume.’
But one need not rely on the written word of his contemporaries—on the reiterated references in contemporary criticism to his ‘gracefulness’—to know that he must have been an astonishingly beautiful youth. One has assurance of that from the portraits that Northcote and Opie painted of him as well as from numerous prints. The great majority of these show him in one or other of his various stage parts, and as such they tend to confirm an observation made in the chapter devoted to him in Public Characters of 1806: ‘He takes care to display his ringlets on critical occasions with effect.’
For it seems virtually certain that nothing was ever done with the aid of make-up to conceal the fact that he was, as Humphreys the artist put it, ‘the little Apollo off the pedestal’. On the contrary, make-up and costume alike were evidently used to accentuate his young and girlish beauty. According to Bisset, his Birmingham memoirist, he himself was once asked by a female admirer, ‘Pray, my love, did you ever play King Lear?’ To which, ‘with a graceful bow and a smile’, he is supposed to have replied: ‘No, Madam, nor yet, Sir John Falstaff.’ Though that anecdote is as likely as not untrue, it makes a relevant point. His Falstaff would have been little more intrinsically ridiculous than many of the characters he did in fact portray. But as Falstaff some sort of uglifying disguise for him would have been unavoidable.
This—to repeat a point—does not mean that he had nothing to recommend him but his looks. Judged as a relatively inexperienced boy actor, with a still unbroken voice, he must have had extraordinary talent or rather an extraordinary ability to follow the instructions of his gifted tutor. The mere technical feat of his being able to make himself heard in a theatre as large as Drury Lane, which was nearly twice the size of the present building, staggers the imagination, especially when one thinks of young performers of today clinging on to their microphones for dear life. But there is, incidentally, no point in trying to assess his acting in modern terms or in speculating on how a modern audience would regard it, because a changed social climate has made acting such as his an impossibility, just as it has made the acting that a Garrick, a Kean or an Irving presented in their time both unimaginable and irrelevant. Still, histrionic style and histrionic talent should not be confused; the one is adaptive, the other is constant. If Kean were to be reborn, he would not give precisely the same performances that he did give in his lifetime; but he would still be a transcendent genius. Similarly, if Master Betty were to be reborn, he would act differently, but still impressively within his limits.
And even though it was his physical appeal that caused people to persuade themselves that those limits did not exist, the response that he aroused was, nevertheless, in some cases predominantly aesthetic. James Northcote was one of his very few admirers who did not change his opinion of him, when Fashion did. Years after Bettymania had become a thing of the past, Northcote spoke to Hazlitt about the boy’s acting: ‘Oh! yes, it was such a beautiful effusion of natural sensibility; and then that graceful play of the limbs in youth gave such an advantage over every one about him.’
Hazlitt himself, when he was a young man, saw Master Betty as Norval in Douglas, and, like Northcote, he never afterwards betrayed the memory of the delight which the experience had given him. ‘Master Betty's acting was a singular phenomenon’, he writes in Table Talk, ‘but it was also as beautiful as it was singular … he seemed almost like some “gay creature of the elements ”, moving about gracefully, with all the flexibility of youth and murmuring, Aeolian sounds with plaintive tenderness. I shall never forget the way in which he repeated the line in which Young Norval says, speaking of the fate of two brothers:
“And in my mind happy was he that dies!”
The tones fell and seemed to linger prophetic on the ear.’
And, again in his preparatory remarks to Oxberry's edition of Douglas, published in 1819, Hazlitt says: ‘The part of Young Norval is more ideal and practical than dramatic; and in the representation of this part, there was a romantic sweetness, and a personification of youth, of hope and beauty in the face and figure of the Young Roscius, when he first appeared in that character as a boy, which gave back (more than anything we have ever seen) the image of the poet’s mind.’
That, as a matter of fact, had been the poet’s own opinion. According to Jackson—and here he must presumably have been telling the truth—the author of Douglas, John Home, a very old man at the time, saw the boy act Young Norval in Edinburgh, and Home added to the excitement of the occasion by taking a bow at the end of the play. Afterwards, when Jackson asked him ‘how he had been entertained’, he is said to have replied: 'Never better, sir. This is the first time I ever saw the part … played; that is, according to my ideas of the character, as at the time I conceived it, and as I wrote it. He is a wonderful being; his endowments great beyond conception; and I pronounce him at present, or at least that he will soon be, one of the first actors upon the British stage!’
In the light of that kind of testimony, one may feel reasonably sure that though Master Betty’s extreme youthfulness was an inextricable part of his acting—something his audiences neither could forget nor, though they might pretend otherwise, wished to forget—yet his physique, however incongruously, lent a magical quality to his playing of certain parts, such as Norval, which were not too far removed from his own age or palpably beyond a young schoolboy’s emotional range. ‘It is a beautiful and finished portrait’, The Globe wrote of his Frederick in Mrs Inchbald’s Lovers Vows. ‘We are sorry we cannot say picture, for, whenever he appears he does not harmonise with the other figures upon the Scene. They are all thrown to an immeasurable distance, and the eye sees nothing but himself.’ If it seems inconceivable that such a spectacle could have been artistically rewarding, one must remember that despite the cult of ‘Nature’ and ‘Naturalness’, audiences at the beginning of the last century weren’t accustomed to anything approaching the degree of accuracy or realism in stage representation that audiences expect today.
Charles James Fox, as we shall see, considered Master Betty’s Hamlet ‘finer than Garrick’s’. One may dismiss his opinion (and others like it) as fashionable nonsense, for it is a fair presumption that statesmen then, as now, were no less capable of talking rot about the theatre than critics. But Mr Pitt, on the word of Lady Bessborough, wept at one of the boy's performances in Douglas, and it is more likely he did so because he was genuinely moved, than out of consideration for the social or political advantage to be had from being seen in tears over the Young Roscius amidst a weeping audience. Still, it should be added, perhaps, that weeping at the play was in itself a highly fashionable thing to do. ‘I had a wretched sick headache from crying at the play of Zara, in which Roscius outdid himself, wrote Lady Elizabeth Foster to her son, explaining why she had been unable, the next afternoon, to see Lord Aberdeen, who had come to dine at Devonshire House. ‘I was so undone by it I could not leave my room.’ One need not attach too much weight to such apparently overwhelmed emotional reactions to the boy’s acting. Had Lady Elizabeth been living in our time, with more than a century of stern Victorian conditioning behind her, she would doubtless have been able to keep a stiffer upper lip.
But whatever the artistic enjoyment to be derived from watching Master Betty on the stage, it does not alter the fact that his physical appeal must have aroused a sexual response from both men and women, and particularly from men.
‘Female beauty cannot afford anything more sweet than his smile’, said The Lady’s Monthly Museum, of January, 1805. ‘The whole town is in love with him’, The Morning, Post declared on March 8th, 1805, ‘even if he can’t feel love.' Professor Robison, as we have seen, compared him with an ‘unprotected Beauty’; and, unprotected or not, he had for high and low alike something rather more than the glamour of a female film star in our own time. The Morning Chronicle of December 4th, 1804, foreshadowed the day when newspapers would speak of ‘vital statistics’, by reporting under the headline of ‘Material to Know’ that Master Betty was four feet ten inches high and weighed six stone, three and a half pounds. ‘Everything of and about the wonderful boy is interesting’, The Morning Chronicle, explained naïvely.
Richard Cumberland, writing with deep disapproval of the Master Betty craze in his autobiography, recalls seeing him ‘set astride upon the cut-water of a privateer, like the tutelary genius of the British flag’; and of being ‘wafted to morning rehearsal in a vehicle wearing the ensign of a ducal crown upon its polished doors’.
It was evidently impossible for him to move abroad without being recognized and gaped at or cheered by an hysterical multitude. Northcote says in his diary that when the boy arrived at the theatre, he attracted greater crowds than the King and Queen ever did. Northcote also recalls spending a day with him and Sir George and Lady Beaumont at the Tower. Sir George Beaumont, a well known art connoisseur, was a regular attendant at ‘elegant dinner parties’ for the boy. ‘It was curious to see what a mob gathered when he was known’, Northcote writes, and adds that the cannon were fired ‘for his satisfaction’.
There was, of course, an element of mass-hypnosis in Bettymania, as there is in all such manifestations of idolatry, and many of those who fought their way into theatres to see the boy perform were, doubtless, as has already been suggested, mere slaves of Fashion, without sufficient mind or judgment of their own to question the truth of what ‘everybody’ was saying. Nor does one suppose that his audiences were collectively conscious of the sexual excitement that he generated in the same sense that the teen-age fans of a favourite pop singer are today. If they were, they certainly didn’t admit to it.
But it is significant that Master Betty’s vulgar following appears to have been largely male. At his opening performance, as we have seen, the men outnumbered the women by an estimated twenty to one, and though that adult, predominantly masculine audience did not scream and shriek, it shouted and yelled. To judge from the endless number of over-blown tributes to the Young Roscius in poems and letters that were published in the Press, he probably received a huge fan mail, and one relic of this gives a pretty vivid idea of the adulation he commanded from grown men:
To, sing fair England’s pride, oh! muse! inspire
My trembling pen—and aid me with thy Lyre!
Roscius! thy glowing energetic grace―
Lights thy fine eyes, and sparkles in thy face
Thy action o’er our souls, so strongly sways
Thou can’st command our tears, our wonder praise
But can the numbers, I, at distance breathe
Entwine one single laurel in thy wreath?
Ah! no! the task does not to me belong―
Let abler poets then, conclude the Song.
Remote in style and content though that may be from young ladies’ fan letters to Ringo that have been published, in its spirit of subservience, of an awareness of communicating with the unapproachable and unattainable, it is not so very different.
Moreover, there can be no mass-hypnosis without hypnotists, no slaves of Fashion without leaders of Fashion; in the case of Bettymania, they were people who considered themselves playgoers of rare taste and discernment. And while they had their pretext for going to see him on the stage, they also vied with one another to fill his leisure hours. He was their ‘catch’ of the season. ‘Lord and Lady Cholmondeley’, reads an undated note from Cholmondeley House, ‘present their compliments to Mr. Betty, & hope that has not forgot his promise of coming to dine here tomorrow at Six o’clock with his Son.’
One is not suggesting that every man or woman of fashion who wanted to meet or be with the boy was motivated by a conscious or unconscious sexual urge. The most exalted among them were probably being no more than politic. They were simply responding, as has been said, to the popular frenzy, which The Times expressed in these words: ‘He furnishes another proof of the superiority of British genius over the genius of any other country. To lose him would be a national loss.’
It was for that reason, one may feel sure, that Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor, did in fact send for Master Betty shortly after his arrival in London, and offered to put him under the protection of the Chancery Court. According to a letter from Richard Wilson to Thomas Harris, which will be referred to again later, this offer was declined because of the boy’s mistaken belief that it would entail his being separated from his parents. Similarly, when the Prince of Wales received Master Betty at Carlton House and subsequently, if an unconfirmed story is to be believed, presented him with a carriage and four, he was only doing what he thought was expected of the Heir Apparent to the British throne. Nor does it seem likely that Charles James Fox could have taken so much delight in Master Betty’s company that this outweighed his awareness of the good publicity he would receive as a result of having the Betty family to stay with him at St Anne’s Hill over Easter and ‘favouring’ the son ‘with instructions in Zanga’.
His Royal Highness the Duke of Clarence, King William IV to be, played a somewhat less obvious part in the chase. He escorted Master Betty to one of his sittings with Northcote, and in order to keep the boy amused maintained a stream of sailorly sallies at Northcote’s expense, making personal remarks about the artist’s eccentric-looking clothes and appearance. Northcote, a staunch individualist and no respecter of rank, was so irritated that he eventually showed His Royal Highness the door. The Duke took no offence, however. He returned a few days later to explain his behaviour and apologise for it. Joseph Farington, who heard the whole story from Northcote’s own lips, records in his diary entry of February 2nd, 1805: ‘He [the Duke] sat by the fire with Northcote two hours & Talked a great deal: said He would carry the Young Roscius to Court, & would associate Him with the first people that he might set off with every advantage, and acquire the best habits & Higher polish. It appeared to Northcote that the Duke and Mrs. Jordan dislike Kemble so that an additional feeling induces them to be so warm for Young Betty.’
If Northcote's deduction was correct, one may perceive why the wily Wilson should have thought it advisable to introduce the boy to Mrs Jordan so soon after his arrival in London, and no doubt it was through her that he met the Duke. One does not know what, if anything, His Royal Highness actually did to help Master Betty ‘acquire the best habits & Higher polish’, beyond entertaining him at his house in the Stable Yard and at Bushy Park. One may be certain, however, that his ‘warmth’ for ‘Young Betty’ was in direct ratio to the temperature of Bettymania. As that began to fall, and the ‘high fun at Kemble’s expense’ was checked, so, inevitably, did the eager interest in the boy, and the passionate concern for his future, that the rulers of England had previously displayed, start to cool. Long before Master Betty’s career as a child actor was over, he had been dropped by all his most powerful patrons.
No discarded idol of Fashion can expect a better fate, of course. But what made the case unusual was the deep sense of shame that Fashion itself suffered from once it was recovered from Bettymania: a sense of shame which history reflects in its estimate of Master Betty’s acting. Thus in a new biography of Mrs Jordan, which has just been published at the time of writing (December, 1965), the author, Mr Brian Fothergill, quotes with uncritical approval Thomas Campbell, Mrs Siddons’ biographer: ‘The popularity of that baby-faced boy, who possessed not even the element of a good actor, was a hallucination in the public mind, and a disgrace to our theatre history.’ Mr Fothergill, in accepting this verdict as the ‘last word’, follows the established encyclopaedic line. Yet it is as intemperate, and as wide of the mark, as the adulation that was lavished on Master Betty when his attraction was at its peak; Mrs Siddons herself, the subject of Campbell’s biography, did not come near to endorsing it. One may regard this hysterical reaction against hysteria—the talk of ‘hallucination’, ‘disgrace’, and so on—as being in itself grounds for believing that Bettymania had a sexual basis.
Though he apparently made a stronger appeal to paedophiliac instincts in men than women, the latter were far from immune to his attractions. ‘... His fine blue eyes and light brown hair did not tend .to set me against him’, Lady Bessborough recorded after her first meeting with him. And on March 8rd, 1805, Lady Elizabeth Foster wrote to her son: ‘... Miss Drummond is in love, they say, with Young Roscius, so that all her lovers must despair.’
Was that meant seriously? Perhaps not. But James Boaden, biographer of both Kemble and Mrs Jordan, says, in recalling Master Betty’s conquest of London, that ‘all the favouritism, and more than the innocence of ... patronesses was lavished on him’. An article published in Temple Bar in 1874 calls this a ‘singular remark’. But it does not seem so singular when one considers the extraordinary lengths to which rich and fashionable women went in order to catch just a glimpse of the Young Roscius close to. A ‘lady of quality’ stood on the staircase of Northcote’s studio for the pleasure of watching him pass, so Northcote himself records. And William Charles Macready tells of another lady of quality who dressed herself up as a servant and waited on Master Betty at table, having been told by the landlord of the inn where the boy happened to be staying that this was the only way she could hope to see him.
‘His dressing room’, Northcote says in his diary, ‘was crowded as full as it could contain of all the court of England and happy were those who could get in at the time his father was rubbing his naked body from the perspiration after the exertion in performing his part on the stage.’
But, again, the men presumably outnumbered the women at these voyeur gatherings. According to the recollections of Mrs Charles Mathews: ‘... It was offensively amusing (if such a term be allowed) to listen to the enthusiastic ecstasies of the noble visitors who came nightly to the green room to gaze upon the Boy-wonder, and haply to kiss the garment-hem of the Betty, who, had his person been as feminine as his name, could not have had more fervent male adorers, some of whom were almost impious in their enthusiasm.’ And The Times noted gleefully on December 4th (1804): ‘Master Betty’s success is very naturally the cause of much envy and heartbreak among the Master Polly’s and Master Jenny’s of Bond Street and Cheapside, who in all their attempts to distinguish their pretty persons and effeminate airs, have only MIScarried.’
None of this necessarily means that overt heterosexual or homosexual advances were made to Master Betty, and, if they were, one has no proof of them. Mrs Mathews uses the word ‘impious’ literally. She refers, by way of illustration, to a ‘great man’ who, in her hearing, declared his belief that he expected to see the roof of the theatre open some night, and his spirit ascend through it.’
Still, it is hard to believe that among Master Betty’s ‘fervent male adorers’ there weren’t some with a consciously more physical than spiritual interest in the ‘pretty youth’. It has been suggested earlier that this may even have been true of Hough. And the behaviour of a certain Thomas Lister Parker, who commissioned the portraits of the boy that both Northcote and Opie painted, seems clearly suspect.
Parker was a young bachelor of twenty-five, rich and socially influential. An antiquary by avocation, he was also High Sheriff of Lancashire; and he owned a town house in Brook Street, Mayfair, as well as a country place, Brownsholme Hall, near Liverpool, where he evidently lived with his mother. It was presumably in Liverpool that he first met Master Betty, before the latter came to London, and, to judge from a letter which he wrote shortly afterwards to Mr Betty in Manchester, he was immediately bowled over. This letter, dated November 13th, 1804, reads as follows:
‘Believe me I was particularly happy to hear from Major Hamilton of the continued success of my young friend at Chester. I have no doubt of its attending him upon all occasions. I hear all the Metropolis is upon tiptoe to see him. I heard from Mr. Northcote on Monday, and I feel myself particularly obliged to you in favouring him with the first sitting. He is most sensible of the favour, & hopes to ground his fame on the picture; Mr. Opie is equally gratified by the honour you have allowed him on my behalf. I need not say how much pleasure it will give me to see you as soon as you arrive in Town. I mean to leave this place for Brook St. on Sunday next. Have sent with my best regards to your fair Boy a Hare & Woodcock ... Young Graves joins with me who assisted in killing them today. I shall hope some day or other to have the pleasure of showing my friend this part of the world when He can spare time from his more serious avocations. I hope he is perfectly well, and shall be much obliged if you will allow him to give me a line or a message by my Servt., on what day you think of being in London. My Mother & Young Graves join in best regards to him, & Believe me I remain yours very Sincerely, T. L. Parker ... Hope Mrs Betty found you well at Manchester.―I wrote to Ld. Wilton who lives near Manchester saying how worthy of His notice my young friend was.’
As soon as the Bettys reached London, Parker became just what he had promised to become in his letter―a kind of high-paying hanger-on. His were the ‘elegant dinner parties’ for the boy and his father, which Sir George Beaumont, among others, attended. He showered gifts on them, including the paintings by Northcote and Opie. At the same time, he was always ready to make himself useful. He was a witness to contracts that Mr Betty signed; and on December 20th, according to a letter published in The Morning Post, he became joint trustee of a small trust fund that Mr Betty obligingly set up for the benefit of his son. Then, after the close of the London season, at the end of May, when the Bettys took to the road again, Parker followed.
All this might be considered merely characteristic of a young man who was foolish, idle and stage-struck, and who wanted to bask in reflected fame. But there is evidence that Parker expected gratitude, not from the father, by whom it was really owed if it was owed by anyone, but from the son; and that when this was denied him, he reacted like a disappointed lover. For, towards the close of Master Betty's second and, as it was to be, last London season, Farington records in his diary: ‘Sir George [Beaumont] spoke of the great expense Mr. Parker has been at in following Young Betty, the actor, from town to town to see HIM perform, and in presents given etc.―And this has only produced Him a reception now of which he complains, the boy being sulky, & frequently unwilling to receive or be with Him.’
Farington does not speculate on why the boy should have behaved in this antagonistic way, but what he goes on to say raises an entirely different question, which must be separately considered. ‘I told Sir George’, he writes, ‘that from what I saw of the Boy at Heaths last year I thought him a Boy of much art. & that he made no very agreeable impression on me. Sir George admitted this fully….’
Was he, then, a ‘Boy of much art’―a boy fully aware of the secret of his appeal, both on and off the stage, a boy who exploited his own attractions as much as these were ever exploited by his Friends? Or was he, on the contrary, as Thomas Holcroft said in The Theatrical Recorder, a ‘truly charming boy’ threatened with ‘deep injury’ from his ‘adulators’? It is important to find the answer, because upon it must depend the degree of sympathy that History really owes to William Henry West Betty.
IV. The Boy
‘Such is the rage of the multitude’, Mrs Inchbald wrote, ‘that a new play even from Shakespeare could hardly contend against him.’
This was a playwright’s plaint. Players found themselves in a worse plight. To quote from the biography of Joseph Munden, written by his son, the public ‘like a wayward, petted child with a new doll’ was in a mood to ‘break the heads of all its former favourites’. Any actor appearing with the boy, no matter how respected his previous standing had been, was liable to be hissed on the grounds that he was not good enough to tread the same stage that the Young Roscius illumined. This was the eventual fate of a certain William Hargrave, who was so mercilessly treated that he quit the theatre forever.
It was imprudent, too, to risk comparison with the boy by playing a part that he had recently been seen in. Thus Robert William Elliston, whom Lamb has immortalised, was severely warned by The Daily Advertiser not to try Hamlet again until he had ‘taken lessons’ from the ‘wonderful boy‘s’ interpretation of the character. […]
Fashion is a tyrant that hates to be contradicted, and anyone who voiced the slightest seeming disparagement of the boy’s histrionic powers was bound to be accused of malevolence or worse, especially if he could be presumed to know what he was talking about. Frederick Reynolds, the playwright, recalls a dinner party he attended at Sir Frederick Eden’s house in Pall Mall during the first days of Bettymania. The Young Roscius was the sole subject of conversation. One of the ladies present said he was too wonderful to live long; another called him divine; a third accused Kemble of deliberately trying to ruin the boy’s performances by sitting in his private box and coughing as loudly as possible. ‘I actually writhed’, Reynolds writes, under all this ecstatic nonsense; and my suppressed tortures arose to an almost ungovernable height, when I heard several of the male idolaters add encomiums of an equally extravagant nature.’
Then came the moment which every professional theatre person dreads, if he finds himself stranded among a group of fashionable amateurs of the drama; a moment that Reynolds must have been hoping against hope he would be spared on this occasion. His host said, ‘Reynolds, why are you so silent? From your long theatrical experience, you must, no doubt, have formed a good opinion on this subject.’
‘Indeed,’ an old gentleman exclaimed, and one can hear it now. ‘A dramatic author in the room! Now, ladies, we shall have fresh beauties discovered. Perhaps, you remember Garrick and Henderson?’
Reynolds nodded assent.
‘Now, Sir, I ask you upon your honour, does not the boy surpass both?’
The question was rhetorical and was greeted by approving murmurs of ‘Oh, certainly.’
Reynolds exploded. ‘No, Sir! I answer upon my honour that he does not; for, with all due deference to what has been said, I doubt whether he can even pronounce the very word by which he lives.’
And what word was that, the assembled company wanted to know. ‘More and more provoked’, Reynolds writes, ‘I boldly replied, almost at the risk of my personal safety, HUMBUG … I was interrupted by a yell so terrific that probably I should have been inclined to qualify or soften this bold assertion, had I not seen, by secret signs and encouraging nods of my worthy host that he completely agreed with me; so I continued gallantly to defend myself against the attacks of my numerous and tumultuous assailants, until the blue stocking part of this cabal sent me to Coventry.’
But though his host toasted him after the ladies had withdrawn, Reynolds was subsequently made to realise that he had committed an unforgivable social gaffe. He was never invited inside Sir Frederick Eden’s house again.
If an actor had spoken his mind as freely and publicly as Reynolds was provoked into doing, he would literally have been in physical danger at his next appearance on the stage. Elliston is said to have told an eager inquirer: ‘Sir, my opinion of the Young Gentleman’s talents will never transpire during my life. I have written my convictions down. They have been attested by competent witnesses, and sealed and deposited in the iron safe at my bankers, to be drawn forth and opened, with other important documents, at my death. The world will then know what Mr. Elliston thought of Master Betty,’
That, as it happens, was characteristic of Elliston’s grandiloquent humour. But it was also, in essence, the only answer an actor could safely make, short of betraying professional integrity. Kemble adopted the same line. On one occasion, he was asked by some theatrically imbecilic representative of the Nobility whether he didn’t consider Master Betty’s acting the very finest in his experience. ‘I have never, my lord,’ he said taking a pinch of snuff, ‘seen the Young Gentleman play.’ Admittedly, Mrs Siddons, without the benefit of snuff to control her exasperation, gave a less restrained reply when a similar question was put to her by the Marquess of Abercorn: ‘My lord, he is a very pretty, very clever boy, but nothing more.’ Publicly, though, she, too, maintained a discreet silence, and, like her brother, kept off the stage.
In short, the professional theatre was for the time being in the tormented position of a man who sees his property burning, and can do nothing to put out the flames. […]
Frederick Reynolds’s account in his autobiography of what happened on 28 November 1804, when Betty’s father took to him to watch Reynolds’s new comedy in Covent Garden (only three days after they had first arrived in London, and only two after they had, as already described, narrowly escaped being mobbed nearly mobbed on being recognized):
‘Whilst sitting in the first circle, shortly after the commencement of the second act’, he writes, ‘a gentleman and a very pretty boy, apparently about eleven years of age, entered the box, and seated themselves close to me. […] Between the inquisitiveness of the one, and the listlessness of the other, I myself was fast approaching a torpid ennuyé state; when one of the fruit women enetered the box, and whispered to me, that I was sitting between Master and Mr Betty.’
[…] ‘The door’, Reynolds writes, ‘was burst open, and hundreds deserting their boxes, attempted to rush into ours. The pressure became so extremely formidable that Mr Betty in considerable alarm called loudly for the box-keeper who not being able to come, on account of the crowd, I urgently requested the terrified father and son to submit themselves to my guidance; and they complying, followed me to the box door. The crowd imagining they should have a better view of this parvus redivivus Garrick, in the lobby, made way for us right and left, when, I delivered them into the hands of Hill, the box-keeper; who opened a door leading behind the scenes, and making them enter it, the pack were suddenly “at fault”, and the pursued took safe shelter in the cover of the green room.’
The boy may have no longer run the risk of being mobbed once he had made his London début and Fashion had formally endorsed his claim to be the Young Roscius. For then he was elevated to a higher plane than the equivalent of that occupied by the pop star and television heroes of today. He became a sort of demi-god, to be cheered and gazed at, but not, perhaps, too closely approached. Thus Lady Bessborough writes ‘... I will only say one more word of him, that the reason he return’d to our box was that in the public boxes the whole Pit got up to look at him, called out his name and applauded, though the King and Queen were there.’ Indeed, Royal Families and Leaders of Nations aside, one can think of nobody in modern times, save Lindbergh, who has achieved such exalted heroic stature as Master Betty did in his brief while. […]
V. Climax and Anticlimax
‘Nothing is heard from mom till night’, one finds Lady Bessborough writing on December 5th, (1804) ‘but praise of poor little Betty, who will be kill’d with it, for they make him act every night’ Three days later, an open letter to Mr Betty, appearing in The Morning Post, puts the rhetorical question: ‘Is it not almost a crime to make a child of thirteen years of age act every night, in a large theatre, the most arduous parts of the tragedies represented?’ […]
Having elaborated on how Betty was callously and grossly over-worked for a young boy, so that his employers could profit, and amusingly exposed the shallowness of the concern about this expressed by both elevated individuals and the general public, Playfair describes how Betty did unsurprisingly fall severely ill in mid-December 1804:
For suddenly the public must have felt threatened with a national calamity of its own making. ‘Young Roscius is still ill’, Lady Elizabeth Foster wrote to her son on December 25th, after discoursing at length on the state of the King’s health. ‘That is the worst news, and very ill ...’ She was not being facetious, nor, manifestly, was she speaking for herself alone. During the past week, No. 33 Southampton Row where the Bettys were living, had been besieged by callers in search of reassurance about the boy’s condition, and every day the road had become blocked with carriages and onlookers. Since December 20th daily medical bulletins, signed by Drs Pearson and Blain, had been issued and posted each morning outside the house.
The encyclopaedias instance this last practice as a highpoint of absurdity in the whole, inexplicable story, and because it was intrinsically outrageous, a violation of the social code, one may regard it in retrospect as the first major tactical blunder committed by the boy’s Friends. […]
The Times having mildly rebuked the ‘extreme affectation’ implied by the foregoing, The Morning Post showed The Times did not yet speak for the nation by rebuking ‘the captious gentry’ for their unfair criticism:
And it is certain that neither The Times nor ‘the captious gentry’ would have remembered their objections, if the boy had died, as, according to Richard Wilson in his later letter to Thomas Harris, he very nearly did. There could then have been no escaping the conclusion that a marvelously precious young life had been sacrificed on the altar of ‘public demand’, and the nation would have felt bound to exculpate itself in ways that posterity could not undo. Master Betty would likely have been buried beside Garrick in Westminster Abbey. He might even have been given a state funeral. At any rate, his death would have caused such a show of national lamentation that to question whether this was really deserved would forever after have been to risk accusations of poor taste or want of patriotism.
But he did not die, and his survival, ironically enough, was the supreme failure of his life, for it cost him the certainty of lasting fame. […]
Except that he was not to be quite so heavily overburdened as before, it looked as if his illness had changed nothing, as if he was beginning again precisely where he had left off and that there could be no checking his ascent to higher and higher peaks. On February 7th, he gave the town the first showing of his Romeo and its first taste of his suitability to represent Shakespeare’s heroes as Garrick had. He did not disappoint. A noble Lord, The Morning Post reported, was ‘active in helping fainting people in the pit’. Mr Fox, Lord Melville, General FitzPatrick, the Duchess of Devonshire and Mr Pitt were among the occupants of private boxes. Lady Bessborough, though she was not present herself, heard a glowing account of the evening from her sister, which she passed on to Lord Granville Leveson Gower: ‘... Mr Pitt and Lord Melville … were both delighted with the boy, and think him the finest actor that has appear’d for many years. The suffrage of three such people as Mr. Pitt, Mr. Fox, and Fitzpatrick (the most difficult of all to please) is alone sufficient to stamp his fame….’ […]
On March 4th, he played Romeo for the first time at Drury Lane. The next night, there was the party for him at the Abercorns to which, in Lady Bessborough’s words, ‘all London’ came. Farington wasn’t among the invited, but he got a first-hand report from Thomas Lawrence who was, and recorded in his diary: 'The enthusiasm respecting him appears to increase among the higher ranks. The Duchess of Devonshire was in tears at a speech which He had recited.’
His Friends were doubtless convinced by such displays of ‘increasing enthusiasm among the higher ranks’ that there was no challenge too daring for the boy to fear, and on March 14th he took the traditionally climacteric step of unveiling his Hamlet before a London audience. This, as Lady Bessborough’s previously quoted description of it has shown, was such an immensely fashionable occasion as to be without parallel, perhaps, in the whole history of the British theatre. It was also, so far as Fashion’s verdict went, triumphant. ‘This is finer than Garrick,’ Fox whispered to Samuel Rogers during the play scene, to the latter’s ‘infinite surprise’―or to what he was to claim years afterwards had been his ‘infinite surprise’. Fox subsequently confided the same thought to Lady Elizabeth Foster, so Farington was informed by Lawrence. Lady Elizabeth herself had never seen the Young Roscius ‘act so well’, while for Lady Bessborough, though ‘there were faults’, there were ‘so many more perfections’ that he was ‘undoubtedly the best Hamlet’ she ever saw. ‘To be, or not to be,’ her letter to Lord Granville Leveson Gower continues, ‘he did not speak so well, and the scene with Ophelia I thought he failed very much in, but on the whole he met with excessive applause, and what applause! Mr. Pitt, Mr. Canning, Fox, Fitzpatrick, K. [Duke of Devonshire] ... all of them as good and as severe judges as one could pick out. Mr. Grey alone remains a Heretic, but I believe from Pure Spirit of Contradiction, and to please Ldy. Asgill, with whom he is at present great friends and who, not admiring the Boy at Dublin, does not know how to retract her opinion. Expect no politicks or news of any kind, for nothing but the boy is talk’d of.’
Yet for all this crescendo of adulation at the top, the sniping from below was getting louder and bolder; […]
Betty had by now no hope of maintaining his position, those bound to seek his fall in public esteem saw their opportunity and this was accomplished even faster than his previous astonishing rise in it:
Before Master Betty reached his fifteenth birthday, his fate as a has-been was sealed.
Having already answered the question posed at the end of his third chapter by showing it is unlikely Betty had significant awareness of the secret of his success, did not exploit it and could not therefore understand why it ended, in this chapter the author recounts the terribly sad story of how the public not only dropped Betty, but became ashamed of its former adulation and expressed this in ridicule, whilst his admirers amongst the great abandoned him. Whilst this story is compelling reading, it is beyond the scope of this website.
VII. The Has-Been
Six years later, in 1812, the now-twenty-year-old Betty, “getting stout” and enduringly unaware of the secret of his former success, attempted to make a come-back, first in the provinces, then in Covent Garden, where he was initially received well by ‘sentimental playgoers who came determined to be kind.’
But if he believed in that moment that he had triumphed over his past, had exorcised the ghost of his boyhood fame through winning fame for himself, he was cruelly deluded. Next day, The Times recalled Bettymania with the same sort of apostate’s fury that, about a hundred and forty years later, was to characterise its remarks on appeasement. It shuddered at the memory of ‘the absurdities into which the great and gay, the polished and vulgar, of England had been betrayed’; and, while expressly denying it, betrayed in its turn a zealous thirst for vengeance.
Describing how the critic Leigh Hunt, who had ‘taken a prominent part in excoriating the grown actor’, later regretted it:
Hunt said that though he had been ‘right about Master Betty’, he was ‘sorry for it’ and ‘wished now with all his heart that he had let him alone’. For it was the ‘town’ that had been ‘in fault’, not the boy.
This expression of regret or repentence came oddly from a critic who, though he refrained from alluding to the fact, had subsequently taken a prominent part in excoriating the grown actor, and so had helped the town seize its chance, when its chance came, of self-exculpation. ‘The world will never admire twice,’ Northcote told Hazlitt in discussing Betty’s failure. But what the world had actually done was to repudiate what it had come to regard as the shameful memory of having admired once.
As a result, a crushing injury was inflicted on a man who was in no way to be blamed for the world’s idolatry of him as a boy;
Betty professed to feel no bitterness about his fate, …
But if very few good actors have brains, and only bad actors, as James Agate once observed, need any, there are no people more vulnerable to the pain that rejection by the world can cause. That was true of Betty, and that History has been guilty of a final distortion of his story in pretending otherwise, need not depend on theorising. There is a stark fact to prove it. For towards the end of July, 1821, not long after an arrangement for him to reappear at Covent Garden had been made and then cancelled, several newspapers, The Times included, reported ‘with deep regret’ that ‘this Gentleman … formerly so celebrated in the theatrical world’ had ‘a day or two ago attempted to destroy himself’. He had tried to cut his own throat, and his condition, the report added, was still serious.
The story was not denied, as it surely would have been if there had been no truth to it. And presumably it must have come from Betty’s own home; by this time he was a married man with a child.
Betty recovered, though he was no longer of sufficient interest to the newspapers for them to report it, and lived in resigned but comfortable obscurity for his remaining fifty-three years, finally giving up the attempt to revive his discredited acting career in 1824.
 Fox was the leading Whig statesman of the day. Lord Holland was his nephew [Website footnote].
 William Pitt ‘the Younger’ was then Prime Minister [Website footnote].
 The Young Roscius by ‘Peter Pangloss’ (London, 1805). [Author’s footnote]
 Playfair is making a mockery of his name here. The only evidence he adduces for supposing Betty had anything against his former tutor are the omissions of mention of Hough in two biographies of Betty written in his lifetime. His inference that Betty did not want Hough mentioned is reasonable, but surely it is overblown to insist that the dislike or embarrassment about Hough suggested by this shows Hough had ‘alienated [him] traumatically’.
Even were one to accept this, Playfair’s suggestion that Hough might have alienated Betty through imposing sex on him remains extremely far-fetched. It does not fit with the only two facts about Hough’s dismissal reported by Playfair: (1) that ‘he threatened after his dismissal to publish some startling revelations, [but] he was eventually silenced—allegedly with a small settlement’, and (2) that ‘He was thought to have been treated extremely badly when he was dismissed from Master Betty’s service’ (a widespread and strongly-felt opinion for which he gives ample evidence). Moreover, Playfair himself came up with a far more plausible explanation of Betty’s later dislike in his statement that ‘Hough had been instrumental in depriving him of the happiness of a normal childhood and in condemning him to his life as a has-been.’
Playfair’s finding it ‘hard to imagine what other or lesser kind of affront [than sex together] could have made Master Betty […] dislike Hough so intensely’ shows nothing but the poverty of his imagination and his ignorance of the extremely variable possible reactions of a boy to such sex. If one has to imagine a pederastic affair at the heart of Hough’s dismissal, it would make much better sense of the known facts if Hough had discovered that someone else was having sex with Betty, and this was the ‘startling’ revelation he threatened to make. In an England where sodomy was a capital offence, he would hardly be likely to threaten to reveal his own homosexual liaison [Website footnote].
 Roscius was an acclaimed ancient Roman actor and a familiar appelation of David Garrick, hence the frequent reference to Betty as the ‘Young Roscius’ was another way of proclaiming him the ‘second Garrick’ [Website footnote].
 The greatest political events of the day were the resumption of war between Great Britain and France in May 1803, bringing the threat of French invasion of the former, and the coronation in December 1804 of the First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte (derogatorily referred to as ‘Buonaparte’ by the British press as a reminder of his Italian origins) as Emperor [Website footnote].
 Manuscript in the Enthoven Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum [Author’s footnote].
 John Philip Kemble was a leading actor of the day and the manager of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden [website footnote].
An entry in Farington's diary, dated December 8th, 1804, reads in part: ‘I told Lawrence [Thomas] that it [Master Betty’s performance] much exceeded,. in my opinion, His performance of Saturday last; to which he replied, “that he had never before seen Him play so well and was now decided as to his superiority over all except Mrs Siddons”. He added “that He who the night before his fist appearance on the London stage had prognosticated that Betty would not satisfy a London audience had been sadly mistaken”.’ This plainly referred to Kemble. [Author’s footnote]
 Then a doctor in Edinburgh. Later, King George IV’s Keeper of the Privy Purse. [Author’s footnote]
 The Bettyad by G. M. Woodward (copy in the H.T.C.; not available in the British Museum), (London, 1805). [Author’s footnote]
 If this sort of thing smacks of satire, its author sternly disclaimed any such purpose in his concluding verse:
Thus ends the Muse her frolic play,
But should a Bard in serious lay,
Attack his just renown;
Or on pale ‘Envy’s tablet write
A line his well-earn’d praise to blight,
Her hand shall tear it down. [Author’s footnote]
 Dorothea Bland, stage-named ‘ Mrs Jordan’, was a successful Anglo-Irish actress. ‘Her royal lover’ (for more than twenty years) was the King’s third son, the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, by whom she had ten children [Website footnote].
 Undated letter to Lord Granville Leveson Gower [Author’s footnote].
 Manuscript in the Harvard Theatre Collection [Author’s footnote].
 Manuscript in the Harvard Theatre Collection [Author’s footnote].
 Manuscript in the Enthoven Collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum [Author’s footnote].
 Related by Thomas Asline Ward [Author’s footnote].
 Here there is, perhaps, an analogy to be drawn with the Profumo affair of 1963, that was pointlessly blown up into a scandal that cost one man his life and another his career. For a while, people, particularly fashionable people, wallowed in the sexual details; in the words of a famous literary critic, Britain became a ‘nation of voyeurs’. Then the reaction set in, and in a sense Lord Denning was used to give this reaction concrete expression. His report, in the author’s opinion, was an unsatisfactory document; it answered none of the questions that possibly needed answering and, in one instance at least, was remarkably unjudicial. Yet it was welcomed by Left and Right alike, hailed as the ‘last word’, and nowhere (in this country) subjected to truly critical analysis. It closed a subject of which people had grown deeply ashamed, and thenceforth Fashion was enabled to consider anyone who so much as mentioned the name of Christine Keeler as a self-convicted bore [Author’s footnote].
 For a book written as early as 1967, this use of “paedophiliac”, hardly ever then used outside psychatric literature, is remarkable, as is its being used in the vulgar and inaccurate manner of today to describe erotic feeling for a pubescent (as opposed to pre-pubescent) like Betty [Website footnote].
 Elsewhere said to have been the Marquess of Wellesley, though if so it cannot have been until the boy’s second season in London, for the Marquess did not return from India until late in 1805 [Author’s footnote].
 Manuscript in the Harvard Theatre Collection [Author’s footnote].
 As shown by various manuscripts in the Harvard Theatre Collection [Author’s footnote].
 April 16th, 1806 [Author’s footnote].
 James Heath, the engraver, who made engravings of both Northcote’s and Opie’s portraits of Master Betty. In a letter to Dr Knighton, Northcote says of the portrait that he painted: ‘It is to be engraved by Heath in the line manner; the plate to be the sole property of the father of the boy. He is to give Heath 800 pounds for doing it, who will be more than a 12 month working on it. He says he shall make it the finest plate that has ever been done in England, as he thinks the picture is better calculated for a print than any picture he ever saw….’ [Author's footnote].
 Life of Frederick Reynolds (1826) [Author’s footnote].
 But its reliability cannot be vouched for; it was quoted in a Temple Bar article (1874) without reference to any source [Author’s footnote].
 In her letter to Lord Granville Leveson Gower of December 6th (1804) previously quoted [Author’s footnote].
 In a letter to Lord Granville Leveson-Gower [Author’s footnote].
 George Canning, then Treasurer of the Navy, and later Prime Minister [website footnote].
 On various succeeding days from July 23rd onwards [Author’s footnote].
 The Times copied the report in quotes from ‘another newspaper’. Perhaps it did not wish to commit itself to ‘deep regret’ at the news [Author’s footnote].
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to email@example.com, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it. You could also indicate the name by which you wish to be known.