+ OVERBLOWN CELEBRITY . . .
+ CYNICAL POLITICS . . .
+ DEVIOUS MANIPULATION . . .
+ EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN . . .
+ YOUNG MEN ON THE MAKE . . .
A TRUE STORY
Charles Dickens is a classic writer and one of Britain’s greatest men. But his birth and upbringing did not auger such fame and fortune. Born in 1812 in humble circumstances, he was at the age of twelve slaving away in a boot-blacking factory for six shillings a week.
William Henry West Betty, better known as Master Betty the Young Roscius, was a juvenile prodigy who at a similar age was earning £100 a night as the idol of the aristocracy.
This novella tells the story of an imagined meeting between the two in 1835 when Dickens is on the cusp of his great fame and Master Betty is a retired corpulent middle-aged man. Dickens’s fiction was always strongly based on his investigative journalism and here he is in his element probing the truth behind Master Betty’s version of his extraordinary life.
Mr Dickens & Master Betty is a true story
vividly and imaginatively told.
“The sad decline – heart-breaking at times – of the infant prodigy compared with the upstart young genius. It makes an enthralling read. I couldn’t put it down – it is a history of the time.”
Sir Donald Sinden, eminent actor and historian
“Very fresh and vivid and illuminating of the young Charles Dickens.”
Simon Callow, noted actor and writer
"This is a fascinating fictional account of the relationship between two historical characters: the novelist Charles Dickens and the child-prodigy actor, Master Betty. The story begins in 1835 when Master Betty (retired, aged 45) asks Charles Dickens (aspiring novelist, aged 24) to write his memoirs. These are relayed to Dickens via a series of flashbacks which reveal how Master Betty became known as the Young Roscius, master¬minded by his ambitious and scheming father.
Master Betty conquered the provincial theatres before taking up residence in the West End of London and commanding vast rewards for his appearances. But the relentless promotion and over-working of a very young boy appear to verge on child cruelty.
The story turns darker in part two when Dickens starts to question the Master Betty phenomenon. . . . politicians were quick to use Master Betty’s fame to distract the populace from domestic and foreign troubles, such as the danger of a Napoleonic invasion.
Dickens had troubles of his own as a child, when his father was jailed for debt and he was put to work in a boot-blacking factory for six shillings a week. But Master Betty, despite earning 50 guineas a night, also had to put up with a punishing performance schedule which, on occasions, left him both physically and emotionally exhausted.
While it is very unlikely that they ever actually met, this novel captures the atmosphere of the early 19th century through the lives of two of its most famous and celebrated personalities." Bygone Kent Magazine Nov/Dec 2010
"Alan Stockwell conjures forth Betty and Dickens as the two principal characters in this richly atmospheric theatrical novel. . . . the whole business of parliament being suspended in order to attend a performance by Betty is challenged . . . and Betty’s relationship with his tutor William Hough is exposed. . . . Playfair made this revelation much earlier . . . and more graphically by quoting a scurrilous pamphlet (“For I’ve a wondrous rod to pickle/Your pretty little bum to tickle”). Fiction can be an illuminating means by which to recapture that most fleeting of arts, acting; in this case Mr Stockwell has hit on the ingenious idea of recruiting the nineteenth century’s greatest novelist to abet him in his task."
Theatre Notebook, Society for Theatre Research
". . . a touching story of a child being exploited by a parent, of a career that faltered . . . cleverly constructed and full of information about the theatre and personalities of the period . . . an imaginative presentation of considerable research. . . . an amusing picture of the somewhat prickly nature of Mr Betty and Mr Dickens’s imaginary relationship. . . . a fascinating story and a ‘good read’." British Theatre Guide
"Alan Stockwell has woven a fascinating story using fact with lively imagination, to recreate the lives of two young men. The first, Charles Dickens, whose original intention was to be an actor . . .the second Master Betty, ‘The Young Roscius’, born William Henry West Betty who was so successful that at the age of only twelve he was bringing in £100 a night.
The author uses a clever device to tell their stories. Though there is no evidence they met, in Part One the twenty-four year-old Dickens, reporter and shorthand expert, meets the forty-five year-old Betty who wishes him to record . . . his amazing successes. . . Betty, corpulent, ageing and arrogant is forgotten though rich. Dickens agrees but takes revenge on the once boy wonder by unearthing in Part Two hidden truths about Master Betty’s years on the stage, including an attempted suicide and his relationship with Hough, the Belfast theatre prompter who coached him in all his roles.
[Readers] will enjoy Stockwell’s detailed recreation of the Georgian and Regency era and be moved by the exploitation of two children – Dickens in the blacking factory and ‘Master Betty’ on stage."
The Journal of the Irving Society December 2010
MR DICKENS & MASTER BETTY
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