Mobbed by the masses, lionised by the aristocracy, courted by royalty and lusted after by patrons of both sexes, the child actor William Henry West Betty was one of the most famous people in Georgian Britain.
At the age of thirteen, he played leading roles, including Romeo, Macbeth and Richard III, in theatres across the country. Prime Minister William Pitt adjourned the House of Commons so that its members could attend his debut as Hamlet at Covent Garden. Then as rivals turned on him and scandal engulfed him, he suffered a fall as merciless as his rise had been meteoric.
The Young Pretender takes place during Betty’s attempted comeback at the age of twenty-one. As he seeks to relaunch his career, he is forcer to confront the painful truths behind his boyhood triumphs. Michael Arditti’s revelatory new novel puts this long forgotten figure back in the limelight. In addition to its rich and poignant portrait of Betty himself, it offers an engrossing insight into both the theatre and society of the age. The nature of celebrity, the power of publicity and the cult of youth are laid bare in a story that is more pertinent now than ever.
Thank you to Corinna at Quercus for the finishing copy of this book and for inviting me to be involved in the social media blast celebrating publication day. The premise intrigued me, but in truth I had not heard of William Betty prior to picking up this book.
Written as the memoir of Betty, following a break from the stage he is seeking his return, as the story unfolds we learn more about his childhood rise to fame, revealed as he embarks on a theatre tour, meeting acting folk from his past who through conversation and the triggering of forgotten memories help Betty to piece together his past.
A child prodigy, we are led to believe this promising child star was the next big thing, lauded across Britain as a boy star, crowds awaiting his presence on stage and then it all fell away, to what and why?
Betty is an unreliable narrator of his own story, aged only 11 at his debut, he is only 20 at the time of this story staging his comeback. As a child he was centre stage but had little awareness of the processes surrounding him, the politics of theatre or even the financial reward. What emerges is a tale of exploitation at the hands of his father, who relied on this boy for the family wealth and seemingly would stop at nothing to keep this money train rolling. Drugged and given alcohol to keep going, Betty was the darling of the theatre circuit and as such was expected and anticipated at parties and high society events. Exhausted but with little choice but to attend. A beautiful child, not only did he play roles on stage beyond his years but his appeal to men and women was known and with allusions to sexual exploitation this ultimately felt like a sad story of greed and damage all to familiar I think.
A slow book to get in to the writing was in Betty’s voice and so of the time, lots of theatre references passed me by but the book was one I found myself absorbed in and the themes of celebrity and exploitation is one that remains relevant today.
A short book at less than 200 pages but a fascinating piece of historical fiction that left me wanting to know more about this child acting prodigy and the sad life that followed.
Published today in hardback and definitely a book I would recommend, for fans of theatre, historical fiction or anyone seeking something a little different.
About the Author
Michael Arditti is the author of twelve highly acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories. His novels have been short and long listed for several literary prizes and Easter won the inaugural Waterstones Mardi Gras award. he was the theatre critic for the Sunday Express and has been a prolific book reviewer. Arcadia will publish his novel, The Choice, in spring 2023.