Friday 25 February 2022

The Young Pretender by Michael Arditti Reviewed by Adèle Geras

(Before I begin , I'd like to thank Michael Arditti for sharing these pictures with me. I'm afraid that, probably owing to my own technological incompetence, I was unable to upload all of them straight to this blog, so I photographed some  of Michael's images with my phone and what you are seeing is a photo of a photo. Apologies for readers and to Michael, who was very helpful. The cartoon reproduced below is one of many contemporary cartoons, but Michael owns a copy of the one shown here. I hope that the layers of unreality might add to the theatrical tone of this piece. )

I am posting this some time before the publication by Arcadia Books of The Young Pretender: the  dramatic return of Master Betty  at the end of April 2022, in order to permit anyone reading this post to put in a preorder. Preorders help writers enormously because the more of them there are, the more noticed this will be by the purveyor of books whose name some people don't like to mention but which looms very large in writers' affairs. The vaguely Georgian note  is catching....purveyor, indeed...but it's easy to fall into after you've read this short and fascinating novel. 

Michael Arditti has an interesting and varied backlist. I've reviewed another of his books on the  Writers Review  blog. It's called Widows and Orphans and it's wonderful. It is also as different from The Young Pretender as you can imagine. It's the story of a man trying to rescue his local paper from being taken over and is also a novel about domestic dilemmas and personal lives. Arditti has also written two Biblical epics (Of Men and Angels and The Anointed) and I have read both. They're enormously erudite and very long so I recommend reading them on a Kindle, but I do recommend them. Michael Arditti is a wonderful writer. He is also a critic and is clearly enthralled by both the reality and the illusion of the theatre. 

In the Acknowledgements, Arditti says: 'In writing The Young Pretender I have adhered to what is known of Betty's life, while freely filling in the extensive gaps.'

The method he's adopted to write about Master Betty is to adopt his voice. Indeed, he may be said to have become Betty, because every word seems so genuine, so heartfelt and so accurate that it's easy to imagine that this is a memoir by the actor. As a child star   he was also known  as The Young Roscius.  He played Hamlet  (and many other rôles) at a very young age and then fell out of favour.  In 1806, Master Betty (now to be called Mister Betty, as he has to tell everyone he meets) returns to Bath, six years after his last starry appearance.  "I am six years older now, ten inches taller.....Should my name spark a recollection,; my figure swiftly dispels it..."


We learn along the way about Betty's family, and his rise to fame. We see details of the huge acclaim that greeted his every appearance. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, came to see him perform and Betty was the toast of the town in every way. I make a point of providing no spoilers so I won't say  more about the plot, but there is one, even in a book as short as this and which is so carefully based on the historical record. 

Arditti's huge achievement is tuning in to the authentic voice of his protagonist, narrator and star. I am completely convinced  that this is exactly how Betty spoke and how he would write. In the days when I used to visit schools, I sometimes told the children that writing novels was like having a huge dressing-up box at my disposal and that I was allowed to put on the costumes and pretend to be whatever I felt like being:  a fat black cat or a retired ballerina or....anyone at all. Arditti has clearly enjoyed inhabiting the 18th century and he is fluent in its language and preoccupations.

It's also instructive to read about how our forefathers dealt with the matter of celebrity in the days long before Twitter and the rest of the social media we have to grapple with. Trolling, and cancelling and gaslighting etc have been part of our lives for a long time.  Britney Spears would recognise much that befalls Betty and the way that audiences can consume their idols happens today as it did then. The young are vulnerable. Control is always there: eat this, don't eat that, see this person, don't see that person....some of the ways in which Betty was treated recall what we know of the childhood of  Frances Gumm, who became Judy Garland. If you're a vessel for the dreams of many people, it's hard to be yourself. 

Another thing I found interesting was the level of detail about the actual running of the theatres in the Georgian period. Actors had 'circuits'. Actor managers were the ones who arranged tours. Rehearsals were often negotiable. You met the other actors at the first rehearsal. Stage business was fixed on before you began: where you'd stand and how you'd move once on the stage and so forth. Then the words came in later. I  learned, for example that at this time, what I used to call  'flats' when I was on the stage were called 'flat -scenes': literally flat pieces of wood and canvas which were pushed into place to depict the background.  I enjoyed seeing what hasn't changed since those days as  well as what has. 

After this book appears in April, I will repost an updated version on the Writers Review blog. But History Girls and their readers can get in early and preorder. It's a delightful thing to do. You order the book, spend the money and then forget you've spent it. And  then one day a book magically appears in the post, or on your Kindle. It's always a wonderful surprise when that happens and will be in the case of this delightful novel in particular.  

Friday 18 February 2022

Why didn't I ask more questions? by Sheena Wilkinson

Since I became a History Girl I have often wished I had paid more attention to the stories my gran and great aunt Annie  told me. As a child I had an endless fascination for ‘the olden days’ but I didn’t know then how much my creative and intellectual life as an adult would revolve around women’s social history. So many times, writing novels set in the Belfast of their youth, I’ve thought of them, growing up in the streets I was describing. Without them and their stories, I might not have grown up to become someone who wrote historical novels.

Gran and Aunt Annie c. 1920 

Recently, having married at the unfashionably late age of 53, I’ve been considering, not their long-ago childhoods, but their young womanhood between the two world wars. Aunt Annie never married, became the spinster daughter keeping house for her widowed mother and unmarried brother, with what reluctance or enthusiasm I will never know. I never asked. I didn’t know I would  become fascinated by spinsters, or that I would spend decades of my adulthood uncoupled and independent, like Aunt Annie.  

Gran married during World War 2; she was in her thirties, Granda a little older. This was above average for the times, and, again, I don’t know why. I know that Granda, the oldest son, had family responsibilities; perhaps they precluded him leaving home and marrying earlier. I have no idea if he and Gran had a long courtship or if they had had previous sweethearts.  Why didn't I ask? When I cleared out some old photos recently I found many of Gran in the 1930s with a jolly-looking crowd of young adults from the Christian Endeavour. They seemed to go on lots of jaunts and picnics and in more than one photo she seemed to be close to a young man who wasn’t Granda. But again, I don’t know. These might have been simply pals. Gran and her chum Ellie married brothers, Granda and Uncle Gordon, but I don’t know who introduced whom. I don’t know if Aunt Annie, three years younger and destined not to marry, was jealous or indifferent, if she had suitors, heartbreaks and disappointments or if she always planned the single life. I don’t know if her proclivities, if she ever explored them, were for girls or boys. I do know she would be extremely shocked at my writing such a thing. 

Gran and Granda -- not yet engaged

I’ll never know now, and it doesn’t matter. But getting married at 53 after 24 years of living alone and about 20 years of single celibacy has made me think a lot about marriage trends, and about what leads to some people being coupled while others stay alone. In my own case, I married an old friend who had been widowed. Which in itself sounds quite old-fashioned. 


When Gran was my age I hadn’t been born, but photos from the 1960s show that she was certainly preparing for the grandmotherly stage of life. She was grey-haired, comfortably plump, wore a pinny and devoted herself to the domestic and the church. Every year I look more ridiculously like her, and nowhere is this clearer than in our respective wedding photos, even though she is almost twenty years younger.

Two brides, 2021 and 1942

Gran married in a pretty but serviceable frock she would get good wear out of. Not only was it wartime but at 35 she would have considered it unseemly to go for something more bridal. I don’t know what she would have made of me at 53. Mutton dressed as lamb, probably. My hair is dyed to disguise the grey, I am over a stone lighter and a dress size smaller than I was in my thirties, and I run and go to the gym partly to keep Gran’s matronly figure at bay.  I chose a vintage-style wedding dress that was probably a bit young for me but it was pretty and flattering so I didn’t care. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between our generations: the not-caring-what-people-think. I am very domesticated, it’s true – I made my own wedding cake and the shawl I wore over my dress, so perhaps she wouldn’t have entirely disapproved.



Friday 11 February 2022

Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches - Joan Lennon

Talking History:150 Years of Speakers and Speeches
by Joan Haig and Joan Lennon
illustrated by André Ducci
Templar Publishing
20 Jan. 2022
aimed at ages 8-12

'Two Joans and an André Talk about Talking History'

Hi, I’m Joan.
And so am I.
And I’m André.
So, let’s talk Talking History: 150 Years of Speakers and Speeches

Joan L. to Joan H.:
How did you get the idea for this book?

Joan H:
I was on the lookout for a kids’ book on famous speeches – but the book I was looking for didn’t exist. So, over pots of tea, we put our heads together and decided to write it ourselves!

Joan L. to Joan H.:
Do you remember those first versions of the book – the coloured pen diagrams on big sheets of paper that we did on your kitchen table? We were so excited – and so rubbish!

Joan H.:
I still have some of those original scribbles we made! Thank goodness they asked André Ducci to do the artwork!

Illustrating this book was one of the coolest projects I’ve participated in for bringing together history and social causes, subjects particularly interesting to me. In addition there was the possibility of learning - after all many of the personalities portrayed were unknown to me.

The difficulties, however, were not a few, starting with the challenge of representing so much information in a few pages.

Joan L. to Joan H.:
We found that too, didn’t we? And only having room for 16 amazing speeches out of so many was hard too.

Who didn’t make it into the book that you wish could have?

Joan H.:
I still have the first list of speeches we drew up. On it was an emotional surrender speech by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce or Niimíipuu people of North America. Like the speeches that did end up in our book, the speaker’s voice is distinct and carries us back to a powerful moment in history.

What about you?

Joan L.:
Early on, I was keen to have a section on technology – a history of who hears what and how, and how can you trust the source. Newspapers, the invention of photography, radio, cinema newsreels, TV, internet and social media. In the end, there wasn’t room in Talking History – and really, it’s more of a whole new book on its own!

Joan H. to Joan L.:
What favourite story about the speakers who are in the book wasn’t there room for?

Joan L.:
There was the one about Abraham Lincoln’s beard. All American Presidents have been men so far, but only 5 of them had beards while in office - and Abraham Lincoln was the first! There is a story that, during the campaigning for the election, an 11-year-old girl called Grace Bedell wrote to Lincoln and suggested he would look better with a beard. She couldn’t vote, being 11, but more importantly she never would be able to vote, being female. Still, ‘All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.’ That story really makes you think!

How about you?

Joan H.:
In the book, we write about how Winston Churchill had special false teeth made to help him keep his distinctive lisp. But here’s a bonus fact – one set of his upper dentures sold at auction in 2010 for over £15,000!

And what about favourite chapters from the book – did you have one?

Joan L.:
If I had to choose just one, maybe it would be the chapter on Helen Keller. The 1962 movie The Miracle Worker had a big effect on me when I first saw it and ever since. I love the way Helen Keller was interested in so many issues, equal rights but also votes for women, the fight against racism, an end to war. And the story of Braille is a fascinating one.

It's a hard task to choose a favourite chapter, but among them is certainly Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti's. It is one of the chapters that moved me most during its execution and that turned out to be one of the most beautiful as well.

Joan H.:
For me, I think it would be Nelson Mandela’s ‘Statement from the Dock’. I grew up in Southern Africa and he was one of my childhood heroes. Perhaps because I already knew so much about the story, I also found it one of the hardest chapters to write – we couldn’t include everything!

Joan L.:
Some of the chapters were definitely harder than others. There was such suffering in the backgrounds of so many of the speeches that we tried really hard to be true to. And yes, each chapter could make a whole book on its own!

Were there some chapters that were harder than others to illustrate?

To portray the speakers in such a way as to maintain resemblance was not always a simple task. In some cases reference photos were missing, as happened with Pearl Gibbs. In others the person is so present in the media that it becomes very familiar, which requires more attention to be portrayed properly, as it was with Greta Thunberg.

Curiously I think the easiest one to portray was also the first chapter in which we worked, the one about the great Abraham Lincoln!

Joan L.:
Sometimes things that would take many words to get across were made clear with a single image.

It’s hard to choose, but do you have a favourite bit of André’s artwork?

Joan H.: 
André makes big, bold statements, but there are also little gems - like the cat and mouse image in the chapter on Emmeline Pankhurst. 

I would love to have a framed print of each chapter opening - they would definitely brighten up my walls!

Joan L.: 
I love André’s sense of humour, too. In the parade scene in the Harvey Milk chapter, he drew a big floating dog balloon, in honour of Milk’s Pooper Scooper bill. 

And the way each chapter had different colours and layouts – there was never a dull moment!

From two Joans and an André – we hope you enjoy Talking History as much as we have!

And when will these three meet again? There is another book in the pipeline from Joan Haig, Joan Lennon and André Ducci… Watch this space!

(This is an extended version of an article written for Paperbound Magazine.)

Joan Lennon's website 

Joan Lennon's Instagram

Joan Haig's website

André Ducci's Instagram