Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Truth Stranger than Fiction – Samuel Foote

Guest post by Grace Elliot

'Truth is Stranger than Fiction’

This saying is never truer than for the 18th century wit, actor and mimic, Samuel Foote. Mr Foote’s claims to Georgian fame include establishing the Haymarket theatre, playing transvestite roles, turning a family murder into a bestselling book, flouting licensing laws and writing a string of plays for one-legged actors. Indeed, truth being stranger than fiction it is extraordinary that Mr Foote (his real name) lost a leg when a practical joke went wrong and then used his disability to strive for even greater fame.

As a young man Foote trained as a lawyer but his heart wasn’t in it. A short man with a big personality, Foote’s lifestyle outstripped his financial means and he ended up in debtors jail. Evidently a resourceful man, he paid of his debts with earnings from a book he wrote. His bestselling ‘Genuine Account’ utilized the notoriety of his own uncle who was convicted and hung for the murder of his brother. This bestseller gained Foote celebrity status and he started to mix in London’s creative circles.

Foote frequented the same coffee houses as a young David Garrick, Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, as well as other influential Londoners. A measure of his wit was that in one coffee house a pinch of snuff was awarded to the man who told the wittiest quip or told a tale well – this ‘snuff of glory’ was soon Foote’s regular prize. As time went on Sam Foote edged further away from a career in law and towards the stage.

Foote took acting lessons and his first roles were in ‘unlicensed’ productions. The government of the day had recently created the Licensing Act of 1737 which forbad the performance of plays not approved by the Lord Chamberlain. This came about in response to plays poking fun at politicians, essentially a form of censorship the act muzzled wits and satirist, and productions reverted to softer, more sentimental pieces. However, the publics’ thirst for biting satire went unquenched – enter Sam Foote.

Samuel Foote as Lady Pentweazel
in a play he wrote titled ‘Taste’.
By 1747 Foote was writing and acting, and put on a play called ‘A Dish of Chocolate’. The chocolate referred to in the title was the beverage the visitor paid for at the door – the entertainment being gratis –and therefore not invoking the licensing act. His ‘Tea Party’ performances became hugely popular, filling a gap in the market for comedy and satire, and Foote’s place on the London stage was assured. Apparently, Benjamin Franklin was a fan and on a trip to London had dinner with Foote. They had an evening of banter of which this remark by Franklin was noted down by Foote:

“Any boy who is good at excuses, is generally good for nothing else.”

An actor playing the part of Mrs Cook
written by Samuel Foote
Foote lead a full life which is difficult to compress into a short piece, so let us move swiftly on to one of the defining moments of his life – losing a leg. Foote was invited to a country house gathering in Yorkshire hosted by Lady Mexborough. Other guests included the Duke of York, and perhaps Foote felt intimidated because he was quoted as having said:

“He could ride a horse as well as most men he knew”, even though he was a poor rider. The aristocrats, for whatever reason, decided to challenge this comment and challenged Foote to ride any horse in the stables. He accepted (no doubt to save face) but instead of a placid mount, for a joke the Duke gave Foote his own, flightly, mettlesome horse. Foote was thrown instantaneously and in the fall, sustained two compound fractures that necessitated his leg to be amputated.

However, Foote lost a limb, not his head and when the Duke expressed concern that Foote should not suffer poverty as a result, Foote made a canny suggestion.

“I took the liberty to mention to His Royal Highness that a patent from the Crown for the House in the Haymarket during my lifetime would protect me from want…”

The repentant Duke duly issued Foote with a charter to hold a patent for the new theatre in Haymarket – and the Theatre Royal was born – pretty much a license for Foote to print money.

Foote longed to perform again and so was fitted with a special jointed, artificial leg. He used his disability to reinvent himself, and wrote parts for one legged actors – such as Luke Lame in The Lame Lover. Another, more controversial play was The Devil Upon Two Sticks which personified the devil as a doctor. Foote became a wealthy man but work lead to exhaustion and …ultimately, all did not end well for Foote, but to tell is another story – but needless to say, truth is stranger than fiction.


The Ringmaster’s Daughter

1770’s London
The ringmaster’s daughter, Henrietta Hart, was born and raised around the stables of Foxhall Gardens. Now her father is gravely ill, and their livelihood in danger. The Harts' only hope is to convince Foxhall’s new manager, Mr Wolfson, to let Hetty wield the ringmaster’s whip. Hetty finds herself drawn to the arrogant Wolfson but, despite their mutual attraction, he gives her an ultimatum: entertain as never before – or leave Foxhall.

When the winsome Hetty defies society and performs in breeches, Wolfson’s stony heart is in danger. Loath as he is to admit it, Hetty has a way with horses…and men. Her audacity and determination awaken emotions long since suppressed.

But Hetty’s success in the ring threatens her future when she attracts the eye of the lascivious Lord Fordyce. The duke is determined, by fair means or foul, to possess Hetty as his mistress – and, as Wolfson’s feelings for Henrietta grow, disaster looms.

Buy Links
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Social Media Links
Subscribe to Grace’s quarterly newsletter.
Grace’s blog ‘Fall in Love With History
Grace on Twitter
Grace’s author page on Amazon

Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and author of historical romance by night. Grace lives near London and is housekeeping staff to five cats, two teenage sons, one husband and a bearded dragon.

Grace believes that everyone needs romance in their lives as an antidote to the modern world. The Ringmaster’s Daughter is Grace’s fifth novel, and the first in a new series of Georgian romances.

1 comment:

Grace Elliot said...

Thank you so much for hosting me here at the English Epochs. Always a pleasure to share my love of history with fellow addicts!
Grace x