So wrote Lord Byron, a man born some 11 years after the demise of Samuel Foote. Foote was possibly the most famous man in London in the mid 18C, yet all but forgotten today. He was an author, impersonator, actor, comedian and playwright in an age of polymaths. Johnson, Garrick, Fielding, Boswell and Reynolds were among his many admirers. Yet none attended his funeral in 1777 and Byron’s is the funny man’s only literary epitaph.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg may read like a work of fiction, but it is the true story of one of London’s big personalities at the dawn of celebrity. At the risk of spoilers, Foote’s story includes fratricide and a hanging; debtors’ prison; coffee houses; bigamy; kings and aristocrats; an amputation; a court case; and theatre, always theatre.
Like many of his successful conteporaries such as Reynolds, Johnson and Garrick, Foote was a provincial, in his case a Cornishman. Short and plain of face, his talents were impersonation, satire and wit, all highly prized and appreciated among London’s oh-so-clever coffee-house intelligensia.
This meticulously researched book tells his story, the tale of an unstoppable trajectory to fame, which from the rock-bottom of the debtor’s prison is almost Whittington-esque. London’s theatre-goers loved him, flocking every summer season to his Little Theatre in the Haymarket. A guilty conscience on the part of the Duke of York saw Foote’s establishment gain a royal patent, raising it up to the Theatre Royal we know today. Yet in the end, our hero’s fortunes took a rapid dive into scandal and ignominy.
A remarkable story, then. The added value, though, for the curious historian, is what Kelly weaves in. He tells us about the 18C London Theatre (plus Dublin for good measure); we learn all about the phenomenal rise and culture of London coffee shops, one in particular: The Bedford, which was the favourite hang-out of thesps, impresarios, agents, etc; we are then turned into experts on the latest amputation techniques as practised by London’s leading surgeons. Although he didn’t actually conduct the amputation, it won’t surprise you to discover that John Hunter was one of Foote’s physicians, and a personal friend.
On top of all this, I picked up things I did not know on the criminal courts, contemporary newspapers and much else. For Kelly doesn’t do “mention in passing”; every interesting stone in the narrative, he lifts up and takes a good look, then shares his findings with you; hence he succeeds in whetting one’s appetite for myriad other topics, leaving you a bit daunted, yet excited and wanting more. This is what raises this book above the extraordinary: Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a wonderful work of history and if you’re quick you’ll probably be able to treat yourself for Christmas.
Mr Foote’s Other Leg by Ian Kelly (462pp) is published by Picador. Cover price is £18.99 but available for around £11.