Mr Foote's Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London

Hallie Rubenhold on a biography of an 18th-century actor and dandy

Mr Foote's Other Leg: Comedy, Tragedy and Murder in Georgian London
Author: Ian Kelly
Publisher: Picador
Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Price (RRP): £18.99

Amid the biographies of monarchs and military heroes that crowd the bookshelves, it’s refreshing to discover an entirely new character who history has overlooked. Samuel Foote (pictured right) is just such a person, whose rackety existence in the mid-18th century, as an actor, stage manager and writer, brought him fame, fortune and ruin in equal measures.

The comedies and tragedies that colour Foote’s tale are set out vividly in Ian Kelly’s new work, Mr Foote’s Other Leg. The ‘leg’, in this case, refers to the one that he still possessed, after a riding accident in 1766 robbed him of a limb. What at the time appeared to be a stroke of misfortune in fact changed the course of Foote’s life, putting the actor on to the course that led to him becoming the manager of the Haymarket Theatre in London.

Foote’s family, who were Cornish gentry, had never intended their son for the stage. Sent to Oxford and then to the Inns of Court, Foote discovered his passion for acting after arriving in London. Under the direction of Charles Macklin, one of the era’s theatrical luminaries, Foote, a larger-than-life dandy who used to swan about Covent Garden’s coffee houses in suits of beaver, was able to make a name for himself as a comedic actor.

Amusing though he was, Foote also possessed a dark side, and Kelly does an excellent job of exploring this in all of its sometimes unsavoury detail. Privately suspected of physically mistreating his wife as well as engaging in homosexual behaviour, the actor-manager publicly proved himself to be a vicious enemy when crossed. Yet it was his spat with the bigamist Duchess of Kingston, which saw him brought him to trial for sodomy, that all but ruined him.

Although the subject of insalubrious Georgian London is becoming increasingly familiar terrain for readers, engaging, detailed depictions of life on the stage in the 18th century are far more difficult to find. Kelly’s book has mastered this and colourfully paints in the finer details of a theatrical career, from its scents and sounds to its triumphs, rivalries and curtain calls.

Hallie Rubenhold is an author and the editor of The Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies (Doubleday, 2012)

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