Georgian Era Theatre, History

Henry Erskine Johnston – a Regency Heartthrob

It seems that most novels set in the Regency era have their very own ‘Mr. Darcy’ type of character to make the female readers swoon.  An Actress of Repute is no exception, featuring the devastatingly handsome real-life Scottish actor Henry Erskine Johnston. Only there a few differences. He isn’t immensely wealthy. He is a bit more bawdy than brooding. Oh yeah – he’s married as well (but unhappily so – does that help?). Perhaps most importantly, his legs must’ve looked great in a kilt as that seems to be the most famous and copied image of him. And my main character had a few opportunities to admire those muscular calves.

Henry Johnston seems to have had a very intriguing backstory as well. He was born in May 1777 in Edinburgh. There is a lot of conjecture about his early life, with some reporting that he was the son of a hairdresser, that he was apprenticed to a writer for a notary or signet, and that he had been apprenticed to a draper for three years. He showed much theatrical promise as an amateur, and was spotted by Stephen Kemble, of the famous Kemble acting family, who was responsible for first getting him on the stage. He soon became very well known for his portrayal of Norval in the play Douglas, which gave him opportunities to show off his fine physique in a very heroic role.Henry became besotted with the beautiful Scottish actress, Nanette Parker, and would throw roses to her onstage at her performances. He was a young 19 when he married her (she was even more youthful – being only 14 years old). They became a power couple in the theatre and often performed together. They had six children together, but the marriage appeared to be very stormy. There were many arguments witnessed and accusations of infidelity (which rather stuck to Nanette, as she abandoned her young family for an affair with Covent Garden manager Henry Harris). In 1807, Henry began a court case in Dublin accusing her of adultery with a Richard Curran, a barrister and son of a Master of the Rolls. The couple remained separated until Henry managed to get an annulment of their marriage in 1820.

Henry was no angel himself, I suspect, and had a bit of a reputation as a hot-headed firebrand. He started a big dispute over contracts at Covent Garden Theatre, signing a list of grievances with seven other actors during the 1802-3 season. There were also some implications from his wife Nanette that he would beat her. She made these accusations slipping out of character during a performance onstage in Glasgow. Henry’s character had to recite dialogue stating how if he were to lays his hands on a woman, he would be a wretch. Nanette interrupted his performance saying “Ugh! You brute!” He then qualified his dialogue, implying hitting a woman was wrong “unless she richly deserved it”.

Domestic disputes aside, Henry was known as “the biggest boy in the world”. He had a playful persona and enjoyed making others laugh, using his great talents of mimicry and impersonation. Much of his ability to do so was through his physicality. Without uttering a word, those around him knew who he was imitating solely through his movements. He was expert at mimicking animals, as well as being skilled in ventriloquy. The Monthly Mirror summed up much of Mr. Johnson’s appeal: “His voice is unusually flexible, and its tones various; soft, sweet, melting, strong, piercing, full, capable of any depression, or any elevation…His countenance is expressive, his figure is pretty… His action is animated and often graceful; the same may be said of his deportment…” It summed up that he had finer requisites, figure excepted, than any other actor on the stage.” High praise indeed, and a perfect résumé for my novel’s main love interest – don’t you think?  

by Edward Mitchell, after Henry Singleton, hand-coloured stipple and line engraving, published 1806

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