Obituary: John Betherwell (1819-1870)
By Flaing
Published: October 16, 2007

John Betherwell (1819-1870)

John Miles de Goncourt Betherwell was born in 1819 to a Mormon family of French émigrés. His upbringing was uneventful. He has been described as a 'studious boy, little interested in the world about him but assiduous in his pursuit of books'. His talent did not become apparent until his late teens, when, of a sudden, years of reading almost everything that crossed his path apparently resulted in a flood of words the first time his pen touched paper in earnest. Very soon after his first short story 'Brevity' (1837, 25,000 words) became universally popular, his reputation was established. These days he is counted as one of the founders of modern writing. With nearly two hundred novels and a plethora of short stories, he dominated the world of literature for more than thirty years before his untimely death (shortly after this photograph was taken) in 1870.

The fundamental tenet of Betherwell's early writing was described by him as 'more is more'.

His first novel, 'A Short History of a Scoundrel' ran to over six thousand pages of closely printed words, in a small font, with only four chapters. His innovations included complete repetitions of speeches, word for word, ascribed to several different characters throughout the book. Such passages often reached a hundred pages or more, the most famous (or his detractors might say 'notorious') example being the well-known 'Governor's speech' which starts on page 2,564 and ends on page 2,698. Then to the surprise and delectation of his reader, Betherwell, within the space of two pages, recommences the passage from the beginning, with it re-attributed to one 'Amos Gollimore' (an itinerant farm worker and a reoccurring character in Betherwell's writing). Such was Betherwell's skill that the same speech fitted perfectly to each character and each situation (or so he claimed in his momentous self-justifying tome, 'The Art of Weighty Writing', copies of which are still kept by Universities throughout the land, and regularly consulted by students). He often told his admirers that 'eventually all men will succumb to the gravity of my words'.

In life, too, Betherwell followed his writing motto. His Mormon background meant that in his lifetime he acquired at least twenty-seven wives, nearly two hundred children and fifty grandchildren. The wealth accumulated from his writing ensured they all lived comfortably, and by the end of his life the family inhabited its own township, Betherwell, with over fifty houses and its own general store and amenities, all run by family members and their spouses.

But not all was sweet in this man's life. While the first ten years of his career was universally greeted by enthusiastic afficionados of the highest level of literary skill, almost as is inevitable in human affairs, a growing movement of dissent gathered force, culminating in the so-called 'Betherwell riots' of 1855. During this unfortunate event, Betherwell's greatest rival (later referred to as his nemesis), Jacob Laing, led a party of young writers all waving very thin pamphlets and chanting terse sentences. It was indeed unfortunate that the local police chose to deploy what was later admitted to be unnecessary force against these unarmed protesters, leading to many injuries and one death, a young man known as 'Carnot' who slipped into an open drain and whose cries went unnoticed in the mêlée.

From that time, a vociferous anti-Betherwell movement grew rapidly across the land, and the last years were typified by protesters coughing loudly during recitations of his books, and unauthorised 'abridged' copies of his most famous books shamefully reduced to just a few hundred pages by 'eliminating repetitions and unnecessary words'. Universities suffered protests in which students wrote ten-word essays and would only converse with tutors in words of less than three syllables. This became a fashion amongst the younger generation, and even with some older academics (by his account jealous of Betherwell's success). Such groups emerged in every literary centre of the land, calling themselves 'Laingites' and espousing the belief that the 'gravity of words' was a hindrance, not a benefit, and men would eventually throw off such a burden and become free, unencumbered, so their literary spirit might soar: 'Angelic words in golden flight, rise forth into the Heavenly light' as one Laingite poet expressed it.

Betherwell's final years were troubled. Despite finding tranquillity and warmth in his family circle, outside in the public world great argument raged continually, and it was this that later led to his death. Perhaps unwisely, his reaction to the Laingites was to produce longer and longer manuscripts, weighted with words and his beloved repetitions. At the publication of what was to be his final book, he appeared on the steps of the publisher's building in the city to face the shouting crowds of Laingites who surrounded it. Such was his anger and distress, he foolishly decided to hold a copy of his work on high as he railed against the protesters. Taking the mighty tome from the assistants who had carried it forth, the diminutive figure held it aloft for a glorious few seconds, before his grip slipped, and the tragedy happened.

Perhaps fulfilling his own earlier predictions, Betherwell was truly a man who succumbed to the gravity of words