Helen Batten’s penchant for overlooked narratives takes her to the whirlwind world of the Victorian stage in her new book, a rapid, forensic and beautifully readable biography of Emily Soldene
Published By: Allison & Busby, 2021
As a society, we tend to think we understand the Victorians. In fact, in many circles these their ultra-stuffy ways of life are frequent points of humour. But what was the reality for individual Victorian people? And how much has changed?
Both those questions are answered – to some extent – in Helen Batten’s new book, The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer and Rebel Victorian. Starting from a place of personal history, Batten traces the life of one of her distant ancestors who happens to be an unremembered hero of the Victorian stage. From humble working-class beginnings to becoming one of the most talked about female actresses of her era, Emily Soldene’s life is one ensconced in success, failure and tragedy.
But it also tells us plenty about what being a female actress during the Victorian era was truly like, and the eternal truths Batten presents create a seamless dialogue between then and now. Soldene’s story is a fascinating one, left somewhat open-ended by historical records but still pertinent.
Forensically Human and Exquisitely Readable
Helen Batten’s fluid, colloquial prose is right at home on London-based publisher Allison & Busby. It’s the kind of lucidity that only comes when having a real reverence for your subject matter.
Batten displays that via great dramatic writing and the odd translucently beautiful line, such as when on finding a picture of Soldene on Google she remarks of her mouth being:
‘wide in a secret smile as if communicating with a celestial friend in the firmament’.
Her distinctly forensic touch – which she draws from fabulously thorough research into contemporary sources and Soldene’s own writings – is applied to both facts and emotions. Her ability to achieve both with such warmth and humanity is what makes The Improbable Adventures so exquisitely readable.
At a brisk 224 pages, the whole thing runs quickly but smoothly, always flowing without hindrance betwixt musical halls, opera venues, different societal sects & opinions. Even if one has no interest in this era, it’d be hard not to get sucked in.
Feminism And The Entertainment Industry
Much of the book is given to pondering the reality of life for Victorian women, both on the stage and in wider society. Emily Soldene was by no means you’re average shrinking violet, as her storied history of appearing in Opera Souffle and routinely flaunting her sexuality makes obvious.
Batten describes being an actress in the 19th century as a ‘hectic, ‘candle burning at both ends’ kind of existence’. But there are deeper, more scintillating discussions to be had on this subject too.
From grim precedents for the modern pornographic industry to the perennial experience of women as playthings of male egos, Emily Soldene witnessed and encountered it all.
There are numerous saddening accuracies, though Batten is sure to highlight Soldene’s resolve, adaptability and her (sort of) proto-feminist novel Young Miss Staples to present a side to Victorian femininity that has so rarely been recorded and as such barely recognised. The discussions about the views purported in that novel, and feminism at the time, make for superb reading.
Though she was certainly a product of her time, Emily Soldene’s views on other races and opposition to women’s suffrage were pretty egregious. It’s something Batten recognises too; ‘At times Emily did manage to shock me’.
But it doesn’t really matter whether one likes Soldene or not. Fresh, creative, riveting accounts of the trials and societal trappings of Victorian life don’t often come around, and Helen Batten has certainly given us one with The Improbable Adventures. It flies by in an instant and, as a primer to a fascinating figure who you might not encounter otherwise, it can’t be faulted.
You can buy The Improbably Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer and Rebel Victorian from Allison & Busby here.