Book Review: The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, Rebel Victorian

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.

Helen Batten. Image Credit: Libi Peder

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.

Conclusion

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.

Book Review: Emily Brand’s The Fall of The House of Byron

The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England:  Amazon.co.uk: Brand, Emily: 9781473664302: Books

Emily Brand’s latest about the ancestors of the infamous Romantic poet is wonderfully researched and sometimes riveting, if not always totally engaging.

Edition Published By: John Murray Press, 2020

Probably nobody reading this blog will need an introduction to George, 6th Lord Byron. Like many of the Romantic poets, he’s a ‘love him or loathe him’ character whose resonance on the page might well be overshadowed by his infamy in life.

In The Fall of the House of Byron: Scandal and Seduction in Georgian England, historian Emily Brand maps the origins of his contrary condition, by examining his ancestors throughout the 1700s. As it turns out, the malaise and melodrama his poetry is renowned for was pretty much heredity.

After 3 years and a frankly astonishing amount of research – and this book really is fabulously thorough – the tome lands on our laps. But is it as scandalous and deliciously riveting as its title suggests? For me, the answer is sometimes.

How Dramatic Is Georgian High Society?

Beginning with an introduction to Newstead Abbey – which became arguably the greatest, saddest metaphor for the whole Byron dynasty – Brand writes with real vigour. She rolls through a cast of indulgent characters, all with something to lose or gain from the estate and its happenings.

She creates here something which permeates periodically throughout the book; a sense of doomed murkiness and foreboding shadows, itchy paranoia and whispers of violence. All those senses are certainly relevant at various points throughout the Byron story.

Newstead Abbey – aka the Byron estate – today. Image Credit: alan feebery Flickr.

For all her nuance, she can mediate the most outrageous moments with her own kind of tickling coarseness. When writing about Lord Byron in the chapter Folly Castle, she notes:

‘He receives word that a scornful former lover has decided not just to kiss and tell, but to f**k and publish’.

But often, the scandal and downfall promised in the title feel as though they’re a long time coming. Brand often spends a long time focussing on the characters’ esteemed military careers, or fairly innocuous everyday observations.

She sometimes writes those occurrences with gripping drama, especially in the chapter about John Byron, or ‘Foul Weather Jack’. But essentially, there’s a lot of padding around the dramatic moments, so how gripping you find large parts of the book will depend on your appetite for Georgian high society.

Amplifying Women’s Voices

In much of her work, Brand’s emphasis is on relaying women’s perceptions and perspectives in an era of strict misogyny.

While there’s not much here that suggests anything other than the typical patriarchal cruelty of wider society, Brand expertly accounts for the female members of the Byron household, either through her own characterful descriptions:

‘She indulges her melancholy ideas and inevitable tears, knowing they go unobserved in the dim light’.

Or through diary cuttings from both the protagonists and the circles they moved in.

She devotes plenty of time to Isabella Byron, identifying her place and presence in that world resplendently. As the book goes on, Isabella essentially becomes the dynasty’s great tragic figure, her eventually morose life the product of some terrible decisions but also of the ‘wolves at the door’; the mob mentally of the sneering Georgian upper classes and their insatiable appetite for gossip. Indeed, when she died in 1795:

‘Her demise elicited no fanfare, going unreported for two weeks…’

Emily Brand delivers a snapshot of Isabella Byron’s personality and life.

Brand does relay strength, both emotional and intellectual, in pretty much all of the Byron women too. It’d be nigh-on-impossible not to have sympathy for the canny Catherine Gordon, who fights on amidst the poisonous pull of the detestable ‘mad’ Jack Byron.

But any major confrontations by Brand towards women in society and sexism at the time come fairly few and far between.

It’s Not All About Him

Anyone coming to this book thinking it mostly about Lord Byron the 6th himself might be disappointed; it’s not really about him. But it is, in part, about how much he embraced his family’s ruin, in both his work and life.

If you’re as interested in Georgian England as Brand is, then you’re likely to love this. But the stories don’t feel vastly different from those you might find elsewhere, other than in the Byronic element.

You can buy The Fall Of The House Of Byron here.