My thanks to Allison and Busby and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
The Improbable Adventures of Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer and Rebel Victorian is an entertaining and very readable biography of a rather extraordinary woman—Emily Soldene who was a singer, actress, director, writer and much much more—a woman who wanted fame but also had a zest for life—a life she lived fully, with all its ups and downs, right till the end.
Emily was born in 1838 into a family of women who had been running their own businesses in a period when they faced many restrictions and conventions. Her mother Priscilla was a bonnet-maker in London, while her grandmother ran her own pub in the country. While Emily herself married early, she soon found herself wanting to become a singer, and more than that to be famous. Acting on this, she received training and started her career with a few classical music concerts but didn’t attain the success she had hoped for. She soon turned to music halls where she was successful and began to earn well before coming upon opera bouffe in which she starred in many leading roles. She also began to tour, not only in England but also America where she was quite well received. In time her half-sister, Clara Vesey, joined her as an understudy and her husband, Jack, too travelled with the group. But while Emily enjoyed the glamour surrounding the life of an actress, she also ventured into other pursuits, entering the production side of things, and even managing her own theatre company.
Her career in the theatre saw many ups and downs. Not only was it hard work, but competition, changing trends and tastes (among them the arrival on the scene of Gilbert and Sullivan), her own age and girth, and also the complications of running a company got in the way, besides the changes in other people’s lives (Clara’s marriage, the desertion of some of her troupe, etc.) and Emily often had to reinvent, try new things and face both failure and criticism (including rather unflattering reviews in the press). But she let nothing daunt her, sometimes even reprising old roles—not the most sensible decisions but ones that showed that she would never give up. And circumstances were also such that she couldn’t for her family depended on her earnings to live. But with the lows was also success, for instance, when she travelled with her group to Australia and New Zealand or even her initial trip to the States.
Even when her acting career finally came to an end, she found new pursuits which not only engaged her but also brought her some degree of success. She became a writer not only of a novel but her own memoirs, and also as a journalist in the mould of ‘new journalism’—a lighter, popular writing style—on a couple of Australian newspapers in which she wrote from London on a range of subjects from technological innovations (motor car drives to aviation, and even the first mobile phone, about which she was rather prescient wondering whether they’d be a ‘beneficent boon or a holy terror’), to fashion, political figures and social events (even the Olympics of 1908).
This was a really enjoyable account of a very remarkable woman who managed even in a time when social constraints were many to live life on her own terms. She may not have always taken the right decisions, nor were the paths to what she wanted easy but she never gave up (perhaps the necessity of earning a living was a major factor, but that still doesn’t take away from her perseverance). I also liked that Emily was ever ready to reinvent herself, try her hand at new things, even completely different careers and make the best of things. She had a zest for life which shows all through, but especially so in the later chapters on her journalistic career where we see her passion for technology and new trends, and also enjoy all life as to offer—food, clothes, parties, and such.
Many of the issues from prejudice against women in a position to the downsides of theatre life (the casting couch, for instance), were very much in existence then as well and are touched upon. Emily in her writing spoke against some injustices like women being faulted and condemned when in an affair but men being able to walk free. As the author points out, in living her life on her terms, independent to perhaps even more of a degree than women in later times, she did live in line with understandings of gender equality, freedom, and even feminism, even if she didn’t support women’s suffrage.
I enjoyed reading the book very much, and thought the author, Helen Batten has done a great job bringing forth this account of her rather fascinating and extraordinary ancestor.
p.s. Some bookish coincidences in this one were: the mention of Bognor (where Emily’s husband was sent to recuperate) and which also appears in another book I’ve been listening to an adaptation of this month, The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff; next was Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas and Richard D’Oyly Carte on whom I read a book earlier in the year, The Secret Life of the Savoy; and finally a mention of Christabel Pankhust, daughter of Emmeline, who appeared in another read earlier in the year, Etta Lemon.