Emily Soldene: actress, writer, rebel
As the darling of London’s opera scene, and then as a journalist printing scandalous revelations about the cream of society, Emily Soldene thrived in the limelight. Helen Batten explains why this trendsetting, rule-breaking, genre-hopping Victorian celebrity deserves to take centre stage once more
Emily Soldene started her improbably varied career in the music halls, where she became a leading lady, producer, director and impresario. She circled the globe many times, conquering Broadway, touring the Wild West and sailing to Australia and New Zealand.
But it was her final reinvention – as a writer – that is perhaps her most heroic. When the theatrical world turned its back on her, Soldene kick-started her career once more, publishing two books and becoming a successful journalist. She had that rare thing for a Victorian working-class woman: a public voice, which she used to speak fearlessly about issues such as adultery and abortion. Though she despised the suffragette movement, she was the living embodiment of a practical feminism that would seem remarkable even decades later.
It was sheer envy that first propelled Soldene onto the stage. Born in 1838 to a bonnet maker in Clerkenwell, London, by her early twenties she found herself married with two young children, living in her mother’s cramped lodgings and with the threat of the workhouse always looming.
Having read a glowing review of the Italian opera singer Adelina Patti, the very next day Soldene spied a poster of Patti – with a chin that was “very long and underhung”, as she described it – and marched straight to the house of a singing instructor.
Soldene, it quickly became apparent, boasted an uncommon ability to convey emotion through her singing. Her first reviews were good but she struggled to find paid work, so turned to the music halls. Women who worked in these dens of drinking, sex work and lewd humour had terrible reputations.
For Soldene, though, they offered her the chance to escape a life of drab domesticity. Adopting the stage name Miss FitzHenry, she started work at the Oxford Music Hall in Westminster, where she became an instant hit singing tragic ballads.
She attributed her success to picking the best-looking women for the chorus and hiring a troop of cancan dancers
Meanwhile, in Paris, the German-born composer Jacques Offenbach was revolutionising musical theatre with his new brand of satirical operettas dubbed opéra bouffe. That new genre gave Soldene her next big break. Early one morning in 1869, she was woken by frantic knocking at her door. The leading lady of the new Offenbach operetta The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein had fallen out with her leading man, she was told, and Soldene should come right away to take her place. She did – and was a triumph, being lauded as the darling of London’s burgeoning light-opera scene.
Though Soldene’s career so far had been impressive, it was not unique. But in 1871 she was given the job of producer and director at a new theatre in Islington, the Philharmonic. Her first decision was to première Offenbach’s Genevieve of Brabant, in which she also starred. The production was a sensation, running for 18 months. Every night, liveried carriages lined both sides of Islington High Street, with duchesses content to sit in the stalls, the boxes all being sold out. Soldene attributed her success to picking the best-looking women for the chorus and hiring a banned troop of cancan dancers led by one “Wiry Sal”.
Breaking the States
By this time, Soldene had a lively and – unusually, for a Victorian woman – very social life. She weekended in Brighton, attended races, played poker, smoked, drank brandy, and ate lavish dinners with the most fashionable men in the country. Still she wanted more. In 1874, she formed her own production company and hired the Lyceum Theatre in London. She had no capital, and it was a huge financial risk. As wives were still seen as the property of their husbands, it was difficult for a woman to run a business. Fortunately, Soldene’s husband, John, was compliant, and she opened with The Grand Duchess.
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Following this success, the US beckoned, and she embarked on a tour. The Soldene Opera Bouffe Company delighted Broadway audiences, and she became just as popular across the Atlantic as she was in England. A range of “Soldene” clothes was launched, her face adorned sauce bottles, and a gala ball held in her honour in New York City sold out. The only criticism levelled at her was about her weight, to which she retorted: “Everybody can’t be as fat as a stoat nailed on a barn door.”
Helen Batten shares stories from her new biography of Victorian singer, stage performer and entrepreneur Emily Soldene, from a career in London’s rowdy music halls to adventures abroad and the bright lights of 19th-century Broadway.
Soldene travelled constantly throughout the 1870s and 80s, embracing one improbable adventure after the next. She drank brandy at Niagara Falls, was poisoned by sulphurous air in the Nevada mining town of Eureka, and drove a Cobb & Co coach through the Australian outback. The French-American doctor Cornelius Herz, whom she described as “one of the leading lights of society”, showed her around the opium dens of San Francisco. She met Sitting Bull, who shook her hand with a “grip of steel” so painful she thought her “bones would certainly crack”.
However, the popularity of her tours eventually waned as Gilbert and Sullivan’s more conservative and increasingly successful oeuvre made the racy foreign opéra bouffe seem passé. Soldene, too, found that she was outdated; now in her middle years, she became a figure of fun, with her attempts to be sexually provocative labelled as “the very incarnation of vice” and “unutterably sad and ghastly”.
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By 1892, she was alone and broke in Australia, in need of a new job. Luckily, she was introduced to newspaper journalism, later recalling that “I seized the chance, also the pen.” Witty and insightful, Soldene connected with readers as she had with audiences. Within three years she was back in England, writing a column for the Sydney Evening News.
For the next 11 years, Soldene posted a weekly article to Australia about whatever she liked: her personal life, theatre, parties, gossip and big events such as the diamond jubilee or the “deadly dull” 1908 Olympics. Often writing about politics, she became much preoccupied with the career of Winston Churchill, whom she disliked intensely, declaring: “Isn’t it a pity Winston Churchill has got a swelled head?” She had no time for the suffragettes, either, suggesting that “the women pull the strings anyway”.
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Reporting on technological innovations, Soldene was unconvinced about the motor car – except to spare horses waiting outside theatres in the rain. She was a nostalgic Victorian writing in the Edwardian era: she missed the dark nights without electrification, and rued the passing of traditional ways. The world of 1838, when she was born, must have felt a lifetime away from the 1900s.
There was, though, one change that Soldene did want to see. In 1896 she published her novel Young Mrs Staples, a tale of a marriage gone wrong. Extremely controversial at the time, it focused on society’s sexual hypocrisy, arguing that "woman is not more chaste than man" and should not take the blame for sexual indiscretions.
Men who had affairs should be revealed, it said, while unmarried mothers should be helped, not scorned; illegitimate babies should be legally recognised, not stigmatised. It was a deeply personal novel, though Soldene had always hidden her illegitimacy.
Emily Soldene’s revelations
Soldene’s novel was followed in 1897 by her memoir, My Theatrical and Musical Recollections, which scandalised the country and, naturally, became a bestseller. As one reviewer put it: “Most of the men who 25 years ago were ‘going the pace’ in London have read its pages with fear and trembling, while the rest of the ‘upper ten’ are chuckling over Miss Soldene’s revelations.”
She held back little, producing lists of public figures who had consorted with actresses and saying that when it came to revenge, “we women can wait”. Lord John Hay was “fond of sitting in a box and criticising the girls’ skirts”; Sir George Armitage was a “dear old man, like poverty, he was always with us”; while the famous explorer Richard Burton was “addicted” to long conversations with the ladies of the ballet and wore make up.
Soldene’s writing gives us the unique viewpoint of an ordinary woman mixing with the ruling classes
In 1912 she wrote her last column, which described her forthcoming Easter Sunday 10-course lunch. Having eaten it, she suffered a heart attack and died five days later.
Soldene may have long disappeared from the stage, but she deserves to be back in the limelight. Her remarkable career turns the stereotype of the Victorian woman on its head. Her writing gives us the unique viewpoint of an ordinary woman mixing with the ruling classes. In every sense, Emily Soldene has an extraordinary voice.
Helen Batten is the author of The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer and Rebel Victorian (Allison & Busby, 2021)