Book Corner: Interview with Helen Batten

Today, it is a pleasure to welcome author Helen Batten to History…the Interesting Bits. Helen’s new book, The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel is out this week.

About the book:

‘‘I rode on the stage in such style, that the men in front forgot I was a girl, and also forgot to laugh’

Emily Soldene

The fascinating biography of an almost forgotten star of the Victorian stage brought back to life by the Sunday Times bestselling author of Sisters of the East End. Emily Soldene was a courageous actor-manager whose life spanned the entire Victorian period. She challenged the stereotype of Victorian women and showed just what women could achieve with enough determination. From in humble working-class beginnings born as the daughter of a Clerkenwell milliner in 1838, she rose to become a celebrated leading lady, director and formidable impresario creating one of the era’s most celebrated opera companies. Her career took her to theatres across America and Australia, as well as throughout Great Britain, before reinventing herself as a journalist and writer in her fifties. She wrote a weekly column for the Sydney Evening News, as well as a novel and a memoir, and scandalised the capital with her revelations. Emily Soldene died in 1912. A darling of London’s music halls and theatre land, Emily counted Charles Dickens and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as friends and mingled with the Rothschilds, Oscar Wilde and aristocrats. Charting her international triumphs and calamitous disasters, from taking Broadway by storm, to befriending cowboys in the Wild West and touring the Australian outback, Helen Batten vividly recreates the era and a riotous life that has faded from the limelight. Putting Emily Soldene firmly back in centre stage, The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene is a portrait of an irrepressible character who trod the boards, travelled the globe and tore up the Victorian rule book.

So I asked Helen a few questions about this remarkable Victorian, Emily Soldene, and about her experiences in writing the book.

1. Please tell me a little about the book.

When I was growing up Nanna said we were related to a famous actress, but she knew nothing about her. We dismissed this actress as just a figment of Nanna’s imagination, but years later a historian of our ancestral village told me that we were indeed related to a great actress, that her name was Emily Soldene and I must Google her. I was amazed to find that she was not only a star of the music hall, but a leading lady of light opera. She went on to become a producer, director and then an impresario, taking the lease of London’s top theatres. She bought the rights to Bizet’s Carmen and was the first person to tour it around Britain. She was the Cameron Mackintosh of her time, and she was my first cousin three times removed.

Emily had a social life that was as stellar as her career – she mixed with the most interesting men of her generation, the great and the good who were running the country. She was invited to the best parties, sailed in yachts, had weekend trips to Brighton, drank champagne, ate oysters and played a lot of poker. Her favourite pastime was a trip to the races. She also managed to circle the globe several times. Emily took her production company on tour, was a hit on Broadway, played mining towns in the Wild West and got stuck in an earthquake in San Francisco. Then, struck by wanderlust she carried on to New Zealand and Australia, driving across the outback in a Cobbs Coach. Emily was married and had four children, but the existence of a family didn’t stop Emily having the life she wanted. She once said that her husband ‘never got in the way of the green room’.

But it was her next incarnation as a journalist that I find the most heroic. As her light operas went out of fashion (Gilbert and Sullivan were suddenly all the rage), she entered her middle years and struggled with her weight. Emily found herself stranded in Australia with no money for the passage home and needing a new career. She started writing theatre reviews anonymously and within three years was on a boat home, with a new job as the London correspondent for Australia’s largest newspaper. Emily could write about whatever she liked and she did every week for the next eleven years of her life. She was funny and outspoken – parties, politics, suffragettes, Churchill, hemlines and her personal life – everything was fair game. She also published a scandalous novel and her kiss and tell memoir was one of the best-selling books of 1898.

Emily always loved her food (and a brandy and soda) it was this that killed her, having a heart attack after a ten course Easter Sunday lunch that was the subject of her last column. As soon as I found out about Emily, I knew that I wanted to write a book about her. She has disappeared from the public consciousness, but I think her extraordinary story should be told; her life shows what Victorian women could and did achieve. This book is my attempt at putting her back into the limelight where she belongs.

2. What attracted you to Emily Soldene’s story?

Emily had never been educated, she was the illegitimate daughter of a Clerkenwell bonnet maker and yet she managed to have a rare thing for a Victorian working-class woman – a public voice. She mixed with the most famous men of her day and travelled in a way many of us in the twenty first century have never managed. And she was a wife and a mother of four children. I find her very inspiring.

Emily’s story gives an insight into the colourful world of Victorian theatre. But it’s an amazing personal story of rising above unpromising beginnings, and resilience despite numerous public disappointments. She was adored and achieved the heights of fame, only in later years to receive the sort of public criticism that would be worthy of today’s social media trolls – as one reviewer said, ‘please take away the corpse’, but Emily never lost her joie de vivre and just kept on getting up there on the stage.

In her journalism she gives us a unique insight into Edwardian London and the upper classes from the view of a working-class woman. Her opinions are fascinating – she’s a feminist and yet not a suffragette. She despises sexual hypocrisy and is anti-abortion. She loathes Churchill but loves Cecil Rhodes. She is devastated when Queen Victoria dies. She is a great fan of the Empire, hates taxes but is first in the queue to get her pension when they are brought in in 1906. She’s initially suspicious of the motor car (terrible attire for women) but loves the idea of flight, and is confused by the tube – why is it so windy and what happens if they break?

Most of all she was not afraid to speak out about what she believed in. She wrote a novel advocating that men who had affairs should be exposed, and illegitimate children should not be stigmatised but recognised. Of course, this was very personal, the circumstances of her birth had haunted her all her life. And then she practised what she preached by outing the famously respectable men who had consorted with actresses in her bestselling memoir. Basically, Emily gave me more than enough material for a book!

3. What made you become a writer?

I was always scribbling as a child and my earliest ambition was to write a book. It was going to be a historical novel with handsome knights and courageous princesses, a story of great love winning over adversity. This book is still to be written. Instead, I kept a daily diary from the age of five until I went off to university and the late nights got in the way. Afterwards I trained as a journalist but went into television, so I didn’t write so much, but in a way, I was still telling stories, just in a different form. One day I went to a talk at a book festival and had a bit of an epiphany moment. The three successful female authors on the panel said that it was ok not to have the book plotted out before you start – it can write itself, you don’t have to start at the beginning, characters take on a life of their own, momentum is really important – just write a small amount but every day, the first draft is the most difficult and generally rubbish. All these tips made it seem much more possible to write a book. I came out exhilarated with a sense that I could do it too.

Around the same time, I made a television documentary spending a year following Gerry Cottle’s circus. He was a brilliant raconteur and kept me entertained with endless fantastic anecdotes. His whole life felt like a novel – he was a stockbroker’s son who ran away to join the circus when he was sixteen and married into circus royalty. He was soon Britain’s biggest circus owner, and yet he also battled with terrible demons particulalry his addiction to cocaine and prostitutes, which he eventually overcame. He made millions and was bankrupt many times, a survivor. So, when he rang me and asked whether I would write his life story for him, I couldn’t refuse.

4. Who are your major writing influences?

For the Improbable Adventures, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dicken’s mistress, Nelly Ternan, The Invisible Woman, was an extremely useful window into the world of the Victorian actress, Haille Rubbenhold’s Five gave a sense of the precariousness of life for women in Victorian London and helped explain why Emily worked so hard to make herself financially independent, and rereading Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet inspired me at the beginning of writing the book. Although fiction, it sounded rather like Emily and her theatrical world.

But as to historical writing influences generally, as a child I spent hours pouring over Antonia Fraser’s Kings and Queens of England which started my love of history. Then as a young teenager I read Anya Seaton’s Katherine, a biography of John of Gaunt’s mistress Katherine Swynford, which rooted me firmly in the fourteenth century. The Waning of the Middle Ages by Huizinga is slightly impenetrable but when I first read it as a teenager it somehow managed to make me feel if I was right there in the middle of the calamitous fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with their misplaced chivalry, endless civil wars, heretical religious movements, revolting peasants and repeating pandemics.

My favourite author is Daphne Du Maurier, I think she is altogether darker and more complicated than at first glance. I also think she is rather good at capturing the breathless intensity, excitement and fun of romantic relationships. My guilty pleasure is Frenchman’s Creek. I read it whenever real life becomes too pressing….

In my twenties I read Tom Baker’s memoir Who on Earth is Tom Baker? which is utterly hilarious and started me off reading a stream of autobiographies of a certain kind of mid to late twentieth century entertainer as if I was unconsciously preparing for writing Gerry’s autobiography. But then I branched out into autobiographies of all kinds – favourites include Clare Balding, Alan Johnson, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Claire Tomalin. Hilary Mantel is of course a genius, but my favourite book is her memoir Giving up the Ghost, and then most recently Maggie O’Farrell’s I am, I am, I am- Seventeen brushes with death which is just an inspired way to construct a life story. Years ago, after losing someone very close and precious to me, I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. It’s short and poetic; and managed to put into beautiful words how I felt in that dark place. A lesson in the power of books to save you in extreme times.

Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird have been the most helpful books with writing. I haven’t started with the books that have inspired my day job as a psychotherapist, but I’ll stop now….

5. How long did you spend researching Emily Soldene before writing the book?

I tend to research as I go along but I’d say the book was six months in preparation and another year almost to the day to write. It was a lockdown book. I signed the publishing deal in the first week of March 2020. I could feel the way things were going, so spent every spare second in the British Library and London Library, trying to get all the information I could, while I could. Luckily the London Library continued to post books through the pandemic which was a lifeline.

6. Have you always been interested in the Victorian era?

I’ve always been interested in social history, particularly the lives of women and how they have changed. Along with previous books, researching Emily’s story has given me a fascinating insight into how women used to live. I’ve been rooted in the twentieth century before, and with this book I really enjoyed the opportunity to go back a bit further. It’s made me very grateful to be a woman in the twenty first century with all the opportunities and rights we have now. I think being a woman of whatever class in Victorian Britain was particularly oppressive. A choice between respectability and independence, security and experience, which makes Emily all the more remarkable.

7. What do you enjoy most about writing?

I’m a bit of an insomniac and so most of my books have been written in the quiet hours before the house stirs between 5 and 7.30am. Watching the daybreak is a precious time. I feel lucky, fashioning something that’s hopefully meaningful out of the contents of my head, seems like a kind of alchemy. When it’s going well, the words write themselves. It’s exhilarating. I can get away from the small nonsense that can clamour too loudly. Writing helps put things into perspective. It can be a kind of therapy.

8. What is the worst thing about writing?

Sometimes I feel like I’m more in the world I’m writing about than the present. When I’m in the flow it can be frustrating to have to stop and re-enter the real world. And then I do become a bit obsessed with the topic I’m working on and keep talking about it. I don’t think being the child (or partner!) of a writer is necessarily easy. It’s no accident that I’ve thanked my three daughters for putting up with my endless book-related chat in the acknowledgements of my last two books.

9. Who are your favourite personalities from history? Is there anyone you would particularly like to write about, but haven’t yet?

My university dissertation was centred on an obscure medieval monarch called Alfonso XI of Castille. He was a bit of a hero – inherited the throne at 10 months old, managed to seize the reins of power from his bossy granny, reunited the warring barons, drove the Moors out of Gibraltar, founded Europe’s first chivalric order, crowned himself with a mechanical statue, and had a hot affair with Eleanor the beautiful widow of Seville. Unfortunately, he died in the Black Death at the age of 38 and his legacy was the most horrible civil war. Over thirty years ago I promised my supervisor that I’d write a book about him, so Alfonso has been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time.

10. Who are your heroes/heroines, from history or elsewhere?

I have a deep respect for some of my ancestors, not least for their general resilience in the face of an unforgiving universe. I dedicated the Improbable Adventures to my three daughters because I think Emily is so inspiring for a young woman – her can do, irrepressible joie de vivre, not ‘why me?’, but ‘why not me?’ attitude to life. But writing my last book, The Scarlet Sisters, I learned about my great grandmother, Clara Crisp, and was humbled by what she had experienced and survived, and her determination to give her daughters a better life. I’m also in awe of my paternal grandfather who was drafted into the Household Cavalry at the start of the First World War because he was so tall (he knew nothing about horses, he was a glazier’s son), and charged the German machine guns on his warhorse. He believed that what kept him alive was reciting Kipling’s poem, If, as the bullets whistled past. Eventually he was made to eat the horse, and then was gassed in the trenches. But he went back and fought right up until the end of the war. Afterwards he joined the police (because he was so tall) and ended up as the Chief Constable of Warwickshire Police, in charge of policing Coventry during the blitz. Every night he was driven round the city inspecting the damage and directing operations. I remember him in his nineties, a kindly archetypal (still tall) grandpa who gave me sweets and pennies, and told me stories of going to bed with candles and a nightcap like Wee Willy Winkie. My granny, was the chief matron at Coventry General and was also busy during the Blitz. She cut off her finger while passing a scalpel during an operation, but didn’t say anything until after it had finished. I was always staring at this half finger. She was also scarred on her face from going back into the hospital when it received a direct hit and pulling a young doctor out from the flames. She was less of an archetypal grandparent though. A gambler, she was known as ‘Five Ace Annie’ because she allegedly always had an extra ace up her sleeve. She taught me how to play poker at the age of five.

Aside from the ancestors, I love the many wise writings of Nora Ephron and I have a lot of time for Dolly Parton, the music and the woman.

11. Do you find social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – a benefit or a hindrance?

I’m late to social media, but I can see the potential. I like Facebook for family and friends, and then I’ve recently joined Twitter and I’m impressed with how easy it is to connect to people with the same interests. I’ve been a bit behind the curve on this one…

12. What’s next? Do you have another writing project in mind?

I’ve got a few ideas of the historical nonfiction variety, but just at the moment I’m doing a writing for TV course, so who knows?

13. What did you learn from writing the book?

Apart from the general awe inspired by the scope of Emily’s adventures, I was struck by how the different expectations of mothers in the Victorian era could give opportunities for a freedom unknown to twenty first century mothers. Victorian mothers were not expected to have a relationship with their children. As long as they kept them fed, washed and morally upright, or at least paid someone else to do it, they’d fulfilled the brief. This meant that Emily could buy a big house in Staines, install her mother and a few maids, and leave her children for years at a time with no one thinking any the worse of her. And then Emily’s views sometimes surprised – for example although she lived a kind of practical feminism way ahead of her time, she was anti the suffragette movement arguing that women held the reins anyway – ‘ let them do it with silk gloves’. She was also, along with many feminists of the time, anti-abortion, believing that women were driven to have them by society’s sexual hypocrisy and harsh judgement. Instead, affairs should be open, mistresses acknowledged, illegitimate children instead of being stigmatized should be welcomed and their legal rights the same as other children. This was deeply personal for Emily as all her life she had hidden her own illegitimacy and the name of her real father.

Thank you so much, Helen, for a fascinating conversation. Good luck with the book – I can’t wait to read it!

About the author:

Helen Batten is the Sunday Times bestselling author of Sisters of the East End, and of The Scarlet Sisters which told the story of her grandmother’s life. She is also the co-author of Confessions of a Showman: My Life in the Circus, Gerry Cottle’s autobiography.

After reading history at Cambridge, Helen studied journalism at Cardiff University. She went on to become a producer and director at the BBC. She now works as a writer and psychotherapist. She lives in West London with her three daughters.

To buy the book:

The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel is available from Allison & Busby, Waterstones and Amazon.


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