#BlogTour #BookReview The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian by Helen Batten @AllisonandBusby

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Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian by Helen Batten. My thanks to Helen at Helen Richardson PR for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Allison & Busby for my review copy. Do be sure to check out the reviews by the other book bloggers taking part in the tour.

The Improbable Adventures of Emily SoldeneAbout 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.’

From humble beginnings as the daughter of a Clerkenwell milliner, Emily Soldene rose to become a leading lady of the London stage and a formidable impresario with her own opera company. The darling of London’s theatreland, she later reinvented herself as a journalist and writer who scandalised the capital with her backstage revelations.

Weaving through the spurious glamour of Victorian music halls and theatres, taking encounters with the Pre-Raphaelites and legal disputes involving Charles Dickens in her stride, Emily became the toast of New York and ventured far off the beaten track to tour in Australia and New Zealand. In The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene, a life filled with performance, travel and incident returns to centre stage.

Format: Hardcover (320 pages)               Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 23rd September 2021 Genre: Nonfiction, Biography

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My Review

Helen Batten’s fascinating book explores Emily’s eventful journey from country girl, to music hall artiste, to doyenne of opera bouffe, to theatrical producer, novelist and journalist.  She also brings out of the shadows Emily’s family – her husband, children, nephews and nieces – who are curiously absent from not only Emily’s memoirs but also largely from her life and career. The exception is the relationship between Emily and her sister, Clara, the dynamics of which the author explores in some detail.

Helen Batten admits in her introduction that there are gaps in Emily’s memoirs – and sometimes downright untruths – which she has filled either with information from other sources or with speculation. The latter is always well-argued and insightful. By the way, in the introduction Helen explains her own very particular connection to Emily Soldene.

Alongside Emily’s story, the author includes fascinating nuggets of social history whether that’s contemporary attitudes to marriage and parenting roles, the Victorian male’s predeliction for saucy postcards, the prevalence of the casting couch in Victorian theatre, or the beginnings of the cult of celebrity journalism. Clearly the product of extensive research, this historical detail is delivered in an accessible way that never feels heavy-handed. Helen Batten also takes the opportunity to bring other female theatrical entrepreneurs out of the shadows, such as Charlotte Cushman, a singer and actress who became the first female theatre manager in the United States.

The author makes judicious use of excerpts from Emily’s memoirs and her newspaper columns. These really allow Emily to come alive, showcasing her keen observational skills and wicked sense of humour. One example is her less than complimentary observations about New York ladies of 1874: ‘They wore diamonds at the breakfast table, and cut through the vast space of the hotel dining-room with elevated, thin, nasal, metallic voices that made one’s skin creep.’ Being thin is something Emily herself could never be accused of.  Many years later attending the Motor Show at Olympia Emily imagines the conversation in the salon set aside for members of the Ladies’ Automobile Club: ‘Tea and transmissions, coffee and clutches, macaroons and magnetos, discussed with ardour and zest’.   As the author rightly observes of Emily’s journalism, ‘Her joie de vivre bubbles up in her prose like the literary equivalent of Offenbach’s champagne bounce’.

There is a great cast of secondary characters with walk-on parts for, among others, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde (‘unconvential, not to say impertinent’ remarks Emily) and aristocratic figures such as Lord Dunraven, whom Emily describes admiringly as ‘Gay, bright, clever and full of life; and who after the opera would walk home with us, cut the cold beef, and open the oysters and stout with the unconvential facility of the man who has been everywhere…’  As it happens, oysters and stout feature prominently in Emily’s life.

During her life Emily was also witness to many historic events including the 1908 London Olympics, the Sidney Street siege, the opening of the Central Line of the London Underground, and even the invention of the mobile phone. Yes, really… okay, an early version of it.  About the latter Emily wonders with uncanny prescience whether it will prove ‘a beneficent boon or a holy terror’.

As well as being a fascinating, impeccably researched and hugely entertaining read, the book contains some wonderful photographs of Emily, members of her family and of locations mentioned in the book. I absolutely loved following Emily’s ‘improbable adventures’ as she criss-crosses the globe. The book is a picture of a woman who lived life at full tilt and on her own terms; an example of girl power in the Victorian age, if you like.

In her introduction to the book, Helen Batten observes that Emily’s memoirs don’t tell the whole story. She writes, ‘I think she left some of the best bits out. So I’ve put them back in’. Helen, you absolutely did.

In three words: Fascinating, spirited, entertaining

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Helen BattenAbout 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.

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Emily Soldene twitter quote

#BookReview The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones

The Tale of the TailorAbout the Book

One winter, in the dark days of King Richard II, a tailor was riding home on the road from Gilling to Ampleforth. It was dank, wet and gloomy; he couldn’t wait to get home and sit in front of a blazing fire.

Then, out of nowhere, the tailor is knocked off his horse by a raven, who then transforms into a hideous dog, his mouth writhing with its own innards. The dog issues the tailor with a warning: he must go to a priest and ask for absolution and return to the road, or else there will be consequences…

Format: Hardcover (96 pages)             Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 14th October 2021   Genre: Short Story

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My Review

The medieval ghost story on which The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings is based was first recorded in the early fifteenth century by an unknown monk and transcribed from the Latin by the great medievalist and author, M.R. James in 1922.  The book is Dan Jones’ own retelling of the story.

I confess I found this a curious little book not least because the actual story takes up only a small part of it. The rest of the book is made up of an introduction, in which Dan Jones relates how he first became aware of the story and M.R. James’ transcription of it, and a historical note about Byland Abbey where the story was first recorded.  Most strangely, the book also contains the text of the original story – in Latin. I suspect only Latin scholars will find this of much interest, although the inclusion of M.R. James’s annotations on the text (in English) is an interesting feature.

It was the mention of M.R. James that first drew me to the book as, like Dan Jones, watching one of the BBC adaptations of his ghost stories was a Christmas tradition in our house. Without having access to M.R. James’s original transcription of the story it’s quite hard to judge what Dan Jones has changed or added to his version. It certainly has some vivid images, such as Snowball the tailor’s encounter with a great dog, described as smelling of ‘pure and ceaseless death and of the scuttling things that live in the permanent dark’. This demonic figure brought to mind Night of the Demon, the film version of the M.R. James story ‘Casting The Runes’; the steps Snowball takes in order to protect himself whilst doing the spirit’s bidding made me think of certain scenes in Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out.

Although The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings has some ghoulish moments, I wouldn’t say it was especially scary, certainly not as spine-tingling as some of M.R. James’s ghost stories such as ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ or ‘The Ash-Tree’. Judging by the pictures I’ve seen, the hardcover edition of the book would make an attractive and unusual gift.

I received an advance copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

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Dan JonesAbout the Author

Dan Jones is a historian, broadcaster and award-winning journalist. His books, including The Plantagenets, Magna Carta, The Templars and The Colour of Time, have sold more than one million copies worldwide. He has written and hosted dozens of TV shows including the acclaimed Netflix/Channel 5 series ‘Secrets of Great British Castles’. For ten years Dan wrote a weekly column for the London Evening Standard and his writing has also appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, GQ and The Spectator.

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