#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

Find The Improbable Adventures of Miss Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian on Goodreads

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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.

Connect with Helen
Twitter | Goodreads

Emily Soldene twitter quote

#BookReview Augustus by John Buchan #nonfic

AugustusBuchanAbout the Book

In 27 BC, out of the carnage of two civil wars, one man emerged to rule absolutely the Roman world. This man was Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he was perhaps the least likely candidate to return stability to the Republic. But by AD 14 Octavian had established peace over an empire that stretched from the shores of Britain to Anatolia. Power, prosperity and propaganda had seen him renamed as Augustus, ‘The Divinely Favoured One.’ He had become a God, and had changed the face of the Republic forever.

Format: Hardcover (349 pages)            Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: August 1941 [1937] Genre: Biography, History

Find Augustus on Goodreads

My Review

In Augustus, John Buchan combines his flair for storytelling and skill at crafting clear, precise prose with his love of history and knowledge of the Greek and Roman Classics, which he studied at Oxford University. Whilst Augustus may not have the pace of The Thirty-Nine Steps it is very readable and the book is clearly the product of extensive research, witnessed by the extensive footnotes and references to a range of sources. On publication it was greeted with approval by many eminent historians.

Buchan admires Augustus for his pragmatism, administrative skills and diplomacy whilst acknowledging that at times he could be ruthless in dealing with enemies and perceived threats. As someone who suffered poor health for much of his adult life, I wonder too if Buchan empathised with Augustus who also endured bouts of ill health as a young man.

Conversely, Buchan makes clear his disapproval of Mark Antony, writing that ‘each of his virtues – and they were many – was nullified by some rampant vice’ and summing him up as ‘the classic instance of the second-rate man who is offered a first-rate destiny, and who, in stumbling after it, loses his way in the world’.

I particularly enjoyed the sections where Buchan takes the reader inside the Imperial household, acknowledging the influential role played by Augustus’ wife, Livia. (When I think of Livia it always conjures up a picture of the actress, Sian Phillips, who played her in the TV series I Claudius, opposite Brian Blessed as Augustus.)

Buchan points out interesting parallels between the challenges faced by Augustus and contemporary events (he was working on the book at the same time as Europe was witnessing the rise of Mussolini and Hitler). In the preface to the book he writes ‘The convulsions of our time may give an insight into the problems of the early Roman empire which was perhaps unattainable by scholars who lived in easier days’.

And, at the end of the book, Buchan points out similarities between the two ages: ‘Once again the crust of civilization has grown thin, and beneath can be heard the muttering of primeval fires. Once again many accepted principles of government have been overthrown, and the world has become a laboratory where immature and feverish minds experiment with unknown forces.’ The concept of the thin crust of civilization was one Buchan frequently explored in his adventure novels, notably The Power House.

In three words: Lucid, detailed, well-researched

Try something similar: Julius Caesar by John Buchan

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John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.