Emily Soldene: How to be a Victorian Actress

Eight rules for how to succeed as a woman in the Victorian Age.
Scene from Hogarth's Beggar's Opera, the ballad opera that Emily excelled in.
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What do you do if you’re an uneducated 20-year-old Victorian woman, married to an unimpressive man, with two children but still living with your Mum, the threat of the workhouse ever looming? This was the life of Emily Soldene when she read a glowing review of the world-famous singer, Adelina Patti. She was struck by a wave of sheer envy. The next day she marched to the house of a singing instructor and demanded lessons.

Emily Soldene

So began Emily Soldene’s dramatic life. She started in the music halls, became a leading lady, then a producer and director, and finally an impresario. She circled the globe many times with her own production company before she finally scandalized the country by publishing her kiss and tell memoir. Emily was not unusual in going on the stage. Despite actresses having terrible reputations, there was no other legitimate way for a working-class woman to make as much money and have as much freedom. Throughout the nineteenth century women flocked to become actresses. Emily’s life is a good lesson on how to have a fabulous career in the Victorian era.

1. Use contacts

With no relations in the theatre, Emily chose a singing teacher with excellent connections. Howard Glover was the music critic of the Morning Post and the son of Julia Glover, the most celebrated actress of her generation.  Howard gave Emily his press tickets to all the new west end productions and secured her solo appearances on the concert stages with the most well-known singers, including the envied Adelina Patti. Of course, she got excellent reviews from the Morning Post too.

2. Be prepared to lower your sights

Despite good reviews, after 18 months Emily still wasn’t getting paid for her performances, so she auditioned for the music hall. Filled with lewd lyrics, drinking and prostitutes, women who appeared on these stages were the most scandalous, but the pay was good, and the audiences large. Emily took the name of Miss FitzHenry and for the next five years lived a double existence – Miss Emily Soldene on the concert stage, and Miss FitzHenry in the halls.

3. Play to your strengths

Emily knew that her unique talent was her ability to convey emotion in her singing. She specialised in tragic ballads bringing tears to the eyes the most hardened prostitutes lingering in the gallery. Similarly, her fulsome figure and commanding presence meant she was not suited to the winsome heroines of the day, instead she often played male heroes. She particularly excelled as the highwayman Captain MacHeath in the Beggars Opera and King Chilperic mounting a horse with one leap while singing the Ham song.

4. Seize every opportunity

Early one morning the Soldene household was woken by a loud knocking on their door and a carriage waiting outside. The lead singer of Offenbach’s latest opera had fallen out with her leading man and was refusing to go on. Emily leapt in the carriage and despite having only a few hours to rehearse, a costume that didn’t fit, and a leading man determined to put her off by whispering rude comments, she was a triumph. Overnight she became the leading lady of London’s craze for light opera and retired Miss FitzHenry.

5. Fans

Maharajah Duleep Singh

An important part of an actress’s job was to have a large and preferably distinguished, male fan base. With no other way of seeing the object of your desire, male fans might come to the theatre night after night and their approval created the buzz for a hit show. Of course, Emily was married and had children, but these were never mentioned; as she once said, ‘my husband never got in the way of the green room.’ Instead, she had a host of male admirers – the Maharajah Duleep Singh lent her his diamonds, Lord Rothschild offered her lifts in his carriage, and Lord Dunraven cooked her after show suppers of lamb chops.

6. Navigate the Casting Couch

There was often a transactional element to theatrical progress – it was quite brazen and accepted as just the way things were. Emily seems to have side stepped unwanted approaches. She was brought up by her grandmother who was the landlady of a pub and so had received a useful early education in how to manage predatory men.

7. Prolong your youth

For the Victorian actress youthful looks and sexual attractiveness were prized over experience. Emily was a gourmand and her figure bore testament to her healthy appetite. Once she reached her thirties reviews started to appear that would be worthy of today’s social media trolls. Emily decided to increase her longevity by going into management. She became the producer and director at a new theatre, casting herself in the lead roles and then bringing in her conventionally prettier and eleven years younger half-sister Clara to star often opposite her as her love interest.  Sisters acting together was code in certain Victorian circles for lesbianism and created a special sort of excitement. As her own charms waned, she relied heavily on having the best-looking chorus in town, with a range of beauties to appeal to every gentleman’s taste.

8. Have a Plan B

With no welfare safety net, Emily was only too aware of former colleagues who, despite having reached the heights of fame, were destitute in the end. Luckily Emily found she had a talent for writing. Using her name and contacts she started writing reviews and was so successful that she became London correspondent for Australia’s largest newspaper. For the next eleven years she had a weekly column. Emily also wrote her memoirs. In the 19th century actresses were the most glamorous, sexy women around and books about them were very commercial. Emily had kept a diary, and when her finances were at their lowest ebb, she published them. It included long lists of the great and the good who were consorting with actresses, and it was one of the best-selling books of 1898.

Emily Soldene managed to be a famous actress for over 30 years and support herself even when she could no longer perform. Of course many of the same rules apply in the 21st century – the need to cultivate fans, using contacts, making the most of opportunities, playing to your strengths and moving into management. The difference was that it was a harder life, with very little help once your star inevitably waned. Emily was a poster girl for how to survive and prosper in the harsh world of Victorian theatre.

Helen Batten is the author of The Improbable Adventures of Emily Soldene: Actress, Writer, and Rebel Victorian.

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