The “charming soubrette” of the stage
U 10.1220-2: A charming soubrette, great Marie Kendall, with dauby cheeks and lifted skirt smiled daubily from her poster upon William Humble, earl of Dudley
Joyce uses the expression “charming soubrette” five times in Ulysses, with reference to the music-hall star Marie Kendall. Contemporary documentation does not suggest that Marie Kendall was associated with this tag, but does suggest that “charming soubrette” was a well-worn cliché by the end of the nineteenth century.
The “soubrette” had originated in French theatre. The OED defines the principal meaning as:
but also adds the sub-meaning invoked by Joyce in relation to Marie Kendall:
The type dates from the late seventeenth century in France, and perhaps from the early to mid eighteenth century in Britain. The OED omits to mention a secondary meaning for soubrette which the term enjoyed in operatic circles both in French and in English:
In light opera the “soubrette” would often sing this soprano part, in a role which demanded “pertness, coquetry, intrigue, etc.” Marie Kendall began on stage as a male impersonator, but later she was taking coquettish female roles and singing pert songs (such as “I’ll be your sweetheart” and “Kiss the girl if you’re going to”), though she is also remembered for the slow, sad, sentimental, but not quite light-operatic “Just like the Ivy, I’ll cling to you”.
In recognition of their pert charm, these actresses were often tagged as “charming soubrettes”, and Joyce seems well aware of the expression. Examples of the expression from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are not hard to find:
One of the earliest occurrences of the expression in English perhaps comes from Fanny Trollope’s Romance of Vienna:
but in French the “charming soubrette” graced the Parisian stage as early as 1778:
1 Trésor de la langue française (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv4/showps.exe?p=combi.htm;java=no;) s.v. Soubrette.
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