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soubrette

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.


Soubrettes

The “soubrette” had originated in French theatre. The OED defines the principal meaning as:

A maid-servant or lady's maid as a character in a play or opera, usually one of a pert, coquettish, or intriguing character; an actress or singer taking such a part.

but also adds the sub-meaning invoked by Joyce in relation to Marie Kendall:

In extended use, a woman playing a role or roles in light entertainment, e.g. on television or at a seaside variety show, with implications of pertness, coquetry, intrigue, etc.

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:

THÉÂTRE LYRIQUE. Soprano à la voix claire et légère, proche de la soprano lyrique.1

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”.

 

Charming soubrettes

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:

"Com dis way, sare," said the charming soubrette — the term is, I think, correct — and by the clattering sound which echoed along the stone passage, I perceived that she wore a species of wooden slippers, called in the language of the country, sabots.

Colburn's New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1845), October p. 153


They need no chronicler to revive their memories of Isabella Andrews, that charming "soubrette"; of Varrey, whose dry humour would wring laughter from a cynic; of Frank Drew, whose Triplet was a master-piece of serio-comic acting.

Charles Blake An Historical Account of the Providence Stage (1868), ch. 12 p. 275


Everybody on this broad continent, except yourselves, my children, knows her as Aunt Sophy. When I first knew that lady, sir, she was one of the most charming soubrettes in the profession, and the most beautiful woman on the English stage.

Henry Cuyler Bunner The Runaway Browns (1892), ch. 4 p. 36


Lawyer – You want a divorce, do you? For what reason, may I ask? It will have to be stated in the application.
Charming Soubrette – I find I have married the wrong man. Isn’t that reason enough?

Philadelphia Inquirer (1905), 5 July p. 10

One of the earliest occurrences of the expression in English perhaps comes from Fanny Trollope’s Romance of Vienna:

He[...]not only gave Wagner his own passe-partout for the night, but secretly determined to invent some reason or other for withdrawing from the charming soubrette an instrument that gave her so dangerous an advantage over her rival. (vol. 1 ch. 12 p. 229: the problematic instrument is a key))

but in French the “charming soubrette” graced the Parisian stage as early as 1778:

Mademoiselle Joli, Danseuse des Français[…] tout annonce un talent agréable dans cette jeune Actrice (elle n’a pas seize ans). Elle est bien faite pour enricher le Théatre de Mademoiselle Montensier, qui possède déjà une Soubrette charmante dans Madame Lecoutre.

Journal des Théâtres (1778), 15 April p. 99

John Simpson


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1 Trésor de la langue française (http://atilf.atilf.fr/dendien/scripts/tlfiv4/showps.exe?p=combi.htm;java=no;) s.v. Soubrette.