Thursday 25 March 2010

Stucco for the Fairer Sex

There are certain figures in Victorian London who crop up, on the boundaries of one's consciousness, with strange frequency. One such is the criminal beautician Madame Rachel, who I've already noted on the website, being chastised in Punch:-

To what kind of beings is it possible the subjoined advertisement, from the Morning Post, addressed?-
BEAUTIFUL WOMEN. - MADAME RACHEL begs to inform her lady patronesses, the nobility, and aristocracy generally, that she has opened her ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTION list for the supply of her Costly Arabian Preparations for the restoration and preservation of female loveliness, which have obtained for her the patronage of royalty - these being manufactured entirely by MADAME RACHEL, who has no agents, and cannot be obtained from any other source. Terms as usual, 20 guineas per annum, which includes every requisite for a most recherché toilet, and two attendances by MADAME RACHEL, viz. one drawing-room and one state ball.
To advertise cosmetics as being costly instead of cheap, if the advertisement were addressed to rational creatures, would be to adopt a style of puff about as judicious as the cry of unsavoury fish. Soft indeed must be that sex to which the costliness of any article could be a recommendation of it. The softness which can accept Arabian Preparations, manufactured entirely by MADAME RACHEL, as Arabian in any other sense than that in which they may possibly be associated with a Mosaic Arab seems quite waxy. The female loveliness which these preparations may be supposed calculated to restore and preserve, appears indeed to be, as it were, that of the ladies in the hairdressers' windows, bright and brilliant with their glass eyes - radiant in red and white wax. Imagination pictures MADAME RACHEL'S patronesses as having been fashioned out of that plastic material, and animated with a faint life by a disciple of FRANKENSTEIN. What real lady would be allured by such a phrase as "a most recherché toilet?"
In another advertisement MADAME RACHEL describes herself as "the Enamellist." This notification is, like the foregoing, headed "Beautiful Women." Accordingly, we must suppose that beautiful women of a sort are the subjects of MADAME RACHEL'S enamelling processes; and what sort of women can that be, but an artificial one? Pretty women, indeed, they probably are. Fancy an enamelled object of affection! The nearest thing to it well imaginable is, perhaps, a whited sepulchre.
She's a fascinating figure and it's marvellous to hear from one of this blog's erudite readers that she has written a book devoted to Madame Rachels' career. Here's author Helen Rappaport to tell you more:

There was a time, during the 1860s to 1880s when everyone in Britain - and even beyond – knew the name Madame Rachel. But somehow, her story, like many others in Victorian history, rapidly disappeared into the footnotes of history and was forgotten, known only to a few avid Victorianists who have picked up on her via an interest in the sensation novel, in which she was satirized.

My new book Beautiful For Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street, Cosmetician, Con-artist and Blackmailer (published by Long Barn Books) is very much in the Victorian true-crime genre, featuring a reconstruction of Rachel’s notorious career – from fish fryer in Clare Market, to dealer in hair restoratives at Bow Street, to the legendary Madame Rachel of 47a New Bond Street – a woman whose exotic premises welcomed fashionable ladies into Madame’s very own ‘Temple of Renovation’, where she promised to transform her clients’ fading complexions and make them ‘Beautiful For Ever’.
Within the walls of no. 47a Madame offered a range of absurdly overpriced concoctions, all with suitably exotic names, the ingredients of which she claimed to import from far flung Araby, Circassia and Armenia. Such was the desperation of some of her vain and gullible high society clients that she succeeded in fleecing them of all their money. And when the money ran out, Madame Rachel took their jewels. For many years she got away with it by preying on the terror of exposure all her clients shared, at a time when the use of cosmetics was greatly frowned upon and when most of them were in fact spending their husbands’ money (before the days of the Married Women’s Property Act).
But in the end the law caught up with Rachel: in 1869 after a mistrial and retrial the previous year and a long tortuous appeal she finally was sent down for five years for fraud. Prison, however, did not deter her and she was soon back at her old tricks on her release on a ticket of leave in 1872. Another high profile trial in the Central Criminal Court in 1878 brought a second 5-year sentence, which she did not survive. Madame Rachel aka Sarah Rachel Levison or Leverson died in Woking Invalid Convict Prison in 1880. But her name lived on in the many enduring allusions to her in the Victorian press and literature. Mary Elizabeth Braddon had begun the trend, alluding to her in Lady Audley’s Secret in 1862, followed by Wilkie Collins, who based the character of Maria Oldershaw in Armadale on Madame Rachel that was published soon after; L. T. Meade did likewise with Sorceress of the Strand in 1902. For many years after her death, Madame Rachel’s face powder was widely on sale and he techniques for ‘enamelling ladies’ faces’ were constantly referred to.
The cover of my book might look chintzy but it is deliberately subversive: a very dark story lurks within. Rachel was one of the most intimidating and intriguing Victorian women criminals I have ever encountered and I was utterly gripped researching and writing her story. There is very little reliable secondary source material on Madame Rachel; this book has been written almost entirely from contemporary accounts in the Victorian press, magazine and journals, and from transcripts of the court cases. It was a joy to get back to the real story.

Learn more at

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