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A perfect Victorian villainess,
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This review is from: Beautiful For Ever: Madame Rachel of Bond Street - Cosmetician, Con-Artist and Blackmailer (Paperback)
Fans of Victorian sensation fiction will recognise Madame Rachel as Maria Oldershaw, foster mother and business partner of the delicious Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins' 'Armadale'. She and her beauty products were also referred to in Mary Elizabeth Braddon's 'Lady Audley's Secret'. In this excellent biography, Helen Rappaport tells the true story of the woman behind the infamous creation of "Madame Rachel", purveyor of dubious unguents which promised to make women "beautiful for ever".
Madame Rachel, aka Sarah Rachel Levison, cleverly exploited women's perennial obsession with youthfulness. The wealth of background material includes descriptions of actresses nightly wrapping their hands and faces with slices of raw meat in order to preserve their complexions (presumably, it also worked to ward off any unwelcome sexual attention). There was a range of less repellant, but largely inffectual remedies on the market from such well-known names as Rimmel. Cosmetics companies vied to claim responsibility for Queen Victoria's youthful appearance when she came to the throne, which was entirely explicable on account of her being only eighteen. Figaro in London commented that the queen "must have had decayed teeth, grey hair, a a head nearly bald, scurf, superfluous hair, a tanned skin, rough and sallow complexion, pimples, spots, redness and cutaneous erruptions" in order to require so many products whose daily use was imputed to her. Madame Rachel was no less modest in her claims when she started advertising her Arabian preparations and enamelling technique in 1859, which were designed for the "restoration and preservation of female loveliness", and had obtained the "patronage of royalty".
The exact figures are unknown, but Madame Rachel seems to have made hundreds of thousands of pounds a year from this "ridiculous and culpable practice", based at her New Bond Street premises. Gullible patrons were taken in by her risible claims that she and her daughters were many decades older than they appeared and had in fact witnessed the guillotining of Marie Antoinette. Her clients became addicted to the treatments, often running up ruinous bills which they were then unable to pay. She ended up in court after one Mrs Carnegie (and her bewildered husband) refused to settle a bill for £938 5s 0d (nearly £65,000 in today's money). This legal case was the start of a downward trajectory for Madame Rachel, resulting in ruin for her and her family.
Helen Rappaport has skilfully brought together a variety of resources detailing Madame Rachel's extraordinary career, and has also unearthed hitherto unknown biographical material on her origins. The story is told compellingly, with clear but unobtrusive historical context. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to find out more about this curious character who pervades Victorian literature. While reading the book, I came across a reference to her catchphrase - `beautiful for ever' - in a novel published in 1896, 16 years after Madame Rachel's death. I've since found at least a dozen other references in novels by Trollope, Florence Marryat, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Henceforth, I shall be on the look out for her everywhere.