13/03/2010

BEAUTIFUL FOREVER: A CAUTIONARY TALE FOR MOTHER'S DAY

On this Mothering Sunday many women will be receiving gifts of flowers - or perhaps cosmetics. But, the elusive search for beauty and youth has never been restricted to the influence of modern social ideals.

In the 1860s women of sufficient means might well have sought out the miraculous creams of one Madame Rachel. At number 47a New Bond Street, the sign above her salon door read: 'Beautiful Forever'. And, once they had stepped inside, Madame Rachel's clients were offered the utmost discretion. For, in Victorian times the use of cosmetics was frowned upon and the quest for eternal youth was not something addressed in public. But, such secrecy came at a price - not least that Madame Rachel was a confidence trickster. 


Sarah Rachel Levison began her lucrative career by advising on 'female grace and beauty' , often selling her products to actors in the London theatres. She claimed that her vocation started when, having been sick as a child, she lost all her hair which was then restored by the use of a medical potion - a potion of magical powers which she was then able to gift to the world.
 
Once established in her grander Mayfair scheme, for which she advertised in the press, she built up a substantial clientelle that included the likes of The Countesses of Dudley and Cardigan (seen left and right below) and even going so far as to claim Queen Victoria's patronage.

Her potions sold for outrageous prices.  The 'Rejuvenating Water' was no less than twenty guineas a bottle, which today translates into approximately £1,500.  And if that's not steep enough, how about the 'Royal Arabian Toilet of Beauty' which, in modern currency,  would be £75,000? But, Rachel's highly-prized - and priced - products were often formed from toxic chemicals that could cause the skin permanent damage. And yet, who would make a formal complaint when to do so would only prove that the foolish woman concerned had done what society abhorred by seeking cosmetic adornment to what God and nature provided? Others were blackmailed by Rachel, handing over more money and jewels in attempts to buy her silence - until she was finally charged with fraud and ended her days in a prison cell.

It was a cause celebre. Author Lloyed, the music hall performer, sang these lines about 'Madame Brachel' -

I paid her a couple of thousand and got my pick,
Of the most beautiful requisite cosmetic,
Prhaps you'll think me a lunatic,
Talking to you in this way.
She said a great Duke had fallen in love with me,
This was the truth, and the truth she could prov' to me;
Very soon he was introduced to me,
And adored me from that day.

Should you wish to know more of this fascinating story, then please do read Beautiful Forever. Written by Helen Rappaport, it will be published  by Long Barn Books on this Monday, March 15th.
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9 comments:

  1. What a fascinating tale! I'm adding the book to my to-read list. Reminds me of a PBS show I saw last year about the battle between two cosmetic queens of the U.S.-- Merle Norman and Elizabeth Ardley. But they don't hold a candle to your lady!

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  2. I've been fascinated with Madame Rachel for years. I can't wait to read Helen Rappaport's book when it comes out in the States.

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  3. That's nice to know Elizabeth but at present I don't have a US deal. My NY publisher, St Martin's Press, loved it but thought it was 'too English' for the US market. What is it with publishers - do they think their readers are utterly dim! Can you start a campaign!! Best wishes, Helen Rappaport

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  4. Elizabeth, I would recommend going to Amazon.co.uk to see what the postage would be - it's not always prohibitive. I order a lot of books from the US that, ironically, are considered too American here.

    I'll also say that Helen Rappaport's writing is both thrilling and compulsive.

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  5. I can't wait to read this book! I have found Mme Rachel fascinating since my grad school days. Wonderful post!

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  6. Lidian, thank you!

    I'd never heard of Madame Rachel before learning of Helen's book. It seems she is better known of in the States than here.

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  7. The reason Madame Rachel is better known in the US - certainly among feminist readers - is that it is primarily US academic women who have picked up on her and mentioned her in one or two articles on the sensation novel etc. I can pass on specific references if anyone would like to contact me via my website. Though I should say that some of the details in these articles are inaccurate and my book really does tell the full story.

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  8. I rarely go away from VV without some new gem I'd never come across. This is yet another fascinating one and I've ordered Helen's book. I find the claims of advertisers in the 1840s wonderful to read but Madame Rachel's prices put her way ahead of people such as Dr Atkinson and his Bear's Grease, which cured everything from toothache to baldness.

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  9. Thank you, Bill. Watch out for the next post...

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