Monday, September 10, 2012

{review} beautiful for ever


  

This is the first book that I've read by Helen Rappaport, but it most certainly will not be the last. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and quick read and - even better - it tied in really nicely with some other reading I've done. It's always good to add a few facts to fiction, I say. 
'How frequently we find that a slight blemish on the face, otherwise divinely beautiful, has occasioned a sad and solitary life of celibacy, unloved, unblessed, and ultimately unwept and unremembered.' [from a Madame Rachel advert, c.1859] 
Madame Rachel was an infamous purveyor of dubious potions and lotions to the well-heeled ladies of London. Her most famous beautification sell was 'enamelling' which involved coating her willing victims in Heaven knows what to make them all whitely stuccoed for - generally - the ball. But Madame Rachel had another lucrative sideline in fleecing sillier sorts of every penny they possessed. Whether she was merely facilitating the meetings of ladies with their paramours, or actually running a knock-shop, isn't entirely clear. Perhaps there are hints that she was helping ladies get rid of other embarrassing problems than just bad skin. Certainly she seemed to making ridiculous amounts of money simply from cosmetics that made one Beautiful For Ever (but, then, what's a pot of Crème de la Mer go for these days to an equally silly market? AUD$250 for 30mL). Oh, and then there was that nice source of income in allowing gentlemen to watch ladies receiving her full body Turkish bath services... 

Madame Rachel and the ‘before and after’ hard sell (source

This book is good on the sensational aspects of the various legal trials in which Madame Rachel and her victims became enmeshed. Rappaport also has a good handle on the less savoury aspects of Madame Rachel's own treatment by a anti-Semitic media and establishment. Other interesting themes weave through the biography: contemporary concerns regarding cosmetics and female amorality; debate surrounding the much-delayed Married Women's Property Act (why allow women to control their money when they just spent it running up huge bills at Madame Rachel?); contemporary bias towards women in court for any reason whatsoever. I particular liked Rappaport's use of the 'popular culture' ephemera (racy song, cartoons) surrounding Mme. Rachel's run-ins with the law. Mme. Rachel also featured in Wilkie Collins' Armadale (his 'Mother' Oldershaw is close-to-libellously based on Mme. Rachel) and there is a reference too in Mrs Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (one of my favourite sensational reads).

Rating: a very entertaining historical read, even more so if you love a good legal trial or two.

If you liked this... definitely Armadale. I can't remember why on earth I didn't review it when I read it a few years back, especially since it has the heroine-villain to end all heroine-villains in it. Teresa and Jenny at Shelf Love sum it up nicely.

4 comments:

  1. This sounds right up my street, I've been craving more eighteenth or nineteenth century narrative fiction while diving into all the Man Booker books. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Alex - it is a good read for the background of those books, certainly. One of those books that makes me want to return to Wilkie Collins and so on.

      Delete
  2. I seriously LOVE a good legal trial or two. I would read about pretty much any Victorian trial that anyone cares to write a book about, and this one has been on my list for ages. Yet my library will not get it in, woe!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Jenny - I think that one of my favourite books of all time is the _Famous Trials_ collection from Penguin. I love a meaty courtroom drama!

      Delete

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