Last year Helen Rappaport's book Magnificent Obsession was my book of the year. Before that I had read her book on Ekaterinburg and now I am reading something completely different. The story of Madame Rachel, a con woman and a fraudster who set herself up as a cosmetician and perfumier and acquired a long client list of wealthy women in Victorian society who were eager to find the promise of eternal beauty.
'Madame Rachel' was a poor fish fryer, by name Sarah Levison, who lived in poverty and squalor in Victorian London. By a combination of determination and slippery dealings she ended up with a shop on New Bond Street where she advertised such wares as Magnetic Rock Dew Water for Removing Wrinkles; Circassian Golden Hair wash; Royal Arabian Face Cream and Honey of Mount Hymettus Soap and a whole range of oils, gums, scents and perfumes and herbs. Her main treatment on offer was 'The Royal Arabian Toilet of Beauty as Arranged by Madame Rachel for the Sultana of Turkey'. This could cost anything from 100 to 1,000 guineas and this at a time when most working class families had to get by on about £1.12s a week and when housemaids were paid about £11 a year.
The first thing that struck me when reading this was how on earth could these stupid women believe these claims? It beggars belief, but then it does not take a minute or two to remember the status of women in society at that time; their status depended on a husband, a home and remaining desirable for their men, those men who had all their money once they were married and became another piece of matrimonial property. Many of Madame Rachel's clients had to visit her in secret knowing their husbands would violently disapprove; they were easy prey for Rachel who extended credit, took their money and then when they had spent it all and were unable to pay their debts, they gave her their jewellery. She was totally unscrupulous, safe in the knowledge that the wives would not dare reveal where the diamonds and pearls and sapphires had gone. One of her clients, the Countess Dudley, even invented a robbery to cover their disappearance, the fact that her maid was blamed for their loss not bothering her one whit.
The question was asked why it was necessary that all these wonderful magical cosmetics came from Circassia, Arabia, Albania and Armenia. 'Why should there not be a Putney Bloom, a Turnham Green Preservative Balm or even a Camden Town preparation for the Chin?'
There is nothing new under the sun. There have been numerous surveys of modern creams, perfumes and lotions in recent years and it has been proved beyond question that there is precious little difference between a cheap pot of face cream and that at the top of the range. What we, the consumers, pay for is the cost of the packaging, the hard sell and the Name. A pot of Helena Rubinstein Night Repair seen on your dressing table will bring more kudos that Boots Face Cream, which is what you would see on mine. The search for beauty and the belief that the more you spend, the better it will be for your face and skin, remains the same today as it did then and we are as gullible as Madame Rachel's clients.
Madame Rachel and her family were a contentious lot - they were never out of courts, suing and being sued, brass faced and certain that they would get away with it. In the end Rachel went too far, milking a gullible widow of her money and jewellery and was eventually put on trial after rthe intervention of the lady's family. It became a cause celebre, the court packed every day and Rachel was put away for five years. This was not the end of her, however, or her family and one has to admire her chutzpah and sheer bloody mindedness as she continued to extort and milk her clients without seeming to suffer a pang of conscience.
Beautiful for Ever is a simply fascinating story, I would say a Rattling Good Yarn except that it is true. Just published by Vintage in paperback I urge you to go and buy, put aside an afternoon and just sit and enjoy. Helen Rappaport's research is impeccable and there is an integrity about her writing which I find admirable, her style is impeccable and she takes the reader along on a journey with her, fascinated and interested until we reach the end.
Do read. A Random Recommend.
Note: I don't grade reviews on Random but I do put a lot of them up on Amazon - will be doing so with this one and it will be Five Star, no arguing. Please note that the first link given above will lead you to the original hardback - I have done this so that you can read all the five star reviews given by its readers. As mentioned above, it is now out in paperback and the second link will take you to that page on Amazon.