Friday, October 17, 2008

Madame Rachel: Beautiful for Ever


In the 1860s, it was not uncommon to find advertisements on the front page of The Times for a book on beauty by one Madame Rachel. The book, more of a pamphlet at only 24 pages, was published in 1863, and could be purchased at 47a New Bond-Street. Available to the discerning buyer for only 2s. 6d. it was entitled Beautiful for Ever, and, according to the advertisement, was a book "on Female Grace and Beauty." Certainly Madame Rachel had no lack of imagination when it came to describing her products! Such "puffery" was not unique, nor was it limited to the beauty products available for women. The Gentleman's Magazine, in December, 1863, ran a half-page advertisement for Rowlands' products; calling its Macassar Oil, "a delightfully Fragrant and Transparent preparation ... an Invigorator and Beautifier beyond all precedent." Its Kalydor, which was a skin preparation for women, was "unequalled for its rare and inestimable qualities" not to mention "the radiant bloom it imparts to the Cheek."

The 1860s was a decade in which beauty was increasingly seen as a commodity. The design of the commodity was based on those who were considered the beauties of the age. Morality had little to do with this as Skittles, one of the great courtesans of the nineteenth century, was widely admired and imitated by all classes of women. It was to those who sold "beauty" that many women turned, hoping to improve their chances, whether of marriage or of entering into a satisfactory liaison, by improving their looks.

Madame Rachel, or Sarah Rachel Leverson, was born in 1806. She claimed that she entered the beauty business as a result of having her head shaved when she was hospitalized with fever.

This greatly distressed her, for she was very proud of her ... fine flowing locks. ... The medical man ... told her ... that he would give her something that should make her hair grow rapidly and be more beautiful than ever.

When, according to the story, this product worked, Madame Rachel began using it to colour grey hair and soon expanded her claims to her ability to remove wrinkles and generally to cheat the ageing process. It was particularly this reversal of nature's ageing process that had great appeal. The products sold by Madame Rachel and her ilk were of a most dubious nature. They promised much and great claims were made for their ingredients as well as their efficacy. In reality, however, most were simple concoctions, sometimes dangerous, but certainly unlikely to live up the the extravagent claims made for them. All through the nineteenth century goods were adulterated and so-called "beauty aids" were not an exception.

Among the many "beauty" products offered by Madame Rachel were such delights as "Circassian Beauty Wash" and "Magnetic Rock Dew Water of Sahara, for removing Wrinkles;" the former for a price of one guinea and the latter for two guineas. A bottle of "Jordan Water" could be purchased for from ten to twenty guineas and something called "Venus's Toilet," for the same price.

Madame Rachel was, however, much more than a "beautifier." She was certainly a confidence trickster and various sources suggest she was a brothel keeper - or at least a provider of accommodation for sexual activities - as well. Much of the information on Madame Rachel comes from the newspapers where her criminal activities were well covered, a contemporary work, The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel, made up largely of reports in The Times, and a rather scurillous work, History and Trial of Mdme Rachel or, Beautiful for Ever, a penny pamphlet. Certainly Madame Rachel was well enough known to serve as the model for Madame Sara in the first part of a story by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace "The sorceress of the Strand" which appeared in the Strand Magazine for October 1902. In it, Madame Sara is described as

A professional beautifier. She claims the privilege of restoring youth to those who consult her. She also declares that she can make quite ugly people handsome. ...This woman deals in all sorts of curious secrets, but principally in cosmetics. Her shop in the Strand could, I fancy, tell many a strange history. Her clients go to her there, and she does what is necessary for them.

The great music hall performer, Arthur Lloyd, reflected the interest in the 1868 trial with his song, Mrs. Mary Plucker Sparrowtail, in which the eponymous lady goes to a beauty shop run by Madame Brachel where she tells us,

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.

In August of 1868, Sarah Rachel Leverson, aged 43, was charged with unlawfully obtaining 600 pounds from Mary Tucker Borradaile by false pretences. In addition there was a further charge of conspiring to defraud Borradaile of 3,000 pounds. After listening to the evidence, the Jury retired but was unable to reach a verdict after five hours and was discharged. The following month, Madame Rachel was again placed on trial. The retrial allowed the further evidence to be brought forward.

Mary Tucker Borradaile, according to her own testimony, was the widow of a Colonel and had been married for twenty-two years, six of which were spent in India with her husband. She had first met Madame Rachel in 1864 and had purchased some of her products. She continued over the next several years to visit the shop and buy beauty products until, in 1866 Madame Rachel "suggested a mode by which she could be made 'beautiful for ever,' asking for £1,000 for making her so." Clearly to encourage Mrs Borradaile to do so, Madame Rachel told her that a particular nobleman, Lord Ranelagh, was in love with her and would marry her. The sorry fraud took its course; Lord Ranelagh denying he had ever "authorized her to use my name in any way as representing a desire or intention on my part to marry Mrs. Borradaile." It was a story about exchanges of letters in false names, money obtained under false pretences and a confusing body of contradictory evidence.

In the end, the jury believed that Mrs. Borradaile had been the victim of a scheme by Madame Rachel to obtain money by false pretences. A sentence of five years penal servitude was passed on Sarah Rachel Leverson. Apparently she did not learn her lesson, but went back to the "beauty" business. She was to appear at the Old Bailey ten years later where she was once again convicted of fraud and sentenced to another term of five years penal servitude. Sarah Rachel Leverson, Madame Rachel to the beauty trade, died, still in prison, in 1880.

To download a copy of The Extraordinary Life and Trial of Madame Rachel At the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey, London, 1868, click here. A list of her extraordinary products (and their prices) can be found on pp. vi-vii.

8 comments:

Lidian said...

What a terrific post! I have been fascinated with Mme Rachel since my grad school days - I seem to recall that there is a book about her, a modern one that is.

The powder shade "Rachel" is from the French actress of that era, Rachel - but isn't it ironic that they share the name?

Holly Tucker said...

So nicely written and informative. I'll be adding your site to my blog roll!

Holly
http://www.wondersandmarvels.com

Helen Rappaport said...

Hello Bruce - My good friend Susan Moody in Hobart told me about your post. I am an Oxford based historian and writer and ,by a weird coincidence, am working on a book about Madame Rachel in whom I have long been interested. It is a very chilling and fascinating story and goes far beyond just the1868 trial. All best wishes, Helen Rappaport

Anonymous said...

I found out about Madame Rachel in the book The Anti-Society: Inside the Victorian Underworld. I would like to know more, though...apparently it was a pretty well-known case in its day. Poor Mrs. Borrodaile comes across as horribly easy to gull.

Ms Pen said...

I read about Leverson in Kellow Chesney's 'The Victorian Underworld'. She appears in a chapter about swindlers in general and he puts her and indeed Mrs B in context very well. I've just bought Helen Rappaport's book and am looking forward to reading it!

Anonymous said...

Need assistance about Madame Rachel...how rare is her Beautiful for ever pamphlet? Thanks

Bruce said...

To "Anonymous" who asks about the rarity of the "Beautiful for Ever" pamphlet. Copies are available in a few libraries including the British Library, Cambridge, Trinity College in Dublin, Lambeth Palace and the National Library of Scotland.

Anonymous said...

She is the basis of a character named Mother Oldershaw in Wilkie Collins' book, "Armadale."