I've already declared an interest in Beautiful For Ever, having given it the thumbs up when Susan Hill asked for my thoughts on Helen Rappaport's proposal submission to Long Barn Books, so we've got that bit out of the way. My thanks to Helen too who has kindly agreed to pop in and out of
comments today and chat with you about her books and answer any
And if perchance you haven't read any of Helen's books you have joys in store because she invests all her subjects with a wonderfully well-written, scholarly vibrancy that can't fail to impress. Having read No Place For Ladies and Ekaterinburg I just knew I wouldn't be disappointed with Beautiful For Ever and I wasn't.
The true account of Sarah Russell's rise from the hot potato and fried fish shop at no.4 Clare Market, a sort of Victorian Spudulike (or Spadoolikay as we like to call it) to the lofty heights of Madame Rachel of 47 New Bond Street (on the corner of Maddox St) purveyor of exotic beauty creams and potions to the rich and famous.
'Costly Arabian Preparations for the restoration and preservation of female loveliness....'
with the canny advertising preying on womens' insecurities
'How frequently we find that a light blemish on the face, otherwise divinely beautiful, has occasioned a sad and solitary life of celibacy, unloved, unblessed, and ultimately unwept and unremembered.'
Quite how an illiterate woman with countless children possibly by a man named Phillip Levison, ( but nothing seems certain where Rachel's concerned,) came to believe that her contribution to society's well-being was as profound as Dr Jenner's for the smallpox vaccine makes for very interesting reading. As does Rachel's rise to the dizzy heights of charging 'more than twenty guineas' (that's £1500 in today's money) for enamelling a lady's face.
It all has to be read to be believed.
Enamelling a simple process that somehow Madame Rachel beefed up to look like a specialist treatment, and how the women flocked to have their faces tweezed and exfoliated followed by the application of a sort of crevice-filling paste of arsenic or white lead, topped off with a dab of rouge and powder.
That'll be twenty guineas please.
What I may have missed in my incredulity as I read was quite how long that enamelling stayed on...I get the impression it was quite a long time.
Dogged by court cases, scandal and prison sentences, Madame Rachel and her daughters seems impervious to it all.
Bottles of very dubious Jordan Water at twenty guineas a bottle were the subject of one court exchange between Serjeant Ballantine and Rachel junior...
'Q: Now I ask you Miss Leverson, did you believe this Jordan Water was reality of sham?
A : I believed it to be a reality.
Q: You mean to tell the Court and jury on your oath that you believe that water came from the River Jordan?
A: I believe it is brought from the East.
Q: From the East! Well but that is very indefinite, for the East may mean Wapping...'
Slippery economy of the facts was also Rachel's speciality which made for interminable and wearying court cases. The resulting scandal amongst the wealthy became embarrassingly damaging as the true extent of spending by wives desperate to indeed be beautiful for ever were exposed, and it's not hard to see how Madame Rachel had stripped Mary Tucker Borradaile of her considerable assets of £5,300 in a mere six months.
But it all raises many other interesting themes too, even if the women had taken wealth into the marriages, it was their husband's money they were spending.
I'm a great believer in a decent moisturiser but how much do I spend on time delaying anti-age spot vitamin and collagen-laden versions if I'm really honest...well only if they've got double Boots Advantage Card points actually, but I should know better. I've done enough dermatology training to know I'm on a hiding to nothing, a jar of Pond's and drinking more water would probably be just as useful and cheaper.
And why do I still love that ridiculously expensive cleanser that comes with the muslin cloth when there are far cheaper versions...except they are not quite the same.
Doesn't Marie Helvin famously use butter or something?
Actually I read that years ago so I thought I'd better check, she's spending a bit more these days...
'I keep my skin looking young with… STOP, £396. It’s a hand-held radio-frequency device to tighten skin. It’s very relaxing. I use it for 20 minutes while listening to Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. It’s therapeutic and I can feel it working. My cat loves watching me do it.'
If you get the opportunity to hear Helen talking about Beautiful For Ever around the literary festivals don't miss it. As well as being a Russianist and an academic Helen used to be an actress and so has an incredible and unforgettable stage presence and a voice that projects to the rafters...no shouting from the back 'we can't hear you', you'll hear and love every word. The book is also fully referenced with detailed sources, a full bibliography and an index making this a useful reference work as much as a thoroughly enjoyable read.
But now I'm really intrigued because Helen is staying with the Victorians for her next book too, on the death of Prince Albert and for publication in 2011 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Albert's demise, what a treat that will be.