n mid-Victorian London the trade in cosmetics, hair dyes and other beautifiers was an increasingly lucrative growth industry. Despite the moral and social objections to the use of cosmetics as being indicative of promiscuity as well as injurious to the health, Victorian women were becoming increasingly concerned about preserving their looks and enhancing what they had. It mattered not a jot how much the male sex pontificated to them about the pernicious effects of artifice; nor did women want to be lectured on the health-giving properties of regimen, cleanliness and the drinking of copious amounts of spring water as the only acceptable palliative to the loss of looks. Men had since time immemorial worshipped the beauty of the female sex and women in response had sought refuge in the talismanic properties of cosmetics to transform them and make them eternally desirable.
The mysterious arts of the cosmetician date back to the Bible and the wicked Queen Jezebel who painted her face and first gave the use of cosmetics its dangerous and seductive association. In ancient Rome, aside from the legendary use of asses milk for beautifying baths, women used face creams made with pea-flour, barley meal, crushed stag’s antlers and narcissus bulbs. Sometimes other unpleasant-sounding organic matter was added such as pulverised snails or placenta, marrow, bile and calves' urine. By the sixteenth century make up was much relied-on to cover the scarring left by venereal disease and smallpox. Works such as The Secrets of the Reverend Master Alexis of Piemount published in 1560 offered nostrums to ward off plague as well as recipes for lip balm and for making a natural, marble white skin. One of Alexis’s most outlandish concoctions was a ‘marvellous’ beauty water produced thus: ‘Take a young raven from the nest, feed it on hard eggs for forty days, kill it, and distil it with myrtle-leaves, talc and almond oil.’ There is no record of the extent of its efficacy.
In the pursuit of beauty, women persisted in taking considerable risks with highly toxic cosmetics in order to retain a fashionably pale complexion. In the sixteenth century, whilst powdered chalk was the staple ingredient, white lead and mercury were often added; mixed with egg white and vinegar the mixture was spread across the face in a mask which would dry to give the appearance of smooth plaster, but which would crack and flake at the slightest facial expression. Urine mixed with rose water was also considered good for the complexion. At this time the profession of the cosmetician was akin to that of the fortune teller and the peddler of quack medicines — an art verging on sorcery that at times could be highly dubious in its associations. By 1770, such was public concern that predatory women were ensnaring husbands under false pretences by the use of cosmetics and other forms of artifice that the British government passed a law, under which any women — be they ‘virgins, maids, or widows’ — found ‘imposing on, seducing or betraying into matrimony . . . by virtue of scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, . . . iron stays or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanours, and that the marriage upon conviction, shall stand null and void.’
No wonder cosmeticians were viewed as dangerous. At the court of King Charles II, Mrs Turner touted her ‘Oyle of Talck’ (talc being a mineral composed of hydrated magnesium that was ground to a powder) as a popular face whitener, and also offered aphrodisiacs on the side. She indulged in the kind of outlandish claims that would characterize Madame Rachel’s later sales hype, encouraging young women to gather the dew on May-Day morning and store it in glass phials as the only thing they should ever put on their faces. Interestingly, Mrs Turner also did a little procuring and abortion on the side, which suggests that the professions of cosmetics and vice often went hand in hand.
Many early cosmetics recipes were based on extravagant combinations of expensive herbs and flowers as well as myrrh and even incense, bulked out with animal fats or oil. One such manual, The Toilet of Flora published by a trained physician and naturalist, Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz in 1773, offered an extensive range of recipes for aromatic baths, depilatories, cures for baldness, face washes, hair colours, as well as liquid dentifrices and a mysterious and transformative ‘Celestial Water’ for rubbing on the face. The recipes in this book required the kind of financial resources enjoyed only by the very rich in order to obtain the exotic products to be variously boiled and mashed together, distilled in brandy and perfumed with aromatic oils. Toothpowders also were produced and were normally made from ground cuttle fish bone, chalk, orris root, red coral and even marble dust.
By the nineteenth century actresses such as Madame Rachel’s supposed client Madame Vestris were resorting to more practical methods. Vestris, it was said, slept every night with her face plastered with a paste made of egg whites, alum and sweet almonds spread on a muslin mask. Other actresses wrapped their hands and their faces nightly in thin slices of raw meat for its supposed restorative properties, rather than pay for proprietary masks and forehead pieces of leather impregnated with creams and oils to keep the skin soft and prevent wrinkles. Those with less money at their disposal resorted to going to bed with brown paper soaked in cider vinegar stuck to their foreheads.
The use of cosmetics was of course not solely a female preserve; in the old days men had waxed their hair and moustaches with bear’s grease, and beef marrow had been a favourite remedy against baldness. These now had been superseded by hair pomatums made of white wax, spermaceti, lard or suet mixed with essence of bergamot or rose water and oil of almonds For disguising grey hair (a pursuit even then indulged in by both sexes) a rather unpleasant mess of slaked limed, litharge and chalk was combined with white lead in warm water and turned into a paste to be applied to the hair; other hair dyes made used of gall nuts and willow charcoal, lead ore, ebony chips, nitrate of silver, sulphate of copper and nitric acid. There was no end to Victorian ingenuity in driving off those hated grey hairs but what it did to the hair in the process is hard to imagine — some of the products used might well have caused baldness and certainly would have been harmful if they had got into the eyes during application.
By the time Madame Rachel, with the help of her clever eldest daughter, was scouting for recipes for her burgeoning new business, there was a whole range of books on beauty and the toilet that they could draw on. Nevertheless, even by the 1850s, the choice of cosmetics was very limited and the colours were crude, with makeup limited to rouges, red salve for the lips and kohl for the eyes. All were considered extremely vulgar and imitative of the demi-monde but by the mid-century the use of rouge at least was increasingly prevalent among younger women. Numerous books offered homemade recipes for cosmetics, but always with the caution that female beauty ‘needs no cosmetics, and that which is not in itself beautiful can never become so by the use of them’. Indulgence in cosmetics, it was generally agreed, was an act of deception which broke the spell of a woman’s natural charms; artificial femininity was seen not just as abnormal, but subversive and indicative of something deeper — a falsity of feelings. However, for those insistent on doing it themselves in the privacy of the home there were two basics: ‘white cosmetic’ (face powder) comprised of various types of fine chalk and sometimes starch which replaced the lethal white lead used in previous centuries, and ‘red cosmetic’, concocted by stewing a wood with a dark stain such as red sandalwood or pernambuco (brazilwood), with white wine vinegar and pounded alum. After being cooled and strained the mixture would dry out into a pinkish power that could be use as rouge.
Face creams then available were relatively harmless, based usually on white wax and almond oil, though the most prevalent ingredient was spermaceti — a wax extracted from the head cavity of the sperm whale which was then turned into oily white crystals. One of the most popular items gaining hold by the 1860s were the cosmetic face washes for removing every kind of freckle, blemish and eruption on the face; though the more they promised the impossible, the more they succumbed to adulteration. They were often based on highly pernicious chemicals such as white arsenic, bichloride of mercury, hydrochloric acid, corrosive sublimate and even prussic acid — diluted in distilled water and mixed with rose, lavender or orange water to disguise the chemical smell. Many household cupboards contained arsenic, then easily obtainable as a rat poison, which was used for precisely such innocuous home-made beauty remedies leading, it has been claimed, to a preference for poising by arsenic resorted to by several domestic murderesses during the century.
Even the best proprietary balms, washes and blooms for the face used corrosive sublimate to varying degrees of dilution. Metallic compounds, such as ‘ceruse’ which supposedly gave a brilliancy to faded complexions were dangerously toxic. Paris had led the way in devising new recipes: ‘pearl powder’, an innocuous sounding product made from crushed seed pearls became popular, though not without risk. Some unscrupulous practitioners in Paris added carbonate of lead and subchloride of bismuth, sufficient to induce slow poisoning in some Parisian actresses who had used it. Even innocent violet powder made with plaster of Paris and talc was sometimes adulterated with quick lime and caustic soda. White lead, out of use since the 1780s, resurfaced in disguise in numerous cosmetic preparations in the nineteenth century, but the fact that this and mercury compounds need only be absorbed through the skin (rather than ingested) to get into the bloodstream and cause terrible damage was only just beginning to dawn on many practitioners. Ladies who used preparations containing bismuth also ran the risk of an unfortunate side-effect: in the presence of sulphur fumes such as coal gas the skin painted with this product turned a deathly shade of grey.
One of the first and most popular commercial brands of English cosmetics and hair dyes was that of Alexander Rowland, a former barber, who brought out his Macassar oil for the hair in the 1790s. His son extended the range between the 1820s and 1850s, adding an ‘Olympian Dew’ and a ‘Bloom of Circassia’, as well as an ‘Odonto’ tooth paste and Rowland’s Kalydor face wash, the last of which the advertising hype claimed was ‘a never failing specific for cutaneous deformities including freckles, pimples, spots, redness and every other imperfection incident to the skin’. It was one of Rowland’s biggest selling products, heavily promoted in the press, where he claimed the patronage of the ‘Courts of Europe, the Aristocracy and the Upper Classes’. When Madame Rachel appeared on the scene, Rowland still very much led the field. Also on the ascendant with commercially produced cosmetics were Atkinsons the perfumers, in Bond Street from 1829, and the House of Rimmel. The Frenchman, Eugene Rimmel, had set up a perfumery here in 1834 from where he promoted a highly successful Eau de Cologne and Extract of Spring Flowers, as well as Serkis des Sultanes for protecting the skin and Amandine for softening the face and hands. Rimmel soon had outlets across London and was exporting to Europe and the USA. Unlike many of his dubious rivals including Madame Rachel, he was awarded a bona fide Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria and had been a judge in the perfumery class at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Indeed, the moment a fresh and lovely young queen — Victoria — had come to the throne in 1837, after more than a century of ugly Hanoverian kings, the classified ads had had a field day with such extensive claims of her patronage made that in September 1837 Figaro in London had remarked that the queen ‘must have had decayed teeth, grey hair, and a head nearly bald, scurf, superfluous hair, a tanned skin, rough and sallow complexion, pimples, spots, redness and cutaneous eruptions’ in order to require so many products whose daily use was imputed to her.’ With Rowland and Rimmel both producing books extolling the virtues of their own beauty recipes, Madame Rachel had plenty to draw on in putting together her own brochure in 1863. She would soon out-puff Rowland, as she cherry-picked ideas from both her rivals, as well as a whole range of other cosmeticians already crowding out the small ads columns of the newspapers.
In November 1858, however, Madame Rachel’s first cosmetics venture in Mayfair had ended up in court — a place that would become increasingly familiar to the family. The previous May, in an endeavour to live independently and contribute to the upkeep of the rest of the family who were still living at 480 New Oxford Street, the self-confident Rachel junior, at the age of only sixteen, had taken a two-year lease for ’163.16s of first floor rooms at the premises of Jean Georges Atloff, a French bootmaker, at 69 New Bond Street. Here, under her mother’s supervision, she was to extend the Madame Rachel franchise, whilst Rachel m’re was still running the business in Bow Street and pursuing the Brighton end of things. Rachel junior took possession of the rooms at no. 69, along with a servant girl and her five-year old brother Aaron, who was to play the decorative role of page boy. She had paid twelve shillings to have her plate fixed on the door outside, when, four or five days later she had a cab waiting at the door to take her and her trunk of cosmetics to an appointment. According to her barrister, she prepared ‘elderly ladies for balls’ and on this particular occasion had been called to attend a countess for a party that evening — most of her clients at the time preferring to pay the five guineas for a call out to their own homes. Shortly before leaving Rachel junior had had a disagreement with her landlord Atloff who had claimed her references were not satisfactory. In view of this he now required security for the rent; either that or it should be paid at a weekly rate of three guineas rather than quarterly. Rachel refused and an altercation had ensued, as a result of which Atloff, so Rachel claimed, had locked her in the house, preventing her from fulfilling her engagement. The following morning in attempting to forcibly eject her, he had grabbed her by the arm and dragged her from room to room, tearing her dress; he had also tried to confiscate the trunks containing her valuable cosmetics.
In court, after stating her name to be Miss Rachel Leverson ‘a Jewess born in London’, Rachel junior made no mention of her mother but proceeded to describe how she went under the business name of Madame Rachel, but that in her circular ‘she called herself a Frenchwoman’ and also claimed to be of ‘Broadway, New York’, where, she said, ‘her uncle resided’. Under cross-examination she was forced to admit to having defaulted the previous year on payment for the printing of her leaflet and had pleaded ‘infancy’, being only sixteen at the time. Business had been bad that year, she explained, ‘on account of the Indian war’ (the Indian Rebellion of 1857) but she intended, when she reached the age of eighteen the following January, to settle up with all her creditors. A doctor was called to confirm bruising to her arm and chest; Miss Leverson had also, in his opinion, suffered a degree of ‘nervous excitement’ since the incident. Indeed, Rachel claimed she had been unwell since Atloff’s attack and her subsequent loss of earnings during the ‘middle of a brilliant season’ had been considerable. She did not, however, appear to be so traumatized that she was unable to withstand a barbed cross-examination from defending counsel, Mr Temple:
— I see your circular states that you deal in articles ’for the restoration and beautifying of the human hair, complexion, and teeth [laughter] . . . and successful treatment is so fully appreciated by the crowned heads of Europe. Do you mean by that bald heads [laughter], or crowned heads, Kings, Queens, Emperors and such like?
— I mean her Majesty. [laughter]
— What, her present Majesty?
— Yes, Mr Temple.
— Do you go to her majesty to be ‘done up for a ball’? [laughter]
— No, but I have her Majesty’s patronage.
— Then she is the crowned head who so fully appreciates your abilities?
— Yes, Mr. Temple.
— I see you also refer to the aristocracy and the nobility whom you have successfully treated [laughter] . . . You say you will restore human hair, and I see you have a depilatory powder which is for taking away the hair . . . Then you have powders to bring hair, and powders to drive it away again?
— Yes. [laughter].
Despite Mr Temple’s ridicule, Rachel junior seemed only too proud to elaborate on how she could bring hair on the head with her hair restoratives and take it away on the face by use of her special depilatories; how she dealt in ‘blanchinette’, a ‘sort of preparation by which ladies’ faces are made to look white’, and rosinette, to make their cheeks look red. She also sold ‘Arabian bloom’, a snip at 10s. 6d. a box. She made no bones at all about how lucrative her cosmetics business could be; during the season her weekly takings were around ’15 (’1,000 a week today) and her weekly stock was worth ’30 — ’40.
The case might well have passed unnoticed had Rachel junior not been so brazen in court in stating the kind of money she earned. A young woman so openly and unrepentantly set on a life in trade at a time when this was still greatly frowned upon inevitably attracted press attention, with articles under headlines such as ‘Blooming a Countess’ describing the case as a moral tale ‘illustrative of fashionable life’. For they underlined not just Rachel junior’s opportunism but the degeneracy of the aristocracy who indulged in such things. The greatest amount of column space was accorded the case by the Morning Post, whose readers made up the bulk of Madame Rachel’s clientele. Whilst the case clearly had some amusement value it also presented Rachel junior as dangerously bold — foreign, elusive and ultimately untrustworthy — reflecting current social anxieties about Jewish ‘otherness’. Prior to the case, the defendant Atloff had paid ’5 into court, deeming it sufficient compensation, but the jury decided that Rachel’s injuries merited ’20 in damages. Meanwhile, mother and daughter would have to ride out the response of satirical journals such as Punch, which had begun to pick up on the story, whilst also exploiting the confusion in the public minds with the late lamented Mademoiselle Rachel, whose memoirs even now were being heavily advertised in London. In its 20 November issue Punch carried a parody entitled ‘The Cause of the Cosmetics’ — the necessary moral lesson to be gleaned from the case of ‘Leverson v Atloff’ being to leave well alone:
Trust me, nature ne’er made beauty on this earth as round it whirls,
Comelier than an English matron’s; lovelier than an English girl’s.
Twere enough to make with anguish Venus de Medici cry,
If a woman’s beauty stood upon the hazard of a die.
Satirical swipes such as this did not deter Madame Rachel. The most lucrative time of year for her cosmetics trade was fast approaching: the London Season. It was timed to coincide with the Parliamentary Sessions from February to mid-July when MPs — many from the landed classes — left their country estates to sit in the Houses of Parliament. The minute the shooting and fox hunting-season was over the aristocracy would decamp to their London town houses in droves to pursue an elegant procession of drawing rooms (the most sought after being those held by the queen), ‘breakfasts’ (a misnomer for what were in fact day-long garden parties), balls, house calls, carriage drives in Hyde Park, shopping, visits to the opera and so on.
High Life in London — illustrations by George DuMaurier for Punch: Left:
The English Take
Their Pleasures Sadly (strolling through Hyde Park). Right: Meet of the Four-in-Hand Club,
Hyde Park, London. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
The primary pursuit, on the surface, was to see and be seen in fashionable society, but everyone knew that the true objective of the season was for ambitious mothers from the upper classes to see their daughters well-married, once they had had ‘come out’ at a formal presentation to the queen. The hopes of older spinsters and widows too were revived with the onset of the season. Seamstresses and dressmakers worked flat out throughout this period to beautify them — and so too did the cosmeticians. In the self-righteous and prudish atmosphere of mid-Victorian Britain, however, the trade in cosmetics still had an ‘under the counter’ character. Ladies insisted on discretion about their purchases and their beauty treatments, which must be made furtively, in the privacy of their own homes or the salon and never openly in a shop. In response to this, at the beginning of the new season, in March 1859, Madame Rachel launched a new advertising campaign in the Morning Post:
BEAUTIFUL WOMEN. — MADAME RACHEL begs to inform her lady patronesses, the nobility and aristocracy generally, that she has opened her ANNUAL SUBSCRIPTION list for the supply of her Costly Arabian Preparations for the restoration and preservation of female loveliness, which have obtained for her the patronage of royalty — these being manufactured entirely by MADAME RACHEL, who has no agents, and cannot be obtained from any other source. Terms as usual, 20 guineas per annum, which includes every requisite for a most recherché toilet, and two attendances by MADAME RACHEL, viz. one drawing room and one state ball.
Alarmed by the brazenness of the Madame Rachel publicity campaign, Punch again launched an attack in its March 26 issue with a piece entitled ‘Stucco for the Softer Sex’, in which it imagined how Rachel’s patronesses might be ‘fashioned out of that plastic material, and animated with a faint life by a disciple of FRANKENSTEIN.’ Madame Rachel’s new-fangled ‘enamelling’ process, which was being touted in the small ads, promised, in Punch’s view, to create a new breed of artificial women, the nearest thing to which was perhaps ‘a white sepulcher’.
The use of the term ‘enamelling of ladies’ faces’, although by no means original to Madame Rachel, certainly gained currency at this time thanks to her extensive advertising campaign, and was forever after after associated with her name and notoriety. The objective was the age-old one of producing a smooth and transparently white quality to the face, as lovely and delicate as a piece of S’vres porcelain, for that special ball or dinner or presentation at court and one whose effects could last for up to a year. The process used by Rachel and her kind was akin to what might today be achieved through the process of ‘skin peeling’. In ancient Nineveh women had rubbed their skin with pumice stones to remove the soft fine hair and create a smooth surface; in Egypt and Syria, brides would enamel themselves all over using a liquid depilatory which would leave the skin bright; in the seventeenth century women would cover their faces with oil of vitriol to remove the top layer of skin. But in the hands of Madame Rachel enamelling was elevated to a secret art, which she claimed was conducive to health and beauty, grace and youth, and one that was exclusively hers.
The method was simple — a careful removal of rough hairs or fuzz on the face and bust by the use of various lotions and/or tweezers; followed by the application of copious amounts of alkaline toilet washes, then a filling-in of wrinkles and depressions in the skin with a thick paste (usually made of arsenic or white lead and other ingredients), followed by applications of rouge and powder to finish off. Rich American women were reported to be flocking to London and Paris for the procedure and Madame rode high on the advertising hype, openly asserting her exclusivity in the papers and stating that ‘all other persons presuming to style themselves enamellers commit a gross fraud on the public at large’. However, in her celebrity manual, The Arts of Beauty, published in 1858, the actress Lola Montes (who in 1868 will make an indirect appearance in our story), had been scathing in her criticism: ‘Nothing so effectually writes memento mori! on the cheek of beauty as this ridiculous and culpable practice.’
The negative publicity that followed Rachel junior’s damages case naturally enough acted as an inverted form of publicity for the Madame Rachel franchise. Despite the setback at 69 New Bond Street, during July — August 1859 mother and daughter launched a major campaign in the Morning Chronicle and the Lady’s Newspaper from their home at 480 New Bond Street, ‘opposite Mudie’s library’ (a popular circulating library) where, they announced, they could be consulted daily from ten to six in order to prepare ladies for the London season. Their new advertising hype preyed on women’s innermost anxieties at this most important time of the year: ‘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’ commiserated Madame Rachel in the advertising columns. But rescue was at hand: ‘by prompt and judicious appliances the defect can be removed, and a beauteous loveliness succeeds, so conducive to the happiness and connubial felicity of the fair and graceful being.’ Madame Rachel was now becoming ever more brazen in her claims for her products. These ‘Costly Arabian Preparations’ were being imported to London from far flung Arabia, Syria, Central India, China and Japan ‘regardless of expense’; and her exclusive ‘Jordan Water’ — direct from the legendary river itself — was available expressly for ‘State occasions’. All preparations were offered to customers in the very strictest confidence with the stern warning that ‘articles purchased elsewhere are spurious’.
The quest for new, more upmarket premises meanwhile continued. In December 1859 a small ad had appeared in The Times announcing that ‘The late Mrs Parker’s preparations for the hair, bark lotion, Quin Julep and Pomade, Vervain and Bandoline Pomade’ were continuing to be prepared by her eldest son and successor, Erwin Parker at the depot 47a New Bond Street.’ Mrs Parker’s business however, appears to have folded some time the following year and Madame Rachel took out a lease on the premises. By early May 1861 she and Rachel junior were once again advertising — in the theatrical profession’s trade paper the Era — from these New Bond Street premises, offering their exclusive ‘Gems of the Season, Alabaster Powder and Magnetic Rock Dew Water’. Rachel junior was now resident at the premises — her presence noted on the 1861 census taken in April that year as a ‘perfumer and enamelist’ though her father, now working as a stationer, and her remaining siblings were all still living at 480 Oxford Street. Madame Rachel and her second daughter Leah were nowhere to be found on the census that year and were almost certainly in Paris exploring business ventures there. The beautiful, fifteen-year old Leah, who had now adopted the more exotic name of Leontie, was, it seemed, being groomed to join the business.
While Madame Rachel was out of town, leaving Phillip Levison to care for their children, including a one-year old son, Abraham, who had been born the previous June, Rachel junior, who had been left to mind the shop proceeded to overreach herself and soon ended up in Whitecross Street debtor’s prison. She had ordered expensive dresses to a debt of ’188 and in the autumn of 1861, at the tender age of twenty, she twice found herself in the bankruptcy court. On 17 September she had petitioned for bankruptcy, on a debt to Messrs Grant & Gask silk mercers of Oxford Street. As the Madame Rachel business appeared to be in Rachel junior’s name at this time, she was held responsible but immediately claimed minority, Phillip Levison coming to court to confirm her date of birth as 4 January 1841. Rachel’s creditors asked for the case to be adjourned till she came of age in January 1862 when their claim would be valid, but the judge adjourned only till 12 November in order to confer with the Chief Commissioner over the issue of Rachel’s minority and culpability; in the meantime she was allowed out of prison on bail.
When Rachel junior returned to court in November 1861 she was obliged to reveal that although she lived some of the time at New Bond Street, she also stayed sometimes ‘at her mamma’s country house at Blackheath’ — a surprising revelation indicating a level of concealed prosperity enjoyed by the Madame Rachel franchise. She also travelled to Brighton with her mother on business. Madame Rachel herself still held ‘saloons’ for clients at the premises at 480 Oxford Street. Meanwhile Rachel junior admitted that she carried another debt contracted on the business between December 1858 and May 1859 for ’149 10s. 5d., to Messrs Burgoyne the Chemists, for ‘scents and essential oils used in her preparations’. Some of the goods supplied, she claimed, were ‘spoiled’ and of no use — though, as it was later observed, she had failed to send any of them back. She made a point of declaring that she also procured the costly preparations she used in her enamelling process from abroad. This expense, plus the obligation to extend credit to many of her patronesses, whose names were kept in her account books, had brought her to insolvency. But when pressed for the benefit of her creditors to reveal what sums were owed to her which might cover her debts, she refused to say. In any case, Rachel claimed, because she had been in so much trouble, she had entrusted these books ‘to a friend who had gone to Australia’. They might, she added as an afterthought, ‘have been destroyed.’ To produce them and name names would be to ‘ruin her profession’ and she bluntly refused to do so. If her ladies knew that she kept a note of their names and addresses they would withdraw their patronage from her. The confidentiality of the cosmetician’s parlour was, it seemed, equal to that of the doctor’s surgery and the lawyer’s office.
In court, prosecutor, Mr Macrae, managed to extract the admission from her that she charged on average five to twenty guineas for enamelling a lady’s face. ‘Oh yes,’ responded Rachel with considerable pride, adding that she often charged ‘more than twenty guineas’ (something like ’1,500 today). But she made it clear that the prosecution had no understanding of her profession: it was one where the practitioner such as herself whilst charging high prices was also ‘compelled to give hundreds of pounds of credit’ and she had to help support a large family. No wonder her lady customers wanted the amounts of money they spent kept secret: in the days before the Married Woman’s Property Act they were effectively spending their husbands’ money and not their own.
With instructions to go away and locate her account books, Rachel junior was once more released on bail, till 17 January the following year. Back in court she still professed to be unable to lay hands on the books but in any event, she now miraculously was owed no money by her lady patronesses. Had these ladies all paid up in order to prevent their names from being aired in court? She must have had a very lucrative trade, suggested Mr Macrae, going on the orders she had placed with Messrs Burgoyne. When pressed on this Rachel reeled off a list: castor oil, olive oil, attar of roses, bismuth, orris root, lavender oil, white and yellow wax, oils of bergamot and lemon among numerous assorted essences and oils. Mr Macrae could not help observing, to the sound of considerable laughter in court, that she must have received enough otto of roses ‘to have sweetened the Thames, as well as perfume sufficient for three parishes, and enough bismuth to destroy the faces of half a million of young ladies.’ Her spending was clearly extravagant, as too her exploitation of credit: having failed to pay for the advertisements she had placed across numerous newspapers, Rachel junior had added a further five creditors to her list.
Rachel junior’s side of the Madame Rachel franchise had been out of business for more than twelve months pending the bankruptcy hearings. As she was now of age she could be pursued as a bankrupt and was sent back to Whitecross Street Debtor’s Prison whilst the magistrates deliberated the legal technicalities of her case. A decision was eventually made that Rachel could after all be allowed to plead infancy retrospectively and she was released from jail. Her creditors appear not to have pursued the matter further. Soon after the resolution of this case, Madame Rachel was once again advertising her ‘Beauties of the East’, available only at 47 New Bond Street in the Era. It would appear that Madame Rachel herself had now reappeared to take control of the business and consolidate its London operation. But she would not avoid controversy for very long. The perpetual trips back and forth to the law courts made by her and her daughter played into her business plan — to keep the name and the brand forever in the public eye. They most certainly reflected an inveterately brazen attitude to the inflated claims made by mother and daughter in promoting the business and the profession of ‘enameller of ladies’ face’; the two women also presented an astonishingly fearless attitude towards anyone who denigrated it and a readiness always to sue.
Not long after Madame Rachel’s resumption of business, mother and daughter began gearing up for another London season. It was launched with an advertisement in the Morning Chronicle reminding women that the Emperor Napoleon of France had judged women’s sole business in life to be to dress exquisitely and look lovely. In order to achieve this, ‘enamelling’, the advertisement claimed, had become ‘quite general amongst the ladies of the elite who frequent fashionable and crowded assemblies, it being the only method ladies have of displaying their matchless beauty’. And the only possessor in the world of that great art, was of course — Madame Rachel. The unwritten subtext was guaranteed to induce anxiety in the vain and gullible: go to Rachel and you will be transformed into a socially acceptable beauty; stay away and you will languish, unnoticed, in the shadows.
In 1862 Madame Rachel’s name was back in court and the papers in a strange case, the truth of which was never made plain. On 3 May, Wentworth Fitzwilliam, Viscount Milton was arraigned at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court by a pawnbroker, Sophia Stephens, for obtaining under false pretences a pair of diamond earrings worth ’100, which had been pawned with her by Madame Rachel.
Heir to the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, Milton had been forced to live most of his life in seclusion, in an attempt by the family to conceal the stigma of his severe epilepsy. No expense had been spared in obtaining the best medical opinion of the day or paying for him to be treated abroad in expensive asylums, but the end result was that Viscount Milton had become irretrievably addicted to a lethal cocktail of drugs and sedatives to control his condition. In the aftermath of a broken engagement, forced on him by his family, Milton went wild in the gaming houses and brothels of the West End. At this time a lady friend of his told him she had lost a pair of diamond earrings ‘at a game of cards’ with Madame Rachel and Milton had gone to the New Bond Street salon to get them back for her. Having asked to see the diamonds, he was taken by Rachel junior to Sophia Stephens’ pawnshop in Brewer Street where they had been pawned for ’65. Milton asked them to be brought to Madame Rachel’s salon at six that evening and he would redeem them. When the earrings were delivered and placed on a table the Viscount had put them in his pocket and refused to give them up, later claiming that he had wished to place them in the hands of the police until their true ownership had been ascertained.
No mention was made of how the diamonds really had come into Madame Rachel’s possession, but the logical assumption was not that they had been won at cards but that they had been left by a lady client as security against a series of beauty treatments for which she had not been able to pay. Colin Penney, assistant to the pawnbroker Sophia Stephens admitted in court he had often been to the New Bond Street salon on business but refused to reveal its nature. In court Milton’s barrister, the clever Serjeant Ballantine (‘Serjeant’ being a legal title short for Serjeant-at-Law) did his best to deflect culpability from his client onto Madame Rachel by insinuating that the earrings had originally been obtained ‘by a gross fraud’ but without elaborating as to how. Passing references were made to the Belasco perjury case and Rachel junior’s bankruptcy, sufficient to rouse antipathy towards Madame Rachel and rekindle the press appetite for stories about her. The judge was not impressed by the defence’s blatant attempt to make unfounded accusations of fraud against Rachel, who was not present in court, and remanded the case for a week.
During that time Madame Rachel was quick to defend herself and her business against the calumnies hurled against it. On 3 May, signing herself ‘S. R. Levison’, Rachel wrote — or rather the clever Rachel junior composed it for her, as her mother could not write — to the editor of The Times, complaining of the way in which she and her daughter had been ‘most invidiously mentioned’ in connection with the Milton case, and that the defence counsel in exculpating his client had made ‘speculative, false and unfounded’ allegations against her. She would, she asserted, be more than willing to make a statement in court refuting them and would show that the callow Viscount Milton had in fact been ‘the dupe of a designing woman, on whose behalf he has, to say the least of it, been most incautiously and imprudently zealous’. With this, Rachel therefore requested that the public would suspend their judgment until the case returned to court.
In the event Madame Rachel did not appear at the second hearing on 10 May when Milton’s defence, the upcoming young lawyer, George Lewis, proceeded to argue that this was not a case for sending to trial. His client had acted foolishly but had plenty of money in the bank to pay for the diamonds had he so wished. He had clearly been in an unstable mental condition at the time he had committed this ‘indiscretion’. The judge Mr Knox thought the case a very confused one, but, concluding that the act was that of ‘a foolish person’, he discharged Viscount Milton with a gentle reprimand. The Viscount’s irate father immediately ordered his son out of sight and out of the country for bringing shame on the family. The papers for the most part gave little attention to what was seen as the harmless misdemeanour of a member of the aristocracy. It fell to the editor of Reynolds’s News to draw his readers’ attention to the ‘benign’ treatment Milton had received from the judge. Had he been a working man he would not have got off so lightly. Even the barrister for the prosecution had behaved more like a ‘courtier’ than a counsellor and had not been able to entertain the idea that the member of an illustrious family was guilty. Names had been suppressed and witnesses kept back in order, effectively, to spare the Milton family honour. The whole affair, remarked Reynolds’s News, was a ‘miserable mockery of justice’, showing that ‘what is considered criminal in a poor, is pronounced indiscreet in a rich man.’ Milton, meanwhile disappeared off to Canada where, aged only 24 and despite his epilepsy, he made a historic journey across the Rocky Mountains, discovering the final stage in the land route linking the Atlantic to the Pacific. For a brief while on his return he was feted in London society, but the epilepsy cut short his life at the age of only 37. No lessons were learned, however, with regard to the biased and indulgent treatment by the courts of the indiscretion of an aristocrat. It would be repeated, with far more slavish deference, when Madame Rachel fell foul of the law again in 1868.
In the meantime, the Milton case added to the slow drip-drip of accumulating gossip and rumour about Madame Rachel and the underlying activities of her business. It had revealed that Rachel junior had pawned diamonds before with Sophia Stephens of Brewer Street. Whose diamonds were they? And where were they coming from? How could Madame Rachel afford to retain such expensive premises in New Bond Street, a house in Blackheath and advertise heavily in the press merely on the proceeds of her enamelling arts? A month later, before the gossip surrounding the Milton case had died down, London society would get a taster of more sinister goings on at New Bond Street.
Last modified 1 April 2010