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A "TAINT UPON THEM": THE MADAME RACHEL CASE, FRAUD, AND RETAIL TRADE IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND TAMMY WHTTLOCK Rice University With her successful advertising campaign, her mysterious shop, and her alluring advertising promise of "Beauty For Ever," Sarah Rachel Leveison was a Victorian cultural icon of cosmetic consumerism long before she became famous as a criminal swindler. Her shop in New Bond Street attracted a wide clientele:1 Old men desirous of enameling their bald old pates, ponderous females with scratch wigs and asthma, and girls, pretty and ugly, with defects capable of improvement, histled [sic] and tussled to pay the fee of the wonderful enchantress who guaranteed to . . . make one 'beautiful forever.' (Shaw 280) Rachel's success made her a fixture of popular culture. As early as 186162 with the publishing of the first serial installments of Lady Audley's Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon referred to the dangers of imagining "all the women of England elevated to the high level of masculine intellectuality, superior to crinoline; above pearl powder and Mrs. Rachel Leveison . . ." (223).2 Punch of July 12, 1862 lampooned Rachel's promises to restore beauty with a cartoon of a row of sandwich-boarded ladies whose faces were half ancient and half young and beautiful (18).3 After Rachel's trial for fraud in 1868, however, representations of her shifted from a shopkeeper catering to female vanity to an evil, witchlike swindler duping her gullible prey. This case shaped all future representations of Rachel. Her "prey" was a middle-class widow named Mary Borradaile, a frequent customer in her shop. Although she bought make-up and "Arabian baths" at Rachel's, Borradaile was hesitant to Victorian Review 24.1 (Summer 1998) 30Victorian Review give Rachel the larger amounts of money she continually requested for elaborate beauty treatments. Borradaile resisted Rachel's requests until the proprietor of the shop took advantage of a chance meeting between Borradaile and Thomas Heron Jones, seventh Viscount Ranelagh. At the instigation of Rachel, he became the object of Borradaile's affections. Rachel claimed that Lord Ranelagh wanted Rachel to act as a go between to arrange a clandestine marriage. The shopkeeper used this premise to defraud Borradaile of her widow's inheritance — over£6,000. Rachel's melodramatic swindle caused future writers and historians to focus on the representation of Rachel as a criminal rather than earlier representations of Rachel as England's best known cosmetics dealer. Kellow Chesney calls her "a brazen old cheat" and William Roughead describes her as a "bloated and obscene spider in the center of her web" (Life & Trial, 10-11, 19).4Yet, even during her criminal trial, Victorians did not forget that the basis of her crime lay in retail trade. In the Madame Rachel fraud case and the controversy surrounding it, there were actually a series of "trials" within the larger frame of the criminal trial. Rachel was on trial as a perpetrator of fraud, but she was also on "trial" for her participation in retail trade, a trade based on the puffery of exaggerated advertisements and the vending of adulterated cosmetics. Mary Borradaile was on "trial" as a victim — her morality and respectability scrutinized to determine whether she should elicit the jury's sympathy. Borradaile was also judged for her role as a buyer, a middle-class woman selfishly wasting her dead husband's money on luxury goods. The Rachel case revealed anxieties about class, women's sphere, property, and the basis of England's rapidly changing commercial world. Critics ranging from the judge in the case to the Saturday Review especially derided the working-class Rachel Leveison's use of the commercial world to elevate her own position and that of her family. The 1868 trial spurred criticisms of advertising, middle-class women as consumers, and women in control of their own finances. Commentators were outraged that Rachel's "real" crime of selling fraudulent products with false advertising remained untouched by the English legal system. Rachel's exceptional business success fueled anxiety about the demoralizing effects of women's participation in the commercial world; a fear also linked to the growing phenomenon of middle-class women's importance as consumers — women like Mary Borradaile...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 29-52
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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