Madame Rachel was a - no, the - Victorian "enameller of ladies' faces". Frankly, I needed to know no more to want this book...I also quite fancy being enamelled, but we'll talk about that another day.
Oddly, after my last post, I discovered when I got Beautiful For Ever home that it is published by Long Barn Books, Susan Hill's publishing company, the genesis of which is described in Howard's End is on the Landing.
It's a very satisfying book, in terms of its size and weight, and the cover is truly scrumptious. It's a terribly bookish book; everything about it screams 'book'! So, me and books, kid in sweetshop, in I plunged. Immediately, I was reminded of the superb The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; same era, packed with scandals-amongst-the-upper-echelons, crimes hiding other crimes, early modern legal and forensic application, unsolved riddles and, even now, a slightly gauzy veil hanging over The Truth. Indeed, Mme Rachel spent some time in prison with Constance Kent, a name familiar to fans of the Kate Summerscale tome from the Road Hill House murder case. Beautiful For Ever, then, is a perfect companion work to Whicher, and of particular interest to lovers of Victorian crime. Both books are detailed and readable accounts of true crimes that rocked Dickensian Britain, and give a genuine insight into the inspiration behind classics like Lady Audley's Secret and Wilkie Collins' oeuvre.
There is clearly an impressive amount of research behind this book - records have been unearthed that have remained hidden or buried for decades. The sheer quantity of references at the back of the book pay homage to the work done by Helen Rappaport. It's a real page turner, and I have to say that whilst not quite as engaging as Whicher, I thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful For Ever.
You can sense my 'but', right? Ok, here it is. My 'but'. There is a fantastic amount of spelling errors in here, and bearing in mind this comes hot from the presses of Susan Hill's own company, I find myself very disappointed with the editing. At one point, there is actually a financial figure cited that is clearly lacking a zero. At another, a character is referred to by a name she doesn't adopt until a few years hence, and this new name appearing unexplained and then disappearing again until later in the book is very confusing. (I could rant for some time about the increasing number of spelling and grammatical errors I'm noticing in books, but I'll leave that, like enamelling, and the tattoo I've been promising myself for 15 years, till a more appropriate time). It should be noted here that my 'but' does not reflect in any way on Rappaport herself, for whom I have the utmost admiration as both researcher and writer.
So, 'but' out of the way, I will also say that there is a tantalising end to the story as a character - possibly the one I found most intriguing throughout - who had disappeared some time earlier, re-appears in a shock revelation under a pseudonym, and that not her first. Rappaport's hold-back-and-reveal in this instance really delights and rewards the careful reader.
Beautiful For Ever, for some reason, feels like it wants to be given a mark out of ten, but I'm not in the habit of laying stars on books. If I were... no, I won't. This is a well-investigated, easy-readable, fascinating story about the lengths, and enormous amounts of money (trust me, you'll be astounded!), that women will invest in the beauty industry in the hope of making themselves look better than ...what? They used to. The woman next door. The current star of stage or screen. They did yesterday. We've learned nothing, ladies, as my Bobbi Brown makeup compact testifies.