Fellow Victorian geeks will recognise Madame Rachel as Maria Oldershaw, foster mother and business partner of the delicious Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale. She and her beauty products were also referred to in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. In this excellent biography, Helen Rappaport tells the true story of the woman behind the infamous creation of “Madame Rachel”, purveyor of dubious unguents which promised to make women “beautiful for ever”.
Since reading Beautiful for Ever, I’ve found at least a dozen references to Madame Rachel and her slogan in a variety of Victorian novels. It is extraordinary that someone who was such a household name is now little known, but in this book, Helen Rappaport brings her to life again in all her dreadfulness. Lovers of Victorian sensation fiction will love this sublime, larger-than-life villainess.