Posts Tagged: Non Fiction

Apr 10

Ugly Beauty

Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good

Everyone has heard of Helena Rubinstein, international queen of cosmetics.  Tiny, plump, spike-heeled, bowler hatted and extravagantly jeweled, she was for many years one of the fixtures of the New York scene as she hurried between her vast apartment on Park Avenue and her salon at 8 East 57th Street, in one hand an enormous leather bag stuffed with dollar bills, business notes, old tissues and spare earrings, in the other a paper sack containing a copious lunch.  Instantly recognizable to all from the advertisements that carried her photograph, she was energy personified, at once comic and awe-inspiring.

Few, by contrast, have heard of Eugène Schueller – though everyone is familiar with L’Oréal, the firm he founded in Paris in 1909.   Like Rubinstein he was born poor; like her, he rode to riches on the back of women’s compulsion to beautify themselves.  Unlike her, however, neither his name nor his face were familiar to those who bought his hairdyes.   Immured within his empire, travelling between factories in a Rolls equipped as an office on wheels, he shunned personal publicity.  As for entertaining, he quite simply had no time for it – was indeed so removed from society that when his wife died and he wished to remarry, the only woman he could find – even though he was by then one of the richest men in France – was his daughter’s governess.

In 1988, Schueller’s business swallowed Rubinstein’s.  In the normal way of things the takeover would have gone unnoticed except in the business press.   But Rubinstein had been a Jew, and Schueller, during the German occupation, a leading fascist collaborator.  And although they had never met during their lifetimes, and were both, by then, long dead, the consequences of this potentially lethal opposition outlived them both, exploding in a series of scandals that ricocheted around the world.

It may seem odd – certainly unexpected – that a history of the beauty business should include an excursion into fascist politics.  But cosmetics, unlike clothes, have always been a political hot potato.  Rubinstein’s and Schueller’s stories show why this has been so – and why it continues to be so today.

Published by Denoel in France
Published by Harper Collins in the USA.
Published by McClelland and Stewart in Canada.

Mar 10

Other People’s Daughters: The Life And Times Of The Governess

Other People's Daughters

Other People’s Daughters: The Life And Times Of The Governess
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; illustrated edition edition (13 Mar 2008)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0297851136
ISBN-13: 978-0297851134

The Governess
Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Walker & Company (29 April 2008)
Language English
ISBN-10: 080271630X
ISBN-13: 978-0802716309

If a nineteenth century lady had neither a husband to support her nor money of her own, almost her only recourse was to live in someone else’s household and educate their children – in particular, their daughters.

Marooned within the confines of other people’s lives, neither servants nor family members, governesses occupied an uncomfortable social limbo.  And being poor and insignificant, their papers were mostly lost, so that most of what we know about this strange and unsatisfactory life comes either from novels, like Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair, or from fleeting glimpses in other people’s memoirs.  But a few journals and letters have come down to us, giving a vivid record of what it was to be a lone professional woman at a time when such a creature officially did not exist.

Other People’s Daughters looks at these lives, some famous, like the Brontës, or Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs inspired The King and I,  some quite unknown, their papers surfacing by the merest chance.

Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s realization, in the heady days following the French revolution, that only equal education could ensure true equality for women, the book shows how the governess, who could be relied on to teach only the little she had herself been permitted to learn, was an essential part of that dream’s collapse.  It ends with the foundation of Girton College, Cambridge, the first women’s university college:  the beginning of the end for the governess, and the first step on the road to realizing Wollstonecraft’s dream.

This is a rich and fascinating account of lives whose suppressed fury, romantic daydreams and intellectual frustration provide a unique prism through which Ruth examines Victorian attitudes to women, family and class.