Tuesday, April 27, 2010

at Madame's

I wrote yesterday about the less-than-honorable doings of my great-aunt, Carolyn Hague. While I was doing research for that post I found a short story in which she appears as an incidental character. The story is found in the January 1907 issue of McBride's Magazine. At that time Hague was a successful "modiste," to use a term favored by the author of the story. She was then 42 years old and almost seven years into her marriage with my great-uncle Adolph. She was sufficiently well known among the society women of New York that the story's author needed only to name her in order to evoke the high-toned atmosphere of her dressmaking establishment.

The story is interesting not just for making use of the social caché; of my great-aunt's business but also for having its plot turn on a matter of ethics and personal integrity that isn't far from the situations that I dealt with in yesterday's blog post. It concerns itself with the difficulty of maintaining personal moral values when need for money and temptation to do wrong are both great and the likelihood of being caught out seems very remote. It's Grace MacGowan Cooke's Love Among Thieves. I won't summarize the whole plot. It makes an interesting read and is worth a half hour of your time.

A love story reminiscent of the primary plot in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice, it weds its heroine to its hero after numerous trials and misunderstandings. She's beautiful, having poise, self-confidence, excellent carriage, and all the advantages of youth, but no money. He's rich but mistakenly taken for indigent; he's a truly honorable gentleman but seems to her to be a thief. They both move comfortably among New York's social elite, tolerating the foibles of their class and carefully observing its norms of behavior. They both know that personal integrity matters. They appreciate the importance of moral behavior as a fact. To them doing right is an ingrained personal attribute and not simply a matter of appearance. They come to realize that that their ethical standards are higher than those of many with whom they associate. In one scene the hero tells dinner table guests that "the lax morality of the public at the present day is rooted in loose dealing between members of the same social circle. We condone among our friends and acquaintances what the law cannot reach, and in so condoning we lose our standard. If a man likes being absolutely honest himself, the next step is to like absolutely honest men for his friends."

I mentioned this "lax morality of the present day" in yesterday's post. At the time the story came out the free-wheeling laissez-faire unregulated culture of the late 19th-century was beginning to give way as revelations made my muck-raking journalists and literary authors led to government regulation and, gradually, to a somewhat higher level of behavioral norms.

A seamstress is one of the story's minor characters. Brought up in an upstanding but decayed family from the upper South, she possesses a strong sense of what's right and wrong and her standards contrast strongly with the standards shown by a man who assumes himself to be her social better. As it happens, the seamstress works for "Madame Hague" ‒ my own great-aunt in person ‒ and the story gives a bit of a portrait of that woman in her natural environment, the high-class fashion salon that she owns and runs.

The atmosphere is not different from what you see of such places in movies (Pretty Woman, comes to mind) or read about in books (as, for example, ones that discuss Jackie Kennedy's dealings with Hubert de Givenchy, Oleg Cassini, and other fashion houses).

The heroine, Violet Rensselaer, has an uncomfortable relationship with Mrs. Dunning, a wealthy woman who patronizes Mme. Hague and Violet herself is well acquainted with Madame. On the story's first page, Violet is sent there on an errand and this visit sets the plot in motion. Cooke writes of the shop and Madame herself:

Arriving at the small parlors which bore the name of Hague on their shining windows, Violet tried on the evening wrap as Mrs. Dunning had instructed her. "I'll send it out early next week," the Belgian assured her. "I'm sorry, Madame, but that will not do. Mrs. Roache-Dunning must have it to-morrow. She especially cautioned me to tell you so." "To-morrow!" The big hands with their many rings went out in an expressive movement which accompanied the rising shoulders. "If she had come to try it on a week ago, as she promised &mdash‒ " "I know‒I know. But Mrs. Dunning is‒you know she will certainly not accept it if she says she will not." ‒The modiste pushed back the ivory-tinted folds with a gesture of despair, called in an attendant to remove them, and turned to serve her customer further. A frock, now‒would Miss Rensselaer be good enough to look at it and tell Mrs. Roache-Dunning about it? Mrs. Dunning liked bargains. Well, that was right. If ladies had money, that was no reason for them to waste it when bargains were to be had. And such a bargain‒this!
It's not surprising that the author makes Mme. Hague a Belgian. We can take it to mean that she has European cultivation but is not, as might otherwise be expected, Parisian. In fact my great-aunt was born in New York, but both her parents came from Saxony and German was probably the language of her childhood home. She would have traveled to France at least once a year for the last couple decades and presumably knew well how to speak and behave so as to seem Northern European by birth. Belgian makes sense as straddling the Germanic and Frankish cultures.

As shown in the story this Madame Hague is a practiced saleswoman, a bit conniving, sometimes obsequious and sometimes aloof. To her employees she is said to be a hard but fair boss. She is concerned with their well-being but not when it might conflict with her merchandising. A shop assistant who is ill risks being discharged.

Here is a bit of a scene between the heroine and the poor seamstress. Violet has put on a dress that Mrs. Dunning is having altered. Octavia Randolf, the seamstress, has shown herself to be deeply troubled.

"Never mind the dress," said Violet, pulling away from the kneeling girl. "It's perfect‒and much too pretty for the woman who will wear it," she added under her breath.

For a moment the seamstress knelt, looking up at the tall, regal figure before her with hopeless eyes. Then she pitched forward and quietly fainted upon the billowy folds of silk and chiffon which she had been trying to adjust.

Unable to move for fear of tearing the train of fragile stuff which was held down by the girl's weight, Violet called Madame's name, preferring that to the time-honored cry of "Help!"

At her voice the girl on the floor quivered, tried to sit up, and moaned faintly:

"Don't tell on me! Don't call anybody‒they'll find out. I'll be better in a minute. Oh, thank you! You're so good. If Madame Hague knew‒ "

Violet drew up her long train, which was now released, stepped swiftly to the door and locked it, swept her street suit from the couch, and helped the girl to lie down.

"Never mind," she said quietly. "I'll put the pins in where those seams were to be altered. Then I'll have to change to my own frock. That will give you time to pull yourself together. Does Madame Hague discharge you girls if you are ill?"

The blunt query brought the blood to the pale face. The sewinggirl nodded with closed lips.

"Sometimes she sends us away when she is afraid that we are going to be ill," she said finally. "She‒she knows that sickly people cannot work well, of course; and then, if we actually get down while she is employing us, we might expect help from her."

To Violet Rensselaer's soul, already up in revolt against the conditions of her life, it seemed as though this girl were a poor little sister.

"Haven't you a home you can go to?" she asked, as she tied an immaculate four-in-hand before the mirror.

"Not in New York. I came from Virginia, and it would cost more to go back there than to‒well, than to pay the debt I owe, and that I am sure is going to make me sick unless I can pay it. You see, it's my mind, not my body, that ails. I've worried over the thing till I can't sleep." ...

"I came from Albemarle County," she began succinctly. "It sounds like a paragrapher's joke to say it, but we were rich people before the war. My mother was a widow for fifteen years, and earned her living and mine by sewing. That was at home, you know; she went to the houses of friends, who treated her almost as a guest. Everybody was poor, more or less, and I never knew what the horrors of lacking money meant till mother died and I came to New York." ... Violet's face clouded. Money‒money‒money‒if she only had money! It seemed that it was the panacea for all ills. ... The seamstress arose with a sigh. "I mustn't tell you any more of this," she said; "Madame would be furious if she knew I did it."

This drawing, made in 1906, may give an idea of what Violet looked like in one of Madame Hague's gowns.
{Caption: Armour's Harrison Fisher girl, c1906; source: Library of Congress}

This shows fancy gowns of the type Madame sold in 1906.
{Caption: The Misses Gerson, by Gertrude Käsebier, 1906; shows Virginia Gerson, seated, as her sister stands and admires her gown; source: Library of Congress}

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