When Science and Cosmetics Collide: The Displacement of Nature in The Sorceress of the Strand

By Brittany Stojsavljevic

Advertisements serve as a window to any particular time period: they both tap into occurring trends and reinforce what consumers should buy to be considered a successful member of their class. Strand Magazine put L.T. Meade’s The Sorceress of the Strand into conversation with such advertisements as well as articles directly about beauty standards of the age. Such context reveals anxieties about beauty practices, particularly in regard to new technology, such as electricity, and where the limitations on such fields existed. With these unknown limitations, people were concerned over what control women could gain over their appearance and if an inauthentic body resulted in an inauthentic identity. The sorceress herself becomes a reflection of this anxiety: through her scientific methods, Madame Sara is in so complete control of her appearance that she seems to overpower Nature and often threatens the well-being of innocent people; yet, society as a whole still reacts to her with a sort of mysticism and worship.

Madame Sara is at the top of her field through the mastery of her techniques and how she is able to apply them to herself. She is so capable that that she virtually has ceased to age. In her introduction, Dixon Druce is told that Madame Sara “is very much older than she appears. She looks about five-and-twenty,” (120) and when Druce meets her he remarks that she appeared “a young, fresh, and natural girl” (121). Her appearance, which is much discussed throughout each of the short stories, becomes its own form of advertising: no one knows how old she actually is, which adds to her mystery and the allure of her practice. Yet, in her introduction, a binary also is established. The readers, alongside Druce, already have been told that Sara is neither a young nor fresh girl, implying that her looks are not natural either. In fact, throughout much of the story, Sara is treated with mysticism, idolatry, and worship, and her techniques are treated with an air of exoticism and supernatural. Even the title of the story refers to her as a “sorceress” and when Edith takes Druce to visit Sara’s shop, she remarks, “‘We are on the threshold of a magician’s cave’” (125). The emphasis on the exotic and supernatural serve to emphasize that Sara’s appearance and techniques are not natural or, inherently, are unnatural.

In the same issue that the first excerpt of The Sorceress of the Strand appears is an article titled “Martyrs of Fashion,” which warns against women, just like Sara, who use fashion to extreme ends. The writer catalogues what lengths women have gone to throughout history to remedy their appearances and then details new techniques. The article quickly establishes that some beauty regime is expected of women and is a part of her “conventional duty” (441). The issue arises when a woman goes so far as the “complete substitution of artifice for Nature in carrying out a labour of vanity and falsehood which, when all is done, misses its end” (441). All imperfections might be gone, the writer concludes, but those small imperfections imposed by Nature typically are for the best.

The advertisements that appear at the end of the twenty-fourth version of Strand Magazine reinforce what is written in “Martyrs of Fashion.” Slightly more than 300 ads appear over those pages, and approximately 11 percent are either explicitly beauty products or products that make direct reference to changing the appearance.[1] Most of those ads are centered on complexion, changing hair color or improving hair, and fat reduction: or, changing an individual trait rather than completely redoing one’s self. While certainly not in the majority of ads, some also reinforce that they are simply aiding in Nature’s work. One electric belt claimed that “electrical treatment is … Nature’s remedy” (xlvii) while an ad (Figure 1) for a product that promised a large bust specified, “All girls and women were intended by Nature to have fully developed bosoms. If the growth is retarded or backward, or if the busts have shrunken away or disappeared, all that is needed is proper scientific ad” (lxxxiii). By inclusion of these statements, it seems that appearing natural was important, and that, for at least some modifications or techniques, consumers did need to be assured that they were acceptable.

Figure 1: An advertisement that appeared on page lxxxiii of volume twenty-four of Strand Magazine.

While part of Sara’s allure comes from her appearance, her greatest threat does not come from the fact that she chooses to use these scientific techniques on herself but that she has mastered them so well as to weaponize them. Despite the mysticism that surrounds her, her techniques are always rooted in science. When she shows her rooms to Druce, he notes the “electric lights in powerful reflectors, and lenses like bull’s-eye lanterns. … Another chair … was kept for administering static electricity. There were dry-cell batteries for continuous currents” (127). After showing off her instruments, Sarah declares, “‘I am a doctor—perhaps a quack’” (127). She straddles both worlds: she has the expertise of a doctor but not the responsibility that would be expected. Instead, she deftly uses an array of techniques, from changing an appearance to dentistry to the use of electricity, to endanger the innocent, particularly young women, who would have been otherwise having socially acceptable procedures done. For example, in “The Blood-Red Cross,” Sara demonstrates an expert knowledge of different colors of light, and writes on a young women’s neck with silver nitrate, which when exposed to regular light, will reveal her shameful secret; the young woman was there merely to have a mole removed. A similar occurrence happens to two sisters in “Madame Sara,” who visit to have teeth filled and depart with caps of delayed poison. It is not the science that is condemned then, but the potentiality of how it can be used by those with harmful intentions toward those who are otherwise innocent. This theme is further highlighted in “The Talk of the Town,” when Sara steals an idea to use the science for profit in a way that the inventor had not considered. The danger these techniques pose seems almost limitless in the conniving Sara’s control.

The limitlessness of new technology also seems to be at the forefront of the writer’s mind in “Martyrs of Fashion.” While the writer takes the long view of history and recounts extreme beauty practices from all times and peoples, the concern lingers over emerging techniques. At the beginning of the article, the writer acknowledges how many branches of sciences are influencing those new trends by stating, “chemistry and medicine, surgery and painting, physics, statuary, and mineralogy all have parts to play” (441). Many of the new techniques the writer expresses anxiety over are then, in fact, centered around electricity, such as using electrical currents to smooth out wrinkles, inserting a needle and running electricity through it to remove hair, electrical massage to change the shape of the nose, and electric corsets to lose weight. The message seems to be that science might be putting all means of alterations in reach, but moderation and respect to Nature should still be the rule.

Advertisements for electrical instruments and articles about the feats of electricity also reinforce what is written in “Martyrs of Fashion.” Many scientific articles written around the turn of the century in Strand Magazine acknowledged electricity as one of the great scientific advancements of the age and wondered over how it would be applied next. Strand Magazine answered these queries by providing articles about innovative uses: “A Curious Electrical Display” in the January 1900 edition described effects put on by George Patterson in “Indian clubs” through the use of electric lights while “Designs by Electricity” appeared in the December 1904 edition and showed photos of electrical discharges and messages written in electric lights. In the advertisements, several electrical devices appeared for at-home use. They were primarily either “catch-alls,” which worked by curing “the nerves,” or centered on losing weight. Some also seemed to conflate health problems with a poor appearance. The Richardson Perfected Electro-Galvanic Belt was intended to treat “lost nerve power,” which could cure kidney disease, rheumatism, gout, dyspepsia, liver troubles, and possibly a pale complexion resulting from poor blood circulation. Conflating health problems with a poor appearance reinforced the use of science for cosmetic use. Between that and the wide range of problems it could solve, the advertisements also emphasized that electricity could be used for potentially anything.

Figure 2: An advertisement that appeared for an electrical device on page xcvii of volume twenty-four of Strand Magazine.

With such strong concerns over what was natural, as well as the limitations of science, it comes as little surprise, then, that is not Druce and the detective Vandeluer who defeat Sara, but rather Nature in a two-fold scheme: Sara’s own nature contributes to her demise, as well as Nature in the form of a wolf. In “Teeth of a Wolf,” Sara turns against her partner, Mrs. Bensasan, in an attempt to earn another bauble; her greed, which is what drove all her crimes and is perhaps the one part of herself that she could not change, leads her to a confrontation with Bensasan. While there, Bensasan’s wolf, Taganrog, which she was trying to tame, attacks and kills Sara. While confessing their plot, Bensasan says they were planning to kill Druce and Vandeleur by framing Taganrog through use of prosthetic teeth because “[i]t would have been natural, would it not, to suppose that the wolf—” (249). Both the wolf and Sara are acting in ways that are considered natural, then, and led to Sara’s death.

Throughout Victorian literature are stories that show tension between outward beauty and inner nature: is the hunchback made so because he is a villain? Is the beauty as trustworthy as she appears? With such considerations already on the mind, it becomes “natural” that the growing capabilities of cosmetics and science would concern society, because outward appearance can then be made into anything. Madame Sara of the Sorceress of the Strand becomes a cautionary tale about abusing those techniques as well as trusting those who abuse them. Instead, if moderation and control are the rule of the day, it seems much safer, perhaps, to look to the advertisements in the magazine for devices that put moderation within the reader’s own hands.

[1] Alongside those appear a handful of advertisements for film or photography, which may have added to the anxieties about appearance for the Victorian reader. As one ad for The Kinora Animated Photography states, they were now able to see “Ourselves as others see us!”

Works Cited

“Martyrs of Fashion.” The Strand Magazine, vol. 24, no. 142, Oct. 1902, pp. 441-48. British Periodicals, search.proquest.com/docview/4163242?accountid=14756. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.

Meade, L.T. The Sorceress of the Strand and Other Stories. Edited by Janis Dawson, Broadview Press, 2016.

The Strand Magazine. Vol. 24, 1902. Internet Archive, archive.org/stream/TheStrandMagazineAnIllustratedMonthly/TheStrandMagazine1902bVol.XxivJul-dec#page/n807/mode/2up. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Jordan Osterman says:

    The prevalence of advertisements concerning people’s health and appearance throughout many of these periodicals has been fascinating to me, so it’s great to see Brittany dive into this on a deeper level, especially with quantitative analysis to peg at 11 percent the amount of ads aimed at changing people’s appearance (in this issue, at least). Like is the case today (I have to imagine more than 11 percent of ads in modern periodicals concern appearance), there seems to be a societal dialogue under the surface about the correlation of appearance to true human character. Brittany’s example of the hunchback reminded me of the Softy in Aurora Floyd, whose outward appearance puts Aurora so much on edge. In that case the author goes as far as to communicate directly to the reader that they should listen to their feeling when they are put on guard about someone’s character based completely on their outward appearance; the plot, too, reinforces that Aurora was right to feel wary of the Softy’s character based off the way he looks.

    With that in mind, it is no surprise, perhaps, that people would be concerned about being judged in a similar way based purely on their appearance; no one would want to have their character as a person negatively judged by how they look. The genius of advertising for appearance-altering products then, and now, is its ability to tap into people’s anxieties about that exact thing, which stories like Aurora Floyd certainly don’t do anything to temper.

    Brittany’s analysis of Madame Sara shows how the feelings of these appearance-altering (and, by extension, character-altering in the eyes of others) products and scientific techniques can be so complex: There is desire for the benefits of what they show, but an undeniable anxiety (fear, even?) about the unnaturalness of what’s required to attain those benefits. How, then, should people feel that such a large portion of their advertising reading was dedicated to this area? Probably about the same as they did in reading about Madame Sara: Curious and intrigued by the mystical qualities she shows, but wary of the true character that lies underneath.


  2. Chelcy Walker says:

    Brittany, I think you raise some great questions here about the conversation that the advertisements are having with the text. On one hand, the advertisements encourage the use of seemingly transformative cosmetic products and tools, and on the other hand, they also represent some fears about what is going “too far” in changing oneself. It brought to mind this fascinating passage from Sorceress as Meade compares Madame Sara and Mrs. Bensasan (emphasis mine):

    “In the presence of one so coarse and colossal Madame Sara, who was standing in the background, appeared at first almost insignificant, but a second glance showed that this woman was the very foil she needed to bring out her remarkable and great attractions. Her slenderness and her young figure, the softness of her blue eyes, the golden sheen of that marvelous hair, which was neither dyed nor artificially curled, but was Nature’s pure product, glistening and twining itself into tendrils long, thick, and soft as a girl’s, all contrasted well with the heavy appearance of her hostess. Mrs. Bensasan looked almost an old woman; Madame Sara might have been twenty-eight or thirty. She wore a black dress of cobwebby lace, and nothing could better suit the delicacy of her complexion.” (X. The Teeth of the Wolf, 235)

    This passage praises Madame Sara’s ability to refrain from anything “unnatural” in keeping herself looking young, and yet turning the pages over to the advertisements that you mentioned, we see dozens of examples of artificial enhancements designed to make one look even more “natural,” showing a confusing and complicated relationship between the text and the advertisements. There is clearly a larger cultural dialogue happening about what role cosmetics play in being natural, and whether or not they enhance or detract from “Nature.”

    It also seems that from this passage, there is a general concern about feminine deception. For example, we know that Madame Sara is a villain, but her appearances do not correspond with her “evil nature.” Unlike Mrs. Bensasan, who is described as having a “dead-white complexion…unrelieved by any colour” and using adjectives like “massive,” “harsh,” and a mouth that was “hideous, cut like a slit across her face” (235), Madame Sara is attractive and beautiful on the outside. This seems to be part of Meade’s attempt to create an especially thrilling and suspicious villain, because she defies the normal rules relating to Victorian villains, who are often described as ugly or undesirable. As a woman, her ability to deceive others even about her age becomes a weapon that she can wield against the logical detectives, and this makes her even more dangerous. Her role as a beautician seems to imply that she could extend her deception to her clients and enable otherwise innocent and “natural” women into unnatural female deception, and therefore unhinge some of the foundations of Victorian patriarchal society.


  3. What I have found so interesting in our study of Victorian periodicals is how similar the media influence is to our world today. Media scholars often comment about the over-saturation of advertisements and marketing, especially when it comes to women’s cosmetics. What makes The Sorceress of the Strand so fascinating, is that we get a character like Madame Sara who embodies what these ads are trying to sell – youth and beauty. Yet, she is this deviant person who is far from the ideal woman. Beauty and vanity become her weapon of mass deception. I like how Brittany describes this anxiety Madame Sara embodies as the “control women could gain over their appearance and if an inauthentic body resulted in an inauthentic identity.” Her beauty becomes her inauthentic identity, and characters are foolishly entranced by her guise. I appreciate Brittany’s inclusion of the ads that appeared around this story because it seems so contrary to Meade’s message about the nature of Madame Sara.

    From an editorially point of view, I wonder how advertisers would feel about this theme of deceptive beauty. It seems like the advertisements reflecting the changing beauty standards and inventions have influenced Meade’s writing. Would advertisers feel like their advertisements were being undermined by the story that is so clearly questioning the influence of beautification and alteration? Would Meade have been steered away from writing about beauty techniques by her editors that would negatively upset advertisers? I have been surprised how several stories we have come across during this time period that seem to have themes in conflict with the advertisers of the publication. Did advertisers influence editorial decisions?

    Furthermore, I am also curious to know at what point product placement came into play with Victorian periodicals. It seems like there are opportunities for these ads to be incorporated into the story. While the advertisements are in close proximity to actual stories, would it have been possible for a provocative story to have an advertisement embedded? It seems like this happened with the mention of books or literature in stories that were put out by their publishers. But was this happening for personal or household goods? Would this limit an author’s ability to creatively examine anxieties? This thoughtful piece brings up a lot of great question for further exploration.


  4. Rachel Busse says:

    Brittany, I love that you bring up the question of whether an inauthentic body resulted in an inauthentic identity, because it was clearly a question on Victorian mind and a question I think we still ask today. I use “we” loosely here, because what I really mean is that our media can’t seem to get past this question. For whatever reason, the question of whether or not a celebrity has had plastic surgery seems to be of constant concern and memes about men feeling “tricked” by makeup are plastered all over the internet. All the while, advertisements on TV and the radio try to sell us “natural looking” botox, liposuction, and hair removal. We are told (and sold) the idea that we should want to make ourselves look better—it is almost passed off as a moralistic mandate. Look better, be better. But at the same time the constant refrain is that these procedures will make us look “natural” despite the fact that they are blatantly not. For whatever reason, we seem to buy into the idea that to be natural is to be good, while unnatural is seemingly an indication of something nefarious or bad. Growing up, I remember my mom always reminding me that makeup was done correctly when it looked most natural. That never quite made sense to me as a kid, because if that was truly the case, what in the world was the point of green or blue eye shadow? Now, this is not to say that we find it awful or something when we see someone wearing conspicuous makeup, but rather that there are relics of this Victorian tension between natural and unnatural beauty that still pop up today. That kind of rhetoric definitely slips into discussion of foods and drinks, though that is perhaps a more legitimate conflation of unnatural as bad (though natural doesn’t necessarily mean good or healthy).


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