The Cashmere Shawl: 1840

 

[From the London Journals.]

THE CASHMERE SHAWL

Everybody knows the vast importance which our Parisian belles formerly attached to the possession of a cashmere shawl; and although their value is considerably decreased since the Empress Josephine gave fifteen thousand francs for one, they are still objects of desire to all female hearts; I mean married ones, of course, for the cashmere is rarely worn by a demoiselle, at least until she begins to despair of ever being called Madame. Indeed, these shawls play a very important part in matrimonial arrangements; many a match has been brought about by the lady’s impatience to possess them, and many a ménage has been rendered unhappy by a husband’s obstinate refusal to buy one. I do not, however, recollect any adventure in which the cashmere has played so singular a part as the one I am about to narrate.

Monsieur de M. began some time ago, notwithstanding his large fortune and very handsome person, to be set down by his acquaintance as a decided old bachelor; this opinion might be thought too hastily formed, as he was only thirty-six, had not his mode of living given color to it—for it was well known that he did not spend half his income; and he would certainly have been set down as a miser, had not circumstances revealed that instead of hoarding his riches, he dispensed them in charity, but it was charity without ostentation. He mixed in the world, enjoyed its pleasures with moderation, was generally liked, and when at last determined upon committing matrimony, his proposal for Mademoiselle de V. was warmly received by her widowed mother, a perfect woman of the world, who had for some time had her eye upon him, and spread her net by a skillful exhibition of those qualities in herself and daughter, which, though they were very far from possessing, she knew he would look for in a wife. The bait took, to her great joy; for she almost began to despair of getting a match for Sophie, whose own fortune was too small to entitle her to a good one, and who being all of twenty-four, was fast verging on what we in France consider an old maidenism.

The young lady had played her part so well that, without it at all transgressing the rules of propriety, De M. had reason to believe his proposal would be perfectly agreeable to her before he made it to her mamma; his explicitness on one point was, however, far from pleasing to either lady; that was his intention of devoting the same amount as usual to charitable purposes, in which he had no doubt he should be assisted by his dear Sophie. A few timid words of acquiescence from the young ladies, and an eloquent harangue from mamma on the pleasure it must give her daughter to participate in his benevolent plants, settled the matter to De M.’s great delight.

The preliminaries of the marriage were arranged—De M.’s family jewels, which were really very handsome, were sent to be new mounted, and he requested his belle fiancée to make choice of a cashmere. No task could be more agreeable to the fair one, who showed that her taste was equally elegant and magnificent, for she selected a superb long shawl, bleu turquoise ground, and a border of matchless beauty. Nothing could be handsomer, but unfortunately, there was one objection that the bridegroom elect could not get over—it was double the price he intended to give.

Now here I find myself in a strait. I wish to please all my readers, and if I mention De M’s price, I have no doubt that some of the gentler sex will say, “Oh, now mean!” while several of those in unmentionables will call him an extravagant fellow. In order then to avoid drawing upon my hero the displeasure of any party, I shall avoid specifying the sum, and shall, merely, in justice to him, declare that the price he intended to give, would be considered by the generality of the people as a handsome one. He requested Sophie to make choice of another, and several were shown to her, but she had some decided objection to each; and in spite of the significant looks, and even hints of her mother, she shewed so much ill temper and ill nature, that she fairly frightened away all the little cupids that were dancing about the heart of her intended; in  short, the cashmere was not chosen that morning, and the evening brought not the devoted lover, but a letter, in which he made his adieu in a very decided manner.

We have no trials in France for breach of promise; but I think even in England the ladies would not, all the circumstances of the case considered, have got damages, unless indeed she was allowed to have a female jury. The matter passed off, and De M., perfectly recovered from his love fit, went on his usual quiet way for some time.

One morning he called on an old woman, to whom he had been a constant benefactor for some years, and as he mounted to her dwelling on the fourth story, a lady passed him on the stairs, plainly dressed, and with a black veil down. As he made way for her respectfully, he observed that her figure, though petite, was elegant, and her features, from the slight glimpse he had of them, agreeable. On entering Manette’s apartment, he found her in tears, and a handsome cashmere shawl lying on a chair.

“What is the matter, my poor Manette?” cried he, in a pitying tone. “What are you crying for?”

“Oh, it is nothing, Sir,” said the old woman, wiping her eyes; “there is nothing amiss, indeed.”

“But what are you in tears for?”

“Why I could not help crying while I was telling poor Jeannette’s story to that dear good lady, Madame de ___.”

My readers will easily believe that De M. insisted upon hearing Jeannette’s story, which we shall tell more briefly than Manette did. She was a friend of the old woman, recently left a widow with several small children, reduced by the death of her husband to the greatest distress, she was in danger of perishing for want, when an offer was made her, if she could raise six hundred francs, of going into a business that would support both her and her children creditably. “But,” continued Manette, “where could she raise six hundred francs? Bah! One might as well have asked her a million; and so I said to Madame de__ who found me crying just as Jeannette left me.”

“Don’t say that, Manette,” cried she, “we shall make up the money somehow. I have very little by me now, but I think you could sell this shawl for that, or at any rate for nearly as much, and I will make up the rest,” and before I could say a word, Monsieur, she had thrown off her beautiful shawl, and telling me to do the best I could with it, and to let her know as soon as it was sold, she hurried away just as you came.”

“What an excellent creature!”

“Excellent indeed! I don’t believe there is her equal in the world. Why, Monsieur, though she is young, aye and very pretty and lively too, she thinks of nothing but doing good. You would not believe how sparingly she lives, and how many things she denies herself, that she may have it in her power to assist the unfortunate.”

My readers will not be surprised that De M. bought the shawl, first swearing Manette to secrecy. His next step was to obtain an introduction to Madame de ___, who was still a young and really very petty widow. He declares that he had no other intention of doing so than to form a friendship with a woman of a congenial mind, but—“Friendship with woman is sister to love.”

And so it proved in this case, for within three months the well-assorted pair were united. When he purchased the shawl, it was with the intention of sending it back to her anonymously, but he delayed doing so for some time, lest through it his share of the affair might be discovered, and he lose the pleasure of her acquaintance. When he sent the usual marriage presents, there was no cashmere among them. Whatever the widow thought of the omission, she said nothing about it, but on the very evening before the ceremony was performed, he asked her to choose one, which she did; and this time he had no fault to find with his fiancée on the score of extravagance. The morning after marriage he said to her, as they were seated at breakfast.

“Were you not surprised, chere amie, that you did not sooner receive your cashmere?”

I thought you had forgotten it.”

“No, I delayed out of prudence, that you might not have an opportunity of selling it.”

At these words Amelie’s face became scarlet!

“Dearest! Best beloved!” cried the happy husband, unsealing a packet, and presenting the shawl—“receive again the offering you made to charity; an offering dear and sacred in my eyes, for it has led to a felicity which I despaired of finding—that of a wife whose heart was in perfect unison with my own.”

And so in truth it is, and will I hope remain, notwithstanding that the acquaintance—the female part of it, I mean—of Madame de M. thinks she pays a very bad compliment to her husband’s present; for while his rich cadeau de Noces is seldom seen on her shoulders, she is observed to be excessively fond of a cashmere that she was known to have some time before her second marriage, and which is very inferior to the one De M. presented her with.

The Gloucester [MA] Telegraph 25 December 1841: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  The cashmere shawl, indeed, had the power to transform lives. Mrs Daffodil has written before about the plague carried in a cashmere, and how the Empress Josephine’s life was “saved by a shawl.” We have also seen delectable descriptions of the cadeau de Noces of an aristocratic French bride, in which she tells of her delight that her fiancé was thoughtful enough to give a red-ground cashmere to her dear mamma.

Monsieur de M. is to be congratulated on his good sense in making his adieu so decidedly. Mrs Daffodil shudders to think of what perils would have marked his married life: extravagance, recriminations, forged notes, money-lenders, and, perhaps, scandal, divorce, or even murder. One need only examine the ending chapters of Madame Bovary to see what the harvest might have been, had it not been for a cashmere shawl….

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Cashmere Shawl: 1840

    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      And it breathes–perfect for warm summer evenings. A most versatile fabric. But of course this couple had, to paraphrase the popular song, “their love to keep them warm.” The cashmere was merely a fashionable token of that love.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply

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