Snippets 151. In Lord Byron’s Don Juan there is a puzzling verse:
The milliners who furnish “drapery Misses”
Throughout the season, upon speculation
Of payment ere the honey-moon’s last kisses
Have waned into a crescent’s coruscation,
Thought such an opportunity as this is,
Of a rich foreigner’s initiation,
Not to be overlook’d – and give such credit
That future bridegrooms swore, and sigh’d, and paid it.
So what are “drapery misses?” An article from the Glasgow Evening Citizen might shed some light on this, from 27th May 1870:
A French journalist, M. Bertrand, has discovered a new profession which, it is interesting to know, is pursued in London. He calls it a strange, eccentric profession – “bizarre” is his own word – and, as regards its characterisation, he is not far wrong. It consists, M. Bertrand explains, in picking our pretty young girls of low station, washing them, dressing them like young ladies, giving them a few lessons in deportment, manners, and the art of speaking English, and then exhibiting them in the parks, public gardens, and theatres, until they attrack the attention and gain the heart, and ultimately the hand, of some rich man. “Little by little” we are told “the poetic illusions of the honeymoon disappear until at last the husband discovers that he has married a girl without position or education. So much the worse! But in the meanwhile the bargain has been struck, and the matrimonial agent has pocketed his premium. These improvised young ladies are, it appears, called “drapery misses”.
This is all a bit puzzling. How, exactly, would the “matrimonial agent” pocket “his premium”? The exchange of dowry was commonplace in the Victorian era, but it worked in the other direction. The bride’s parents were the ones expected to stump up some money. This idea of “drapery misses” would tend to suggest the opposite, known in some societies as “brideprice”. But that’s not really a British phenomenon. In fact, it was very difficult for a penniless young lady to climb the social ladder by marriage, due to the dowry system. Perhaps the clue is in Byron’s mention of a “rich foreigner”, bringing different customs, or maybe it was simply a confidence trick, finding a way to string the potential groom along and somehow extract money from him for expenses associated with the marriage. Or perhaps after marriage the new bride would find ways to make payment to the scammer, using her husband’s money. If anyone has any insight into how this might have all worked in practice, please make use of the comments section.
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