Max of the Month 4. When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.
This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from John Bull’s Womankind, published in 1884, which focusses on women in England at the time. O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.
I have many times accompanied ladies to bonnet shops in the West-end, where I have sometimes witnessed very amusing little scenes. I have seen young spinsters of thirty-nine summers, make a pretty shop girl put on all the hats in the shop, and then go to the glass and try them on one after another. The disappointed looks of these poor dears were quite diverting. It is a curious thing, they seemed to say to themselves, making a wry face the while, none of these hats suit me as they do that girl! And with what a mischievous, wicked little smile, those pretty milliners of twenty-five — that pitiless age — said: “Oh! that hat suits you so beautifully!” I admired the angelic patience with which they tried the whole stock of the shop upon those ugly heads. This occupation cannot fail to be often very amusing, and in the evening, on returning home, what funny stories they must have to tell each other!
It was in a fashionable milliner’s shop in New Bond Street. A scarecrow in petticoats had just chosen, after an hour’s hesitation, a sweet little white hat, that a girl of twenty would have thought too childish for herself. Two pretty assistants bowed the lady out with a very grave look, and closed the door. “I think women ought to expire at forty, don’t you?” said one of them to her companion. And the two wicked creatures were near exploding with fun.
Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time. O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women.
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