Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The fall and rise of Mimi

I've been doing a lot of reading lately on Glasgow and particularly on notable women in Glasgow. It's fascinating stuff!

Many people are aware of the story of Madeleine Smith. I'd know about her since a school trip to the Black Museum in Glasgow's Pitt Street police office when I was at school, and from an old Ladykillers episode on TV. But I only knew the basic story of the 22 year old socialite from Blythswood Square who was tried for the murder of her lover in 1857.

She was the grandaughter of one of Glasgow's most notable architects, who was also much loved by his employees & peers. Her father, also an architect, was wealthy with a town house in Blythswood Square and a country home in Helensburgh. Yet this well brought up girl started an affair with apprentice nurseryman, Pierre Emile L'Angelier,  from the Channel Islands, an affair she tried to keep secret due to their differences in station. They met at her bedroom window, and although rarely alone she lost her virginity to him and carried on the relationship for two years. Meanwhile her parents, oblivious to the relationship found her a more appropriate suitor whom she became engaged to. When she tried to end things with Emile and asked for her many letters to be returned he threatened to use them to expose her and force her into marriage to him. A month later he died of arsenic poisoning. Her letters were found in his rooms connecting her to him, and to damn her further she'd been seen buying arsenic in the weeks preceding his death. She was arrested for muder,

The trial was a scandal. The detailed love letters to L'Angelier from his 'Mimi' were judged too shocking to be read out in full in court and her calm, cool demeanour remarked on. However public feeling was with her at the time, believing her wronged. The verdict was Not Proven as the evidence was circumstantial, they'd never been seen together for one thing. But did she do it? Soon after her lawyer said he'd rather dance with her than dine with her. But there have been various books released since researching the crime, some vindicating her.

After her release she moved down to London to get away from the notoriety and to spare her family who must have suffered terribly. She met and married George Wardle, with the blessing of her father who supplied a dowry and attended the wedding.

Now this was the part I didn't know. George Wardle was an artist, who became William Morris' business manager and was a friend of Phillip Webb who designed the famous Red House. Madeleine (now going by the name of Lena), as a skilled needlewoman, possibly herself worked with Jane Morris who was encouraged by her husband to gather a company of women to work on his embroidery designs. Her new social circle included the young Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and she entertained her bohemiam friends in her new home in Bloomsbury. It has been suggested she even modelled for Rossetti at some point as Mary Magdalene. No doubt her past gave her added character and interest that she would not otherwise have had.

Over time her marriage fell apart and she struggled by with the support of her husbands relatives until at the age of 70 she followed her son to America. When her husband died in Plymouth in 1910 she married a man several years her junior, whom she'd probably been living with prior to that. Despite occasional press interest she kept her past relatively quiet and Lena Wardle Sheehy died in New York in 1928 aged 93.

We'll never know whether or not she killed Emile, but in many ways she was a remarkable woman who was not constrained by the times she lived in. She carried on and lived a full and interesting life rather than disappearing into obscurity. It's hard to work out her character, she appears to have been rather selfish and manipulative but certainly self-possessed and strong enough to weather the publicity and notoriety. It seems her family had a harder time dealing with it. I find her rather fascinating, if not exactly likeable.

So what has this to do with corsets you ask.... well maybe nothing, but just wait and see!

An interesting article here:
And the author of a book on the subject has a site here:


  1. Fascinating! What a life... Can't wait to learn more bits of history whilst you get further and further into this project :-D

  2. What's really interesting, and I didn't include it above, is that there were several testimonies saying Emile L'Angelier had a history of suicide threats relating to failed (often golddigging) romances and also recommended the taking of Arsenic for the complexion (he was rather vain) and all well before meeting Madeleine.
    I must get one of the books on her, I'd like to know more.