LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
Magdalen turned, and confronted Mrs. Lecount. She had expected—founding her anticipations on the letter which the housekeeper had written to her—to see a hard, wily, ill-favoured, insolent old woman. She found herself in the presence of a lady of mild, ingratiating manners, whose dress was the perfection of neatness, taste, and matronly simplicity, whose personal appearance was little less than a triumph of physical resistance to the deteriorating influence of time. If Mrs. Lecount had struck some fifteen or sixteen years off her real age, and had asserted herself to be eight-and-thirty, there would not have been one man in a thousand, or one woman in a hundred, who would have hesitated to believe her. Her dark hair was just turning to gray, and no more. It was plainly parted under a spotless lace cap, sparingly ornamented with mourning ribbons… Her large black eyes might have looked fierce if they had been set in the face of another woman, they were mild and melting in the face of Mrs. Lecount; they were tenderly interested in everything she looked at—in Magdalen, in the toad on the rock-work, in the back-yard view from the window; in her own plump fair hands,—which she rubbed softly one over the other while she spoke; in her own pretty cambric chemisette, which she had a habit of looking at complacently while she listened to others…
The housekeeper listened to the praise of her domestic virtues with eyes immovably fixed on her elegant chemisette…
So it’s a filler, to make your neckline or décolleté more respectable, pretty much fulfilling the role of a camisole today. And sometimes the chemisette really only consisted of a front, tied on, and that it could be called a tucker, as in the phrase ‘best bib and tucker’, which is more or less the same thing as the dickey in the definition.
So there you go. Still don’t know why Mrs Lecount stared at it so much. In the rather rough morality of the book, Mrs L is a baddy – she correctly infers who Magdalen is and what she is up to, and she tries to thwart her. She is a worthy opponent for the splendid Captain Wragge, and must be almost unique in Victorian literature: she isn’t seen as particularly scholarly or a bluestocking, but she is knowledgeable about science, and Captain Wragge mugs up on scientific facts in order to attract her interest and impress her. It is hard to think of any other female characters for whom science talk would be a distraction, and who know more than the men around them. She also keeps an aquarium in her room containing fish, reptiles and amphibians (to Magdalen’s horror) – hence the toad above.
Captain Wragge is a wonderful character, with his ‘dash of humour’ and his complete lack of morals, very amusing and entertaining, and Magdalen is a remarkable heroine. The fake identity they build for themselves is hilariously thorough: ‘[your imaginary father] is buried on the south-west side of the local cemetery in Honduras with a neat monument of native wood carved by a self-taught negro artist. Nineteen months afterward his widow died of apoplexy at a boarding-house in Cheltenham.’
The portrait of a lady is Countess Bucquoi by Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun, wearing a chemisette. The other picture is a chemisette from a costume collection.
There have been several other entries on this book: click on the label below.