YOUR FLOWER IS FADING – Extract from The Strange Affair of Madeleine Smith

  19 Aug '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

It was a case that rocked Victorian society. Emile L’Angelier was a working-class immigrant from the Channel Islands who began a clandestine affair with prominent Glasgow socialite Madeleine Smith. Six weeks after Emile threatened to show Madeleine’s father their passionate letters, on 23 March 1857, he was found dead from arsenic poisoning. This extract from THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF MADELELINE SMITH examines the possible first meeting of Madeleine and Emile, and documents the first of their letters, beginning a correspondence that shocked the sensibilities of Victorian society.

History is silent on the subject of when Emile L’Angelier first saw Madeleine Smith. Her family occasionally made outings to the Botanic Garden, although he may have first seen her among the throng of busy shoppers on Sauchiehall Street, one of Glasgow’s main shopping districts. Regardless of where and when the encounter took place, he was instantly attracted to her, and his former habit of relentlessly pursuing a specific young lady resurfaced.

As Madeleine was a member of one of Glasgow’s most prominent families, it would have been easy for Emile to discover who she was. Even the lower classes, who never actually had dealings with the Smiths, would know them by sight. Once aware of her identity, most other men would have seen the impossibility of forming a relationship with a young lady of such social standing, and would have gone off in other pursuits. But Emile was not like most other men. Once able to attach a name to her attractive face, he began to search for a way to speak to her.

The strict rules of Victorian society forbade a man from simply walking up and speaking with a lady—he needed to be introduced by a mutual acquaintance. As Emile and Madeleine were several levels apart on the social strata, the chances of them knowing someone in common was slight, and it took Emile many weeks to find such a connection. He eventually discovered that a co-worker had two nephews, Charles and Robert Baird, who were acquainted with the Smith family. With his goal firmly in mind, Emile soon arranged to be invited to the Baird family home on Royal Crescent. Once in their company, Emile set about trying to enlist the help of one or both of the brothers in introducing him to Madeleine. Emile found Charles, the elder of the two, too shrewd to work with, so he concentrated his efforts on seventeen-year-old Robert. Emile boldly proposed that he should be the go-between, but Robert felt hesitant and asked his uncle, Emile’s co-worker, to do the introduction. The uncle, not knowing the Smith family himself, refused. Emile then suggested that Robert ask his mother to arrange a dinner to which both Madeleine and Emile would be invited. The mother, finding this an odd request, also refused. Undaunted, Emile continued devising ways to meet the dark-haired young lady.

Fortune intervened one day in late February or early March of 1855, as Emile and Robert were walking together down Sauchiehall Street and saw Madeleine and another young lady go into Paterson’s draper’s shop. Emile told Robert to go inside and bring Madeleine out and introduce her to him. If Robert was reluctant, Emile eventually coerced him; and so, on a chilly day in the spring of 1855, Madeleine and the other young lady, her sister, Bessie, came out onto the steps of Paterson’s, and the two sisters met the handsome dark-haired gentleman with the slight accent. It is not recorded what conversation passed between them, but Emile must have made a strong impression on young Madeleine. Soon after their introduction, the two met in bookstores and other public places, and occasionally walked together along the streets of Glasgow. Emile once handed Bessie a note to be given to Madeleine.

The days became warmer and the Smith family left Glasgow for their summer home of Rowaleyn. Mr Smith stayed in Glasgow when necessary for his business, but joined the family at Row whenever he could. Social calls during the summer months occasionally required the entire family to return to Glasgow for a brief interval.

From Rowaleyn, Madeleine sent Emile the first in what would become an enormous volume of letters.

My Dear Emile,

I do not feel as if I were writing you for the first time. Though our intercourse has been very short, yet we have become as familiar friends. May we long continue so. And ere long, may you be a friend of Papa’s—that is my most earnest desire. We feel it rather dull here after the excitement of a town’s life. But then, we now have much more time to devote to study and improvement. I often wish you were near us. We could take such charming walks. One enjoys walking with a pleasant companion, and where could we find one equal to yourself? I am trying to break myself of all my very bad habits—it is you I have to thank for this, which I do sincerely from my heart.

Your flower is fading.

I never cast a flower away,

The gift of one who cared for me.

A little flower, a faded flower,

but it was done reluctantly.’

I wish I understood botany for your sake, as I might send you some specimens of moss. But alas, I know nothing of that study. We shall be in town next week. We are going to the Ball on the 20th of this month, so we will be several times in Glasgow before that. Papa and Mama are not going to town next Sunday. So, of course, you must not come to Row. We shall not expect you.

Bessie desires me to remember her to you.

Write on Wednesday or Thursday.

I must now say adieu.

With kind love, believe me, yours very sincerely,


Madeleine’s letters to Emile have always proved problematic for her biographers. Many are undated or dated solely by the day of the week. Her use of lengthy phrases of endearment was excessive, her handwriting was difficult to read, and her punctuation was lazy. Her final letter to Emile, in fact, contained no punctuation whatsoever. Often, when she finished a page, she would turn the paper sideways and write over what she had already written, instead of using a clean sheet. Her letters are integral for providing an in-depth character study of Madeleine (and, to a lesser extent, of Emile), and are presented herein in what appears to be the correct chronological order, although they have been slightly edited for brevity and to avoid repetition.

From her first letter, two themes that would indelibly mark their entire relationship were already firmly in place: Emile’s attempts to mould Madeleine into a creature of his design, by correcting all of her ‘bad habits’—and the strict scheduling of when they could and could not meet face to face. Arrangements for the latter would become increasingly complex and deceitful as time went on.

Douglas MacGowan was born in Chicago in 1963 and has lived in California since 1968. He received a Bachelor of Public Administration degree from the University of San Francisco in 1988 and has contributed articles to the Scottish Journal, The Scotsman and Celtic Heritage. He has been married for ten years and currently lives on the San Francisco peninsula with his wife, far too many cats and one dog.

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