‘Her whole life was spent riding at breakneck speed towards the wilder shores of love.’ Lesley Blanch’s memorable description of Jane Digby el Mezrab supplied the title of her first book and her contribution to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; it has passed into the language, and places the writer definitively in her chosen emotional and geographical landscape. Saturated with movement and high drama, the image is outlandish, exotic, flagrantly romantic, with a hint of opéra bouffe.
The Wilder Shores of Love – Lesley Blanch’s ‘brief lives’ of four nineteenth-century women who found love and fulfilment in the Orient – met instant international success when it was first published exactly fifty years ago. Fifty years later, its umpteenth reissue coincided with pleasing symmetry with her hundredth birthday in June. The welcome, overdue revival of four more, indeed the finest, of her twelve books allows us to see how in her writing as well as in her life Lesley Blanch is sui generis.
A kind of spell has been cast over Lesley Blanch’s early past by her haunting ‘fragments of an autobiography’, Journey into the Mind’s Eye, of which more later. She has lived abroad since 1946, when she left London to accompany her naturalized French husband Romain Gary to his first diplomatic posting in Bulgaria. They had met and married in wartime London, where he was stationed with the Free French airforce. He had just finished his first book which launched him in France as a writer; she had just left Vogue after seven years as its star feature writer, and enthusiastically ‘plunged’ (favourite Blanchism) with him into a nomadic life of diplomacy and writing in Sofia, Paris, Berne, New York and Los Angeles. She travelled widely meanwhile, and her pieces on the Balkans, Mexico and North Africa for The Cornhill Magazine evolved into writing about travellers , and writers who travelle
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