‘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 a
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‘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 travelled – an ideal arena for one addicted to the concept and the actuality. After Wilder Shores came Around the World in Eighty Dishes, on food and travel, and an edited version of the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, followed in 1960 by her monumental work on the nineteenth-century Caucasian tribes’ epic resistance to imperial Russia, The Sabres of Paradise. In the early 1960s, after she and Gary separated, Lesley Blanch returned from Los Angeles to France and eventually settled on the Riviera, always continuing to write: Under a Lilac - Bleeding Star (collected travel writings), a novel (The Nine-Tiger-Man), Pavilions of the Heart on famous love-nests, a commissioned biography of the Shahbanou of Iran, a biography of the French writer Pierre Loti, more food and travel, and a memoir of Gary published in French. I first devoured Wilder Shores and Mind’s Eye at an impressionable age, found them unforgettable, and returned especially to the latter, before exploring the rest of the oeuvre. It ranges over travel, biography, history and memoir – and food – sometimes combining several or all of these. ‘My book is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category,’ she said, accurately, of Journey into the Mind’s Eye, which has joined the select shelf of travel classics published by Eland Books. She was born ‘a hundred years too late for a person of my backward inclinations’; the nineteenth century is her preferred timescape, and her internal compass has always pointed to the East: to North Africa, Turkey, Asia and, above all, to Russia. The emotional geography she returns to is the mysterious relationship between landscape and the heart. Wilder Shores, her perennial bestseller, is not her favourite, but it is historically significant and has been influential in several respects. Her introduction to the four protagonists sets the tone:
Aimée Dubucq, the gentle, inexperienced convent girl [sold into the Grand Turk’s seraglio] in violent contrast to Isabelle Eberhardt, the chaotic Slav, mystic and voluptuary; Jane Digby, the wealthy, raffish divorcee, loving so many yet always retaining a curious innocence, a romantic idealism; Isabel Arundell, the impoverished Victorian miss, loving with single-minded fury, biding her time, stifled in conventional living [until she married Richard Burton]. All of them responded to a similar inward impulse to which the East offered fulfilment.
Her elegant, racy récitatif of the adventures of the four runaways was irresistible to a generation of female readers deprived by years of postwar retrenchment. For us – my teenage self included –Wilder Shores opened up far horizons and gave to the Middle East and the Islamic world an aura of fascination, planting a seed of curiosity that often bloomed years later. Appearing nearly twenty-five years before Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, it was very much of its era. Yet Said’s representation of Richard Burton as uniquely knowledgeable of Oriental cultures, and reduced to the role of ‘imperial scribe’ by officialdom, is not so far from Lesley Blanch’s ‘caged lion’. Her descriptions of North Africa have a visceral realism. And the impulse to forge links across cultures and centuries is surely preferable to the baffled conflict we see today.
Wilder Shores hardly needed high-octane marketing to give it mass appeal. It was ‘historical’, but the text positively vibrated with the energy and éclat of fiction. If her tales were ‘romantic’ according to the loose contemporary usage (though the reality of the Grand Turk’s seraglio and Eberhardt’s surreal desert drowning are hardly the stuff of sweet dreams), the telling was Romantic in the nineteenth-century sense, offering ‘a more picturesque, original, free, and imaginative style in literature and art’ (as defined by Chambers). Meanwhile a distinctive voice had emerged, powerful enough to soar into headier flights yet which knew exactly when to puncture them: witty, psychologically astute and utterly without sentiment. ‘So loving a nature’, Lesley Blanch remarks crisply of Isabel and Richard Burton, ‘must have been an especial pleasure for him to torment.’ The text sparkles with aperçus about her female adventurers, their impulse to travel, and their commitment to loving. Isabel Burton: ‘Man and land were identified.’ Richard Burton: ‘There speaks the escapist, but traveller and escapist have much in common.’ Jane Digby: ‘There are two sorts of romantics: those who love, and those who love the adventure of loving.’ Isabelle Eberhardt: ‘It was an elective affinity: “I wanted to possess this country,” she wrote, “and this country as possessed me.”’ Each comment offers perceptive insight into character and motivation; and arguably, each could apply with equal accuracy to Lesley Blanch herself.Wilder Shores spoke also to a more specialized readership: its author had uncovered a rich seam of inspiration for other writers. Its publication struck gold, starting a rush to mine the lives of omen travellers in full-length biographies, whose research would supersede those of Wilder Shores. Meanwhile for Lesley Blanch the territory, the tone, the character of her writing had been established. She was launched on the trajectory which had taken her through early years as an artist/illustrator, via journalism to a new medium, which allowed her creative self to explore and reinvent the exotic landscapes and past eras that had possessed her imagination since childhood, and the lives of the historical figures with whom she passionately empathized. The choice of subject matter is esoteric and unerring – look at the gallery of turbulent individualists assembled in these five reissued books. Her instinctive choice seems to lie with the outsider: the reckless, high-spirited courtesan (Harriette Wilson), the bolter (Jane Digby), the travellers driven by demonic restlessness to leave society behind them (the Burtons, Isabelle Eberhardt). She is intrigued by escape and subversion, by fantasy and disguise (Loti, Richard Bu rton). Her protagonists favour action, emotion, passionate exile over professional exploration. On the other hand she is fascinated by leadership and the trappings of power, as in her portraits of the Tsar of all the Russias and Shamyl, autocratic tribal leader, in The Sabres of Paradise. (Though even Shamyl turns out to be something of a mountebank, who would stage a spectacular performance for the sake of political or military victory.) The Sabres of Paradise recounts in particular the extended duel between Shamyl and Nicholas I for supremacy in the mountains of Daghestan, against the broader nineteenth-century history of the troubled Caucasus. As Philip Marsden’s informative new Preface explains, its historical context offers an eloquent comment on Chechnya today: ‘In truth Imam Shamyl’s war never really ended. It was merely stifled by Russian power. Whenever that power weakened . . . the peoples of the Eastern Caucasus became restive.’ Aside from its startling historical prescience, Sabres is a spellbinding feat of storytelling, combining the elements that attract Lesley Blanch most. The setting is exotic, the subject spectacular and intriguingly remote, the protagonists larger than life. Shamyl was the spiritual and absolute ruler of the Murids (holy warriors) and tribes people of his mountainous domain. He stood six foot three inches tall, was fearless in guerrilla warfare, a wily negotiator with allies and enemies, and attentive to his wives and cats. A dramatic escape earned him a legend for invincibility, reinforced by his religious status as a prophet, and a fanatical following that routed a succession of the Tsar’s armies. When he finally surrendered after decades of savage fighting, he was sent into exile; but such was his heroic standing even with his enemy that Russian crowds waited at every railway station to cheer him on his way. When Sabres was published Rebecca West commented that it was a book no one but Lesley Blanch could have written. Reading it with Mind’s Eye, we see it was indeed the perfect vehicle for her to express the consuming involvement with all things Russian that had absorbed her since childhood. In preparing the book she tracked d own Sh a m y l’s descendants beside the Bosporus and nearthed astonishing contemporary eyewitness accounts. But its foundation is Russian literature; here is distilled her voracious early reading of the classics, notably Lermontov and Tolstoy who both fell under the spell of the Caucasus while serving as soldiers there. Pushkin, Herzen , Alexander Dumas, Bestoujev and many others contribute as sources. The influence of nineteenth-century novelists and poets is not coincidental. Like all Lesley Blanch’s work this is no conventional history. Her aim is less to record than to bring to life, and the key to her achievement is the outstanding visual imagination and dramatic flair which she uses literally to recreate scenes that surge up from the pages. Her tour de force is the exchange of hamyl’s son Djemmal-Eddin, completely Russianized after growing up as a hostage in Nicholas I’s entourage, for two Georgian princesses and their household held captive for months in Shamyl’s spartan mountain eyrie. Slowly the hostages, passing each other, cross sides, guarded by massed Russian troops in glittering uniforms on one side and 5,000 black-robed Murids on horseback on the other. At a pivotal point in the war, Lesley Blanch reaches her narrative climax in this magnificent scene. ‘The flavour and tempo of an age are reflected in many ways: in the curve of a corset, a taste in wines, the argot of a moment,’ Lesley Blanch argues in her extended introduction to Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs. ‘Such trivialities conjure an epoch as sharply as historic headlines.’ This effectively defines her way of building atmosphere in all her books but above all in her two ‘Russian’ works. In Sabres a mass of detail – the surreal jangling of barrel organs in the tribesmen’s mountain fort resses; the hot ginger-and-honey swigged by fro zen coach drivers in St Petersburg; Prince Potemkin’s greasy, ink-spotted dressing-gown lined with ermine – is stitched into a sumptuous picture, now panoramic, now close-up, of a past era, an unfamiliar region and conflict. Landscape is paramount, as always in her work. The protagonists are actually defined by their terrain: ‘The icy marble regularity and magnificence of St Petersburg was embodied in Nicholas I; while Shamyl’s violent nature, at once exotic and harsh, was reflected in the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus.’ Sometimes one suspects the dramatic play of events may be merely an excuse for the author to inhabit these distant mountains. There is even a circular process of identification: in a compelling digression Lesley Blanch describes the heightened perception of Lermontov, painter and writer like herself, in the act of description: ‘The texture of the land, the world around him dazzled him, intoxicated him, so that we sense in his verses, a sort of drunken joy in an earthly paradise seen by an exile: something which he could not possess, but which he craved . . .’ Other books and many events intervened before Journey into the Mind’s Eye was written, but that preoccupation, that longing, remained. Here are the opening sentences of this beguiling, uncategorizable work of art: ‘I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands. That grip as never lessened. For me, the love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here. This book is the story of my obsession . . .’ The unlikely source of the force that came to direct her life, as she tells it, was an egg-bald, Tartar-featured Russian friend of her parents, k n own only as The Traveller, whose jinn-like comings and goings were possibly those of a spy. His visits to the little girl’s nursery filled her with longing for the faraway places he described: above all for the snowy wastes of Siberia and the great Trans-Siberian railway that in her mind’s eye thundered through the house. He called her Douchinka, Pussinka moiya, Rocokoshka, Stupiditchka, and seduced the ardent 17-year-old English Miss on a train to Dijon, stand-in for the Trans-Siberian. After an idyllic summer in Corsica with her, two of his neglected sons and an aunt from Montenegro, he vanished. Mourning his loss, she transferred her longings into ‘this hallucinatory vision of someone else’s Russia which I wished for my own’. So the changeling obsession expanded into full-blown possession. The young Lesley ‘collected’ Russian friends and lovers, ‘flung’ herself into Russia’s galvanic history, devoured its literature, explored its unfashionable narrative paintings. Theatre, music, folk tales, décor were absorbed; bemused admirers fed with pickled fish and kasha to the searing strains of peasant songs. ‘All the same, you really are far too Slav for me,’ her friend Feodor Komisarjevsky, the émigré theatre director, complained as she set off to Orthodox mass. Fact or fiction – where are we, and does it matter? Journey into the Mind’s Eye is a shimmering web of images and impressions of Russia, lovingly squirrelled away, to be transformed and polished decades later. Against this tapestry of past and present – the doomed Decembrists of 1825 as real to her as the 1930s industrial achievements she politely admires on a visit to Soviet Moscow and Leningrad – she ranges as protagonists herself and The Traveller, then Russia itself, as elusive love object. Like Pierre Loti, she summons up her longed-for landscape, and places herself in it. You, the reader, follow her picaresque path, through marriage to the Free French airman from Russian East Europe and the peripatetic diplomatic life, and finally, after the marriage to Gary is over, to the solitary epic ride on the Trans-Siberian which carries her to the end of her journey. You have finished a bewitchingly comic, desperately poignant story of grand passion; but cumulative l y, you have also read a fine book about Russia. This is Lesley Blanch’s magic. As a grateful professional diplomat commented, reading up on Russia before departing for its Asian borders, Journey into the Mind’s Eye was for him the key to that vast entity as Out of Africa is to Africa. Finally there is her biography of Pierre Loti, now reissued as Travels with the Legendary Romantic: sublime, absurd Loti whose evocations of wilder shores and ill-fated loves were hugely popular at the turn of the century . . . Mais hélas, quel désespoir!, as he might sigh, the editors have run out of pages, so Lesley Blanch’s Loti must wait.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Anne Boston 2004
About the contributor
Anne Boston is a writer and editor, travels whenever possible, and is currently preparing a biography of Lesley Blanch.