September 3, 2010

Lesley Blanche’s wilder shores

When the writer Lesley Blanch died in 2007, just a month short of her 103rd birthday, the world lost a formidable literary ornament.
Something about the intellectual climate of the early 20th century proved especially favorable to the flourishing of literary women. Many forgotten now, it was their personality, their capacity for self-invention, intrigue and, sometimes, invective, that made them so enthralling. Shades of Violet Trefusis, Louise de Vilmorin and their like haunt the indexes of the biographies of more substantial literary figures, creatures of fantasy, glamour and, quite often, ridicule.

Blanch outlived the lot of them, and by surviving so long contrived to stage-manage her own myth until almost no one was left to contradict it. Her unofficial biographer, the journalist Anne Boston, notes ruefully that her “biographobic” subject recoiled from authorizing anyone else to write an account of her life. “She wanted to be left to the portrait that was truer, rather than real, which no one could do better than herself.” “My account,” Boston adds, “is more real than true, in the manner of conventional biography.”

But Lesley Blanch's big personality is just icing. As “The Wilder Shores of Love” attests, she was a very good writer with a gift for telling remarkable stories, many of them probably true. And she was the ideal writer to profile four 19th century women who defied convention and went off to make fresh starts in North Africa and the Middle East. Or, as she called them, “four northern shadows flitting across a southern landscape.”

Her focus was as exotic as her prose: “love as a means of individual expression, of liberation and fulfillment within that radiant periphery.” Her women were not head-in-the-stars about love; they were “realists of romance.” And the book works brilliantly because, though the lives of Blanch's women were only superficially similar, their priorities were the same -breathing the oxygen that was only available on the wilder shores of love.

painting Cy Twombly

Isabel Burton: Blanch chose her because she was “the supreme example of a woman who lived and had her being entirely through love.” From the minute she saw them, she craved the East and the famous Victorian traveler, Richard Burton. (He spoke 28 languages. Blanch writes, one of them pornography.) Once she got him, their lives became a Greek drama: She colonized him and destroyed him, and, in the process, destroyed herself. But to what astonishing heights destruction took them --- Isabel worked tirelessly on Richard's behalf and, more or less singlehandedly, turned him into a celebrity. “I have undertaken a very peculiar man,” she wrote in the early days of the marriage. He could have said the same: She traveled with 59 trunks, stayed for days in harems, and, meeting her wayward husband by chance in Venice, said hello and shook his hand.

Jane Digby: “She smashed all the taboos of her time,” Blanch writes. “Hers was a life lived entirely against the rules, reasons and warnings, and it was triumphantly happy.” You may disagree --- Digby experienced the ultimate tragedy when her beloved six-year-old son slid down a balcony, miscalculated and fell to his death at her feet. But the rest? One fabulous love affair after another, culminating in the marriage to Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. Jane was always a great horsewoman; now she mastered dromedaries, and often raced at the head of a Bedouin tribe. She prepared her husband's food, stood as he ate, washed his feet. And the outcome? She never became old. “Admiration and love,” Blanch notes, “are the best beauty treatments.”

Aimée Dubucq de Rivery: Romantic? How's this: captured by pirates, flung into a harem and enslaved. Her first sight in her new life in Turkey was “a great pyramid of heads, some so newly severed that they reeked and steamed with blood. ” She became “the French Sultana,” the mother of Sultan Mahmoud II (who helped create modern Turkey) and a force for freedom and justice -quite the tale.

Isabelle Eberhardt: She dressed as a man. She turned Arab. A Russian, she converted to Islam and died --- actually: drowned --- in the desert. “She adored her insignificant husband, but her sensual adventures were without number,” Blanch writes, matter-of-factly. “Her behavior was outrageous; she drank, she smoked hashish, but déclassée, she remained racée.” No one who met her ever forgot her. You won't either.

Subjects and author rarely had been better matched. For despite her sympathies with travel and romantic adventure, Lesley Blanch was a serious writer. She worked hard from a young age, first as a book illustrator, then as Features Editor of British Vogue. Over her career, she wrote 18 books, all in longhand. The combination of a good education, intense research, remarkable subjects, and a vivid style is irresistible - “Wilder Shores” has never been out of print since its publication in 1954.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich