On the Wilder Shores of love
A Bohemian Life, Lesley Blanch, edited by Georgia de Chamberet, published by Virago at £20; Published in Country Life, January 2015
Lesley Blanch was an English original, who like many of the breed, actually preferred to live in southern France. She was occasionally compared with such iconic British female travelers as Lady Hester Stanhope, Freya Stark or Jane Digby, but in truth she cut her own, very distinctive path. Over a long life, she proved that she could swim in any waters; whether reigning as the consort of the French Cultural Consul in Hollywood, travelling alone in Soviet Siberia, befriending her husband's ex-mistress (a charming spy) in very Cold-War Bulgaria, working in the court of the Shah of Iran, or surviving off her wits as a young journalist-cum set-designer-cum book illustrator in the glitteringly amoral years of 20s and 30’s London. She even flourished in the cut-throat world of Vogue, briefly marrying a man in advertising lured by the beauty of his Thameside house.
She wrote many books and articles over her long and productive life, which include three influential works. The Wilder Shores of Love is her most famous and best selling work, a biographical portrait of four 19th -century women finding fulfillment in the East. The Sabres of Paradise was the story of Shamyl, a Saladin-like figure, who was the great warrior who led the doomed Muslim resistance to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus. Journey into the Minds Eye is an enchanting memoir about her lifelong love affair with Russia, Russian writers and Russian men. But arguably her greatest creation was ‘darling self’, a totally captivating women, sensual but intellectual, a feminist before her time, but one who delighted in the company of men and took sex as a pleasure untainted by shame. Lesley Blanch was also passionate about good manners, conversation, letter-writing, books, textiles, ceramics and the proper preparation of food, but her greatest and most rewarding life-long love affair was with literature, most especially that of Russia. In her company, the Aksakov family literally came alive, as did Oblomov on his sofa, or the adventures of Gogol’s Nose, or the Herzen family in exile, alongside the more familiar litany of the great classics wriiten by Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Checkov, Pushkin and Lermentov. She did not care for children, air-conditioning or computers but was an enthusiastic lover of cats and train journeys and a great exponent of the art of travelling heavy and the charms of the junk shop and the carpet bazaar.
But despite working as a biographer herself, she did not, especially towards the end of her long life, care to be dissected by the pen of another. Eviscerated and pinned to the wall, like a butterfly. Her friends were well aware of this pact of silence, which we broke at our peril. My wife, who had once foolishly spoken about wishing to write a memoir about her, was put in cold Coventry for years, but was forgiven enough to be seated beside Lesley at her hundredth birthday luncheon party, with tables set amidst the shade of ancient trees of a grand old English Rivierra garden that looked out over the Big Blue Sea, the pair of them talking as ever, with equal passion about all things Russian. Fortunately when it came to things Islamic, Saharan and Levantine, my enthusiasms also touched with that of Lesley Blanch, and she also greatly approved of my biography of the Prophet Muhammad (one of her heroes) and my habit of bringing appropriate gifts, such as an old silk chapan from Central Asia, when we visited.
The only person trusted to be her Boswell was her beloved god-daughter, Georgia de Chamberet, who patiently typed-up memories, and made copies of various letters and old articles every time she visited. It was a work in slow progress, which allowed Lesley to repel all potential biographers and Georgia to keep a protective eye over her revered old friend. The resulting memoir, only now published ten years after her death is a work of loving devotion and a true reflection of Lesley Blanch in her own words, always interesting, always flirtatiously alive, always passionate – but also highly selective. We have an affectionate and convincing portrait of a lonely Edwardian childhood in the suburbs of West London and a determined artistic Slavophile emerging from out of the academic hot-house of St Pauls. The years of restless creativity and casual love affairs are represented by a sheath of articles, reviews and features, to give a full blast of Lesley’s polished rococo charm and eclectic taste. But the sizzling heart of the book is contained in pages 223 to 312, which contains the story of her marriage to Romain Gary, the award-winning French novelist, Free-French fighter and diplomat. It is an extraordinary tale, for they both lived life with an inflammatory zeal and restless, fiery energy. It has never been published in English, and reveals how much they learnt from each other, how much they both achieved, how much they punished each other.
I now look with renewed respect, at the Anatolian carpet for our office and the voluminous black velvet kaftan she left us in her will, stylish and forceful to the end.
Back to Reviews page
by Barnaby Rogerson