Emotion and daring: remembering Lesley Blanch

Philip Mansel

Filed under: Biography

Philip Mansel remembers Lesley Blanch - RSL Review 2008.

Few women writers have led as eventful a life as Lesley Blanch. Philip Mansel remembers her

Born in London in 1904, Lesley Blanch, who died in the south of France in 2007, must have been the last English writer to remember people wearing mourning for Edward VII. After her parents ran out of money, she had to live on her wits and her husbands. In 1938, helped by an article calledAgainst Beige. In Praise of the Scarlet Woman, she became features editor of Vogue, when it was much more literary than it is today. Anne Scott-James knew her in those years. She  wrote that Lesley looked like ‘a baroque angel’, and was ‘One of the most gifted and charming women I ever met.’  Her flat ‘like everything about Lesley…had charm,  goodness she had charm’. Even in extreme old age, visitors to her Menton eyrie, or friends who telephoned, felt not drained but stimulated.

As her books defy conventional categories of biography, travel or cookery, her conversation defied ordinary limits of time and space: it ranged from her husband Romain Gary’s qualities as a writer (‘Romain was not a disciplined writer but he had wonderful ideas and sometimes wrote wonderful stories’) to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor(‘Wallis was a very nice person and I don’t care what they say he was very intelligent’); from Sultan Qaboos of Oman, whom she admired, to the Soviet Union, which she regretted. She said: ‘I don’t belong in England, I don’t belong anywhere, it is rather restful…I have met everybody and known nobody.’ She preferred Muslim countries to western ones, and animals to people. Cats, she said, had given her more affection than humans. Dining by the Bosphorus one evening she heard cries coming from the water. When told a dog was drowning, she urged her host to jump in and save it. On learning that it was a man, she cried: ‘Oh, let him drown!’

At a party in 1944 she met the dashing young Free French aviator Romain Gary. They exchanged ‘those stealthy glancing appraisals which seal or shatter a first meeting’. He became her third husband. Thereafter she travelled where his diplomatic career, or her books, took her, to Paris, New York, California, the Caucasus or Afghanistan. Wherever she was, she remained very English. Sitting next to a handsome Nile boatman, she wore a scarf tied in a knot under her neck. It was her knowledge of English literature, of Dryden, Blake, Dickens and Thackeray – acquired, as was usual in those days, at her mother’s knee – which helped form her own allusive style. Her books confirmed her own remark  that ‘the English for all their seeming reserve…display in their literature the most ardent emotions, the most lyric tenderness, and the most profound understanding of love in all its aspects’.  Her speciality was to show the effects of countries on emotions, and of public events on private lives. None of her books was commissioned, except for a life of the Empress of Iran, published in the year of the Iranian revolution.

Her first book The Wilder Shores of Love (1954), describes four women – Jane Digby, Isabel Burton, Aimee Dubucq and Isabelle Eberhardt –  who found in the Muslim East ‘glowing horizons of emotion and daring which were for them now vanishing from the West’. It was translated into twelve languages, has never been out of print and gave Romain Gary a nervous breakdown.

The Muslim world also provided the setting for The Sabres of Paradise(1960), which describes  Muslim resistance to the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, led  from 1834 to 1861 by Imam Shamyl of Daghestan ‘at once warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, foxy and innocent, chivalrous and ruthless’. The conflict between ‘the muskets of the Tsar’ and ‘the sabres of paradise’ (then completely forgotten) appealed to Lesley Blanch’s taste for an extravagant emotional climate. She begins with the sentence: ‘The Caucasians wrote love-letters to their daggers, as to a mistress, and went to battle, as to a rendezvous.’

Journey into the Mind’s Eye (1968) has another memorable beginning: ‘I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands. That grip has never lessened.’ It is a love letter to Russia and to one Russian, known as the Traveller. Half Slav, half Tartar, possibly a Soviet agent, he had ‘dark slit eyes, pointed ears and a Chinese-bald skull’. His ‘slight yet cruel smile…spoke of…the limitless horizons of central Asia where he roamed in spirit and in fact.’ They had an affair. He returned to Russia.. She never saw him again.

Some of the Traveller’s epigrams still hold true: ‘Always explore a new town on an empty stomach. It sharpens the vision’; ‘Forget monuments, look at daily life first…it was this which made the men and the events which the monuments commemorate’; ‘It is not the conventions which are too strong. It is we who are too weak.’

She had the courage to write from the heart: ‘if we seek, and are aware we have missed the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time, then we live out our lives unfulfilled. In the words of an eastern proverb: we die with our eyes open – we cannot rest; even in death we are still looking for it.’ One reason she fell in love with  Romain Gary was his resemblance to the Traveller.

Round the World in 80 Dishes (1955) and From Wilder Shores: the Tables of My Travels (1989) are travel books, as well as cookbooks, drawing on experiences when she was living in a state of perpetual motion, barely staying longer at home than to pack and unpack.  She usually travelled alone, generally preferring ‘a certain harshness in the  landscape’ – and the men. Despite her love of adventures, she told me ‘I was never raped – and I was very rapeable then.’

Another of Lesley Blanch’s heroes, the subject of a biography published in 1983, was the high-heeled, rouged writer Pierre Loti, who at Rochefort on the French coast, like Lesley herself at Roquebrune and Menton, created a semi-oriental house for himself. Loti celebrated Turkey in two novels,Aziyade (1877), describing his love affair with a Turkish woman who is later poisoned, and Les Désenchantées (1907), about three Turkish girls longing for emancipation. On a visit to Loti in France, however, two of the girls turned out to be, Lesley Blanch writes, ‘lazy, sluttish and mischief-making’.  Lesley Blanch remembers looking through his letters, lent her by his daughter-in-law, ‘with that painful feeling of eavesdropping which is known to every biographer’.

Lesley left two ‘memoires d’outre-tombe’, which demand immediate publication. Romain: Un Regard Particulier, already published in a French translation, is both an astringent portrait of their marriage and a front-line despatch from the danse macabre of attraction and repulsion which has been going on between French and English since the Hundred Years War. The marriage between Romain Gary and Lesley Blanch is the only marriage – so far – between a French writer and an English writer. For her – though not for all women he met – he possessed an irresistible animal attraction, despite his ‘mirthless snarl’. ‘His long ,sallow, doom-laden face was lightened by those heavy-lidded oriental or rather Asiatic eyes. They were of the most startling light blue of the kind I have seen among the Kurdish tribes. His lank hair was that dense black which resembles the plumage of certain birds’. Like Lesley too no doubt, he  ‘embroidered cold facts to warm their loneliness’.  Conquest was his driving-force. ‘I’m not going anywhere where I cant get at the women’ he said, refusing a posting to a Muslim country. He yearned to have a very pretty daughter to whom he could make love.  As Lesley wrote, in her best steely style, on Jean Seberg: ‘Romain was to achieve his dream when later he chose to marry a beautiful and very young woman whom, he was fond of insisting, he often regarded as his daughter’. Seberg and Gary committed suicide. Lesley lived to be over 100.

On both sides in the marriage there were ‘infidelities, absences, complications, complicities and comprehension’. However, Lesley concluded: ‘all in all my life with him was a happy one and certainly a rewarding one…totally absorbing.’ ‘Oh Romain! How funny, how tragic a figure you were at close quarters! How entertaining, how exasperating a companion! How rare a chance to have known you, loved you, and been loved by you.’ It was impossible to be angry with him – he was ‘too outrageous’.

Lesley also wrote a short, unfinished, account of her childhood in Chiswick. It is called The Four Walls of Living: Fragments of an Autobiography. She recalls the intensity not of first love but of first hate – in her case for her father, who had sent away her pet rabbit Ermyntrude. Of hatred she wrote: ‘over the years it has not been an emotion I cherished: but I keep a good bit handy for good causes.’

Here is Lesley’s view of herself: ‘The patterns of my life were for ever changing, forming and reforming, adapting and redeveloping a perpetuum mobile of great journeys, biting poverty, nomadic uprootings and agitating romantic interludes.’ She loved her mother, but as a family they lived as ‘very separate entities approaching each other warily with little familiarity – at least where I was concerned’. Alas the tantalising phrases in her summary of future chapters – ‘book jackets for T.S. Eliot at Faber’; ‘so began a life-long love of red wine’;  ‘being escorted to Waterloo in taxis to catch the last train home’; ‘my mother began to ask questions when letters began coming in envelopes’ – never developed into paragraphs.

In their sympathy for the Muslim world, psychological penetration, and elegance of style, Lesley Blanch’s books are as relevant today as when they were first written.

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Philip Mansel 2010