Tuesday, 20 January 2015

On the Wilder Shores of Love: a Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch

Lesley Blanch
Edited by Georgia de Chamberet

Published by Virago, 15 January 2015, hardback, £20.00

There are two sorts of romantic: those who love, and those who love the adventure of loving
 – Lesley Blanch

'Lesley Blanch was not a school, a trend, or a fashion, but a true original'
-          Philip Mansel

Born in 1904, she died aged 103, having gone from being a household name to a mysterious and neglected living legend.  She was writing her memoirs at her death, beginning with her very odd Edwardian childhood.   Her goddaughter, who was working with her at the time, has now collected that piece and many others, some never published, some published only in French; some letters, some Vogue articles to create On the Wilder Shores of Love: Sketches from a Bohemian Life which captures the essence of a rich and rewarding life spanning the twentieth century.

 Lesley Blanch chose to 'escape the boredom of convention' and having first worked as a theatre designer, she became Vogue's features editor during World War II. In 1946 she left England, never to return, with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary.  By the time they reached Hollywood they were literary celebrities. Gary left her for the young actress, Jean Seberg.  Blanch headed East and travelled across Siberia, Outer Mongolia, Turkey, Iran, Samarkand, Afghanistan, Egypt, the Sahara.

Lesley Blanch is renowned for her bestselling book The Wilder Shores of Love, which has been translated into over a dozen languages. Her other works include Round the World in Eighty Dishes, The Sabres of Paradise, Under a Lilac Bleeding Star, The Nine Tiger Man, Journey into the Mind's Eye, Pavilions of the Heart and Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist. She was the editor of Harriette Wilson's Memoirs. She died in 2007.

Georgia de Chamberet was an editor at Quartet Books before founding her own London-based literary agency, BookBlast Ltd. Georgia is a committee member of English PEN's Writers in Translation programme. She is Literary Executor for the Estate of Lesley Blanch and is Lesley’s goddaughter.
For further information please contact Emily Burns, Publicity Manager, Virago, 020 7911 8086,  emily.burns@littlebrown.co.uk

On the Wilder Shores of Love: a Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, review: 'deliciously readable'
Lesley Blanch’s writings reveal a woman who never ceased to be the star of her own life

A common complaint among modern women is that in our early 30s we stop being the stars of our own lives, relegated from the spotlight to the chorus-line by the daily slog of grown-up responsibilities. Anyone bemusedly wondering how that unglamorous demotion came about will find a compelling role model in the author, journalist, artist and traveller Lesley Blanch, who died in 2007, aged 103, having never for an instant ceased to be the star of her own life.
If Blanch led a charmed life, it was one of her own determined making. She was born in Chiswick to parents who were vaguely perturbed by her arrival. “I don’t think we are quite used to you yet,” they would sometimes remark. But from earliest childhood, she was captivated by the notion of an exotic beyond: “I never remember a time when I was not obsessed by a longing to travel, to reach some remote horizon,” she wrote.
Blanch trained as an artist at the Slade, and worked as an illustrator and theatre designer. But it is for her writing, especially The Wilder Shores of Love (1954), an impressionistic account of four glamorous female travellers, that she is best remembered.
Blanch published 12 books on subjects as various as the courtesan Harriette Wilson and imperialist Russian rule in early-19th-century Georgia. The sensibility she brought to her subjects was so distinctive that all her writing was essentially autobiographical, but her only book-length memoir was Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a highly scented account of distant travel and lost love.
In her last years, Blanch began to write about her Edwardian childhood, and also produced an account of her marriage to the novelist Romain Gary, who left her for the actress Jean Seberg. These substantial fragments of memoir, together with a selection of her travel writing and journalism for Vogue magazine, have been assembled into an account of her life by her god-daughter and friend Georgia de Chamberet.
Blanch’s great passions were travel, exotic objects (preferably in combination – “travel heavy” was her motto), and a mysterious figure, identified only as “The Traveller”. His real identity – he was the Russian theatre director and designer Theodore Komisarjevsky – is hidden in plain sight in Journey into the Mind’s Eye, and de Chamberet confirms it: “I asked Lesley about Komisarjevsky the last time I saw her in 2007. She answered: 'Peggy Ashcroft took him off me.’ ”
Komisarjevsky was a friend of Blanch’s parents and a beloved visitor from her earliest childhood. His unpredictable appearances brought a whiff of the steppes to suburban Chiswick, and his extraordinary gifts, including a Fabergé egg, fuelled Blanch’s lifelong passion for singular possessions.
When she was 17 and “The Traveller” was 39, he invited her to Paris and, under the eye of her inattentive chaperone, seduced her, to the intense satisfaction of them both – while it lasted. That love affair left her with a taste for dramatic, interesting, unreliable foreign lovers. (Shirley Conran once asked her, by way of research, what it was like having an Arab lover, and was briskly told to get her own.) Blanch was 40 when she married Gary, who qualified on all counts, and her memoir of their marriage is a nicely acidulated contrast to the crème Chantilly narrative of Journey into the Mind’s Eye.
Observing that “like all good storytellers, Lesley plundered her life and her passions and turned tragedy into beauty”, de Chamberet compresses into a lengthy footnote the melancholy episode of Blanch’s teenage pregnancy and the daughter given up for adoption to family friends: “ 'I don’t want to dwell on it,’ she said with a closed, distant expression.”
For a generation raised on therapy and the assiduous pursuit of emotional “truth”, there is something disconcerting about the contrast between Blanch’s intensely sexy femininity and her quasi-masculine ability to compartmentalise emotion. Sooner or later, no doubt, a formal biography will dismantle the rococo stage set on which she chose to present herself, to reveal a reality that is bleaker, but not necessarily closer to the truth.

Blanch wrote that “learning how to deal with pain is the most important thing in life”, and this volume, edited with affection and grace by de Chamberet, is a deliciously readable monument to a writer who combined a steely resilience and capacity for hard work with an elegant frivolity and a voracious appetite for love, beauty and adventure.

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