Article first published on posthumous publication of On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch,15 January 2015 by virago.co.uk
As far as godmothers go, Lesley Blanch (1904-2007) was as good as it gets. She was an understanding and generous friend; listening without judging. She opened up new ways of seeing the world and was modern and free, with tremendous wit and style. Seductive and glamorous, she was a superb storyteller. A scholarly romantic, her passion was for all things Russian and Oriental. She never apologized for who she was, took risks and relished writing about her adventures. Resilient and alert to the end of her long life, she stood firm and dignified in the face of back-biting and envy.
Lesley was ahead of her time, and prescient in the way she attempted to bridge West and East: especially the West and Islam. Although most people today associate her with the classic book which pioneered a new approach to history writing, The Wilder Shores of Love, her greatest work is The Sabres of Paradise. The way she writes about the struggle of the people of the Caucasus to remain independent of Russia is dramatic and disturbingly relevant to our world today. As Philip Marsden put it: “Like Tolstoy’s, her [Lesley Blanch’s] sense of history is ultimately convincing not because of any sweeping theses, but because of its particularities, the quirks of individuals and their personal narratives, their deluded ambitions, their vanities and passions.”
Lesley was in the vanguard of women who were talented, went out into the world and succeeded at their chosen career. She reinvented herself three times:
1920s-30s − a contemporary of Rex Whistler, Lesley did all that artists did at the time to earn a living: scenic and costume designs for the theatre; book illustrations; wall panels and murals for grand houses; satirical caricature-portraits of society figures; a poster for the London Underground. Eight of her stage designs were included to represent England in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Theatre Art International Exhibition in 1934.
1940s – as features editor for British Vogue and cultural columnist writing about everything but fashion, she was on the front line of women journalists covering universal topics. The society photographer and designer, Cecil Beaton, admired her and became a lifelong friend.
1950s onwards: traveller and bestselling writer. Her marriage to Romain Kacew, (later changed to Gary), and their life on the road in the French Diplomatic Service meant she was free to roam in wild places. (In 1946 almost all the borders were closed to travellers, unless they were on official business.) The couple landed in Hollywood in 1956 at the peak of their writing careers. Films were made of their books and friends who came for dinner included many of the major cultural figures of the time.
Philip Mansel wrote in May 2007: “With the death of Lesley Blanch, age 103, England and France have lost one of their last links connecting them to White-Russian Paris, Free-French London, and many other lost worlds. The subjects of her conversation were well beyond the conventional boundaries of time, space, nationality and fashion. I often went to see her, attracted by her warm personality and colourful, cosmopolitan past. With a unique turn of phrase, she would talk equally passionately about film stars, racism, Arab culture, or the Mitford sisters.”
Editing her memoirs was challenging because of my great affection for her, given the need to step back and be objective. That Lesley was a cult literary figure was nothing new. But I had no idea that Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Conran; the late Jackie Kennedy and Anaïs Nin, had all been so inspired by her. Miranda Seymour recently wrote to me, ‘I love LB. WHAT a spirit. What courage. What class.’
We live in a male-dominated culture – men make up 78% of MPs and 95% of FTSE 100 chief executives. 14% of members of the current cabinet are women. Individual success stories remain all important.
I now look after my godmother’s literary estate and am currently looking to set up the archive at New College, Oxford (which was set to take her library before a fire burned down her house in 1994). As I have edited the book off and on over the last 5 years, it has been heartwarming to see the renewed interest in her life and work. I have just signed contracts for The Sabres of Paradise in Russian, Turkish, Bulgarian and Azerbaijani. Lesley was a pioneer of the genre ‘narrative non-fiction’ taught at Birkbeck, City Lit, Writers Bureau, City University London. There is a website at lesleyblanch.com where you can find out more about her life and work.
Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet 2015. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use. www.lesleyblanch.com
Books by Lesley Blanch
On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (HB 2015 PB Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)
Lesley Blanch, Croquis d’une vie de bohème Trad. de l’anglais par Lucien d’ Azay
Hors collection, La Table Ronde Parution : 19-04-2018
Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Quartet, 9780704374348, hb illus £25, 1 June 2017).
Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch (Eland Publishing 9780907871545 pb £9.60 1 Jun 2001).
The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, 9780993092725 pb illus £11.95 19 Jan 2015).
The Wilder Shores of Love: The Stories of four nineteenth-century women who followed the beckoning Eastern star by Lesley Blanch (BookBlast ePublishing, Kindle edition £4.31 illus 8 Nov 2014).
Round the World in 80 Dishes: The World Through the Kitchen Window by Lesley Blanch (Grub Street Publishing, illus. line drawings by the author £14 200pp 19 October 2011).