Lesley Blanch, MBE, FRSL (6 June 1904, London – 7 May 2007, Garavan near Menton, France) was an English writer, historian and traveller. She is best known for The Wilder Shores of Love, about four famous Englishwomen.
Life and career
Blanch attended St. Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith from 1915 to 1921. A scholarly romantic, she would spend the greater part of her long life travelling about remote regions and recording them vividly in her books. Her lifelong passion was for Russia and the Middle East. She was, in the words of the historian Philip Mansel, "not a school, a trend, or a fashion, but a true original."
Blanch studied painting at the Slade from 1922 to 1924 and went on to do all that artists did at the time to earn a living: scenic and costume designs for the theatre; book jackets for T. S. Eliot at Faber and private commissions; wall panels and murals for grand houses; satirical caricature-portraits of society figures; a poster for the London Underground (1933). Eight of her stage designs were included to represent England in New York's MOMA, Theatre Art International Exhibition in 1934. She turned to journalism, and was features editor of British Vogue from 1937 to 1944. Her brief was to write on anything but fashion. She covered various aspects of Britain at war for the Ministry of Information, and documented the lives of women in the forces with her friend the photographer Lee Miller. The society photographer and designer, Cecil Beaton, admired her and became a lifelong friend. She married Robert Alan Wimberley Bicknell in 1930 and they were divorced in 1941, although the marriage had failed long before that. She stated, in an interview with Karen Robinson for The Sunday Times in August 2006, that she had married Bicknell 'for love of a house' in Richmond, overlooking the Thames.
In April 1945, she married the French novelist-diplomat Romain Gary. Life in the French diplomatic service took them to the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, Mexico and the USA. In the USA they associated with Aldous Huxley and with Hollywood stars such as Gary Cooper, Sophia Loren and Laurence Olivier.
Gary left her for American actress Jean Seberg and they were divorced in 1962. Blanch continued to travel from her home in Paris, and saw old friends Nancy Mitford, Violet Trefusis, Rebecca West and the Windsors. She was a close friend of Gerald de Gaury, who gave her insights into middle eastern customs and culture.
The best known of her 12 books is The Wilder Shores of Love, about four English women, Isabel Burton, Lady Jane Digby, Isabelle Eberhardt, and Aimée du Buc de Rivéry, a cousin of Josephine de Beauharnais the first wife of Napoleon I, who all "followed the beckoning Eastern star." It pioneered a new kind of group biography focusing on "women escaping the boredom of convention," and the title added a memorable phrase to the English language. The book also inspired the american artist Cy Twombly, who named a painting after the novel.
Blanch's love of Russia, instilled in her by a friend of her parents whom she simply called The Traveller, is recounted in Journey into the Mind's Eye, Fragments of an Autobiography (1968, reissued 2018) which is part travel book, part love story. As well as awakening her to sex, he whetted her appetite with exotic tales of Siberia and Central Asia.
Lesley Blanch considered her best book to be The Sabres of Paradise (the biography of Imam Shamyl and history of Imperialist Russian rule in early 19th century Georgia and the Caucasus). To quote Philip Marsden: "Like Tolstoy's, 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."
Her memoir of her husband of 18 years, Romain Gary, A Private View, was written in English but published initially in a French translation. It is included in her posthumous memoirs published by Virago in 2015.
She celebrated her 100th birthday in 2004. She died just one month shy of 103.
- 1954: The Wilder Shores of Love London: Phoenix Press | New York: Simon & Schuster
- 1955: Round the World in 80 Dishes, the World Through the Kitchen Window (cookbook) London: Grub Street
- 1957: The Game of Hearts: Harriette Wilson and her Memoirs (edited and introduced by Lesley Blanch)
- 1957: Harriette Wilson's Memoirs (selected and edited by Lesley Blanch). London: Phoenix Press, 2003
- 1960: The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus (a biography of Imam Shamyl and history of Imperialist Russian rule in early 19th century Georgia and the Caucasus), London: BookBlast ePublishing
- 1963: Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star, Travels and Travellers
- 1965: The Nine Tiger Man, a Tale of Low Behaviour in High Places, London: BookBlast ePublishing
- 1968: Journey into the Mind's Eye, Fragments of an Autobiography London: Eland Books
- 1974: Pavilions of the Heart, the Four Walls of Love
- 1978: Farah, Shahbanou of Iran
- 1983: Pierre Loti: Portrait of an Escapist
- 1989: From Wilder Shores, the Tables of my Travels (cookbook)
- 1998: Romain, un regard particulier; traduit de l'anglais par Jean Lambert. Arles: Actes Sud
- 2015: On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life London: Virago
- "Obituary". The Guardian. 10 May 2007. Retrieved 10 May 2007.
- McGuinness, Mark. "An eccentric romantic's life: Lesley Blanch (1904–2007)", The Sydney Morning Herald, Weekend Edition, 19–20 May 2007, p. 53
- Fox, Margalit. 11 May 2007. Lesley Blanch, 103, a Writer, Traveler and Adventure-Seeker, Dies. The New York Times
- NYRB Retrieved 15 July 2018.
- Isabella Burton, Tara (8 January 2016). "The Countries We Think We See". The Paris Review. Retrieved 12 September 2016.
- Collins, Will (16 September 2017). "The Secret History of Dune". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 20 October 2017.
- "Obituary". The Telegraph. 9 May 2007. Retrieved 10 May 2007.