Lesley Blanch: a life that escaped 'the boredom of convention'

Georgia de Chamberet
Opinion - Books Thursday, 01 June 2017

Georgia de Chamberet reports on editing the autobiographical work of her godmother, the remarkable writer and traveller Lesley Blanch

The life of Lesley Blanch - writer, historian and traveller - spanned the greater part of the 20th century. Born in 1904 before the first TV broadcast, she lived to see her website launched, a year before her death in 2007. Her book The Wilder Shores of Love - about four 19th-century European women who found love and adventure abroad - became an instant classic when it was published in 1954. It has never gone out of print in English.

To be obsessed with Russian and Middle Eastern culture and history in the 1950s was unorthodox. As was her 18-year marriage to novelist Romain Gary: she accepted her husband's infidelities, and he let her go off on her travels. Lesley and my artist-writer mother, Gael Elton Mayo, met in New York in 1951 through their Polish-Russian husbands. Both were exceedingly pretty and precocious. They remained close despite their gypsy lifestyles. When my mother died of cancer in 1992, my godmother became home from home.

Her little pink house in Garavan, on the French-Italian border, was surrounded by an aromatic Mediterranean jungle. It was filled with treasures from Lesley's travels: Russian icons, samovars, Qajar paintings and rugs from Persia and Turkey, exotica from India. Divans and the scent of incense and jasmine enhanced the atmosphere.

I had worked at Quartet Books for eight years with Stephen Pickles and the late Anthony Blond before founding BookBlast Ltd in 1997. We had reprinted Lesley's vivid, dramatic historical narrative, The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus, about Imam Shamyl and his fight against Tzarist oppression. We had also reissued her cookery-travel book, Round the World in 80 Dishes. In my teens I had relished The Game of Hearts, Harriette Wilson and Her Memoirs. Lesley's remark in the introduction is typical of her humour: "Today, in America, the courtesan may be said to have been replaced by the psychoanalyst. In place of the alcove there is the analyst's office. But basically the functions of both courtesan and analyst have the same principle. Both offer escape, relaxation and individual attention; both are expensive. And the couch is still there."

Lesley wrote longhand at a desk strewn with books and papers in the living room. On a visit in June 2001, she was fretting about the late delivery of an introduction for a reprint of Isabelle Eberhardt's Journals. So I deciphered her graceful writing and typed it up on my laptop.

For years she had spoken of writing her memoirs, and hopeful biographers hovered, but got nowhere. Lesley began to jot down fragments of reminiscences: working as features editor at British Vogue during World War Two with Lee Miller and Cecil Beaton; 1950s New York and Leo Lerman, Carson McCullers and Simenon; the golden age of Hollywood and Marlene Dietrich; traveller's tales about Mexico, Turkey and Afghanistan. I did not indulge in flattery, having observed what happened to people who "gushed". I occasionally made comments and asked questions, initially received with sharp-edged reserve. Then we began to look forward to our time together.

Lesley wrote and rewrote obsessively late into the night; hauling books out of the shelves to check names or places. She taught me a great deal about writing. I regret not asking probing questions: I was too respectful. But she had begun to open up: to push her meant she might snap shut. All her life, she had refused to divulge the identity of The Traveller: that mysterious Russian seducer described in Journey into the Mind's Eye who was the DNA of her creative life. Lesley had begun to talk about émigré director Theodore Komisarjevsky, who staged four of Chekhov's plays in Barnes theatre during 1925-6. I asked Lesley about him the last time I saw her in 2007. She answered: "Peggy Ashcroft took him off me."

Writing is an act of seduction. A writer and an editor working together on a book is like an affair, involving intimacy and trust. The editor is totally committed to the book, does everything possible to help the writer make it the best they can; and then they do everything possible to give the book and its author the greatest chance of success when published. After Lesley died, I was determined to complete the work we had started, and carry out her vision - made a little easier by her making me her literary executor.

Overwhelmed, I gathered together her papers, photos and writings. I gradually collated a mosaic of pieces from different periods of her life, to follow on from what she had written about her childhood in Chiswick (then a suburb), and the notes for a chapter about London after leaving the Slade. Her artist's portfolio circa 1923-35 came to light in January 2014. Eight designs had been included to represent England in New York's Museum of Modern Art, Theatre Art International Exhibition in 1934. I interviewed her friends, and began to write the introduction.

Freelancing as an editor and translator meant that I worked fitfully. The gaps turned out to be a good thing, since I returned each time with fresh eyes. I tried to keep an open mind, listen to my editor's gut instinct, and respect Lesley's vision. She had set the standards.

There was too much material for one book. So I ended up with two. Lennie Goodings at Virago published the posthumous memoirs, On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life, in 2015. The sequel about Lesley's worlds, Far To Go and Many To Love: People and Places, is now published by Quartet Books.

Lesley was there all my life, but I had not appreciated that she was a trailblazer - admired by Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Conran among others - or what she was up against as a woman, trying to do her own thing and escape "the boredom of convention".

She was a scheherazade figure; her life one of shifting horizons. The fragmentary nature of both books captures the essence of a rich and tumultuous life lived on wilder shores.

Copyright © Georgia de Chamberet.
Georgia de Chamberet is a freelance editor, translator and promoter @bookblast and currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Her journalism has appeared in the Lady, Prospect, Independent, Times Literary Supplement, BANIPAL, 3ammagazine.com, wordswithoutborders.org, and booktrust.org.uk.

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)
On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life by Lesley Blanch, edited and with an introduction by Georgia de Chamberet (Virago, 9780349005461, pb illus £10.99, 12 January 2017)

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