“Queen of the Desert” opens in mid-April. It’s a prestige film, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicole Kidman. And it’s a prestige story, about Gertrude Bell, who rejected a constrained life in England at the start of the 20th century and headed off to the Middle East to become an archaeologist, explorer, political officer — and spy — for the British Empire. (In shorthand: the female Lawrence of Arabia. For an excellent biography, you’ll want Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.) The preview fairly trumpets prestige.
It’s one jump from Gertrude Bell to other women who abandoned Europe for Arabian adventures. And that jump takes me, happily, to Lesley Blanch...
On her 100th birthday, Lesley Blanch was asked if she had “adventures” with foreign men.
“Many times,” Blanch replied. “I like them.”
Even at that advanced age (you’ll marvel at this photograph), she was still writing. Always to music, most often reggae. At night, she’d greet visitors — she was fond of hashish dealers — to her exotic house on the French-Italian border in clothes that matched her environment: a caftan and turban, her neck fighting a load of ethnic jewelry.
To the very end of her life — Lesley Blanch died in the spring of 2007, at 102 — she had all her marbles. By that, I mean that she was as self-obsessed as ever. Example: Recalling the years when she used to travel, alone, through the Arab world, she boasted, “I was never raped, and I was very rapeable then!”
But Lesley Blanch’s big personality is just icing. As “The Wilder Shores of Love” attests, she was a very good writer with a gift for telling remarkable stories, many of them probably true. And she was the ideal writer to profile four 19th century women who defied convention and went off to make fresh starts in North Africa and the Middle East. Or, as she called them, “four northern shadows flitting across a southern landscape.” [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Her focus was as exotic as her prose: “love as a means of individual expression, of liberation and fulfillment within that radiant periphery.” Her women weren’t head-in-the-stars about love; they were “realists of romance.” And the book works brilliantly because, though the lives of Blanch’s women were only superficially similar, their priorities were the same — breathing the oxygen that was only available on the wilder shores of love.
Isabel Burton: Blanch chose her because she was “the supreme example of a woman who lived and had her being entirely through love.” From the minute she saw them, she craved the East and the famous Victorian traveler, Richard Burton. (He spoke 28 languages. Blanch writes, one of them pornography.) Once she got him, their lives became a Greek drama: She colonized him and destroyed him, and, in the process, destroyed herself. But to what astonishing heights destruction took them — Isabel worked tirelessly on Richard’s behalf and, more or less singlehandedly, turned him into a celebrity. “I have undertaken a very peculiar man,” she wrote in the early days of the marriage. He could have said the same: She traveled with 59 trunks, stayed for days in harems, and, meeting her wayward husband by chance in Venice, said hello and shook his hand.
Jane Digby: “She smashed all the taboos of her time,” Blanch writes. “Hers was a life lived entirely against the rules, reasons and warnings, and it was triumphantly happy.” You may disagree — Digby experienced the ultimate tragedy when her beloved six-year-old son slid down a balcony, miscalculated and fell to his death at her feet. But the rest? One fabulous love affair after another, culminating in the marriage to Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. Jane was always a great horsewoman; now she mastered dromedaries, and often raced at the head of a Bedouin tribe. She prepared her husband’s food, stood as he ate, washed his feet. And the outcome? She never became old. “Admiration and love,” Blanch notes, “are the best beauty treatments.”
Aimée Dubucq de Rivery: Romantic? How’s this: captured by pirates, flung into a harem and enslaved. Her first sight in her new life in Turkey was “a great pyramid of heads, some so newly severed that they reeked and steamed with blood.” She became “the French Sultana,” the mother of Sultan Mahmoud II (who helped create modern Turkey) and a force for freedom and justice — quite the tale.
Isabelle Eberhardt: She dressed as a man. She turned Arab. A Russian, she converted to Islam and died — actually: drowned — in the desert. “She adored her insignificant husband, but her sensual adventures were without number,” Blanch writes, matter-of-factly. “Her behavior was outrageous; she drank, she smoked hashish, but déclassée, she remained racée.” No one who met her ever forgot her. You won’t either.
Subjects and author have rarely been better matched. Don’t be fooled by her sympathies with travel and romantic adventure — Lesley Blanch was a serious writer. Though well-born, she was also born poor; she worked hard from a young age, first as a book illustrator, then as Features Editor of British Vogue. Over her career, she wrote 18 books, all in longhand. The combination of a good education, intense research, remarkable subjects and a vivid style is irresistible — “Wilder Shores” has never been out of print since its publication in 1954.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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