Writing & Travelling

Lesley Blanch : life mosaic created by Cornucopia magazine to accompany a feature by Philip Mansel, issue 37, 2007

The Wilder Shores of Love

Lesley Blanch’s first, bestselling book, The Wilder Shores of Love, was published in 1954. A group biography about four strong women who turned East, away from nineteenth-century Europe and conventional living, to find emancipation through escape and adventure, it was an instant bestseller.

Isabel Burton married the Arabist and explorer Richard Burton; they worked together on his translation of A Thousand and One Nights; Jane Digby el-Mezrab (Lady Ellenborough, the society beauty), had four husbands and numerous lovers, including Honoré de Balzac and King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She ended up living in the Syrian desert with a young Bedouin chieftain; Aimée Dubucq de Rivery was a French convent girl who was captured at sea by pirates and became the consort of Sultan Abdul Hamid I; and Isabelle Eberhardt was a Swiss linguist who went to Algeria where she lived among tribesmen in the Sahara, converted to Islam, and dressed as a man. 

When asked by interviewer, Jim Blackburn, what inspired her to write the book, Blanch answered: “Seeing young Englishwomen spoiling their lives tapping away at typewriters, and then watching them trudge home over Waterloo Bridge. I wondered how different their lives would have been if they’d managed to get away.”

She would remark with pleasure: “When I wrote The Wilder Shores of Love, over fifty years ago now, my title coined a phrase which I still hear people use, or sometimes see in the press — ‘the wilder shores of Westminster’ in a piece on stormy politics, or ‘the wilder shores of romanticism’ on a new fashion.”

Lesley Blanch (with Norman) correcting the proofs of The Sabres of Paradise. 1959, Outpost Drive, Los Angeles © All rights reserved

1950s Hollywood

Romain Gary’s last posting was as French consul general in Hollywood. In 1956 he won the most prestigious literary award in France, the Prix Goncourt, for his novel The Roots of Heaven. It was during this time that Lesley Blanch wrote what she considered to be her best book, The Sabres of Paradise, which was published in 1960.

As bestselling authors, the couple were invited everywhere. “We both loved it. And we knew everybody: Aldous and Maria Huxley, Igor Stravinsky and his wife Vera, George Cukor, who became a great friend, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer – everyone interesting. James Mason, Sopia Loren, David Selznick . . . Grand Hollywood parties? Oh no, there was never enough money for us to do that. But we had a Russian cook, and it was sometimes very amusing to give a dinner for, oh, Cecil Beaton and Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov and Leslie Caron – who was one of the few intriguing women there at that time.”

When the ambitious, young actress Jean Seberg came with her husband to one of the Gary’s star-studded suppers, it heralded the beginning of the end of two marriages.

Romain Gary and Lesley Blanch divorced in 1963.

1961 Outpost Drive, Los Angeles. Christmas eve dinner with Aldous Huxley and his scientist brother, Julian © The Estate of Lesley Blanch

Lesley Blanch said of this photograph that it “was taken a few months before Aldous’ house burned to the ground and all his papers lost. No fire trucks could reach him in time as the hill roads were blocked with sightseers enjoying the spectacle“.