Shusha Guppy interviews Lesley Blanch (1991) | part 1

We are delighted to celebrate the release of the new Lesley Blanch website with Shusha Guppy’s interview of Lesley Blanch as a series of five blog posts. The interview was first published in Looking Back: A Panoramic View of a Literary Age by the Grande Dames of European Letters (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1991). 

Shusha Guppy, Persian شوشا (شمسی) گوپی‎; née Shamsi Assār, (1935 – 2008) was a writer, editor and, under the name of “Shusha”, a singer of Persian and Western folk songs. She lived in London from the early 1960s.

Lesley Blanch was already a distinguished traveller and journalist when her first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, was published in 1954. It was immediately acclaimed as a classic, and became a worldwide bestseller. It told of four nineteenth-century women of contrasting backgrounds and temperaments who sought in the East the adventures and emotions which were rapidly disappearing from the industrialized West. Her following book, The Sabres of Paradise, which took six years to complete, with research in Russia and Turkey, was the biography of Imam Shamyl, the religious leader of the Caucasian tribes who fought the invading Russian armies in 1834 to 1859. It combines biography and history with beautiful descriptions of the Caucasus and the campaigns in which both the young Tolstoy and Lermontov participated.

This interview took place in September 1988 at Lesley Blanch’s home in Garavan, before and after a delicious lunch that she had cooked and which was consumed in the shade of a fig tree in her garden.

SHUSHA GUPPY : You were born into an upper middle-class family. Were your parents wealthy?

LESLEY BLANCH : No. They were always broke. My father was a very clever and cultivated man, but he didn’t do anything. He spent his time in museums and galleries, discussing things like Chinese porcelain and early oak furniture, about which he knew a great deal. They had been quite well-off, especially my mother, but the money trickled away gradually. My mother was not strictly beautiful, but seemed so. She was extremely elegant and artistic, and extremely frustrated too. Having married she had decided to become a devoted wife, and everything she touched she made lovely – houses, plants, food; she had magical hands.

SHUSHA GUPPY : As an only child you must have been much cherished.

LESLEY BLANCH : I suppose I was, but I was also smacked every day as a matter of course: “Has she had her smacking today? No? There!” Whack! I was frightfully naughty and a great tease. I did everything to annoy people, and I still do!

SG : You went to St. Paul’s Girls’ School, which is considered the best in England, but in your autobiography you say that you were educated by reading and listening to your “elders and betters.” Who were they? Who instilled the love of literature in you?

LB : My parents, The Traveller, and anybody who came into the house. My parents didn’t suffer fools gladly, so our visitors were interesting, and I always was surrounded with books and pictures. I fell in love with Russia through The Traveller, and learned a bit of Russian. I don’t know it well, but I’m not lost when I go to Russia. I used to go to London University when it was at Somerset House and listen to Prince Mirsky’s lectures on Russian literature.

SG : Presumably you were not expected to work, so how did you start? Did you know you wanted to write?

LB : I was certainly given the idea that I had to earn my living double quick! I went to The Slade and studied painting. Among my contemporaries were Oliver Messel, Rex Whistler and others who became famous later. I picked a living doing book jackets and private commissions before I started journalism. For example I knew something of Pushkin’s life and times, so I would write an article on that, a subject not generally known. My father fell ill and there was no money left, so I worked very hard. All the Fabergés the Traveller had given me were sold. Eventually I became Features Editor of British Vogue and had to write about everything except fashion – books, people, plays, travel. That was in the late thirties. During the war, I wrote propaganda stuff for the Women’s Services.

SG : You met Romain Gary during the war. Where?

LB : In London. He had joined de Gaulle and become an airman, a navigator with the Lorraine Squadron. He had no money and no home, but I had a charming old house in Chelsea and some beautiful things in it. It was all new to him and he was amused by it on leave. He used to lie in bed – a Louis XVI piece saved from the bombing of an earlier house – and say: “You mean that Staffordshire rabbit was in your nursery when you were six? Quelle continuité!” He was Russian by birth and I fell in love with him partly because I found again The Traveller in him. I would recite old rhymes in Russian, or give him cucumber pickle and endless glasses of tea, and he felt at home, somehow he found his Slav roots again.

SG : You are very much in the tradition of the romantic English woman traveller who falls in love with the East and goes off, enduring all sorts of hardships. It started with Lady Hester Stanhope, didn’t it?

LB : No. She was not a really romantic figure, any more than Isabella Bird Bishop, the travel writer. Perhaps Hester Stanhope had a romantic life, but she was not really a romantic in herself. England has always had a tradition of such involvements with the Middle East and the Arab/Islamic world. It was a superb setting for heroic and romantic living. Unfortunately it has been marred now by the Israeli-Arab conflict. I am probably one of the last of a breed who knew something of those lands as they once were.

SG : What made you choose those particular four women in The Wilder Shores of Love?

LB : They were essentially romantic and adventurous creatures who fled the early nineteenth-century menace of machinery and industry, and I felt at one with them. Jane Digby – Lady Ellenborough – was wildly romantic, had endless love affairs, and ended by marrying a sheikh and living beside him in the desert. Isabel Burton married Richard Burton, the great Arabist who translated The Arabian Nights. He was her Oriental landscape. These women sensed the whirring wheels of industrialization approaching, and escaped to find fulfilment, as women, in the East.

SG : Isabel Burton is chiefly famous for her final act of burning her husband’s writing on Eastern eroticism, for which she will be blamed by posterity.

LB :  It is silly to blame her. She burned a bit of what the West sees as pornography, but what does it matter? There is no shortage of Western pornography available today, and as she thought she was saving his soul, being an ardent Roman Catholic, rather than a prude, why blame her?

SG : Isabelle Eberhardt was a curious case: highly promiscuous, dressing as a man and dying of her excesses – physical and perhaps spiritual. In the book you say that like her you could “live and die in the Sahara.” For most people the Sahara is just an infinite expanse of hot sand, rather monotonous and dangerous.

LB : If they say that, it means they have not understood! I can’t explain the attraction of the desert except to say that it is wild and mysterious and magical as my garden here is on rather greener terms. I don’t like a tame countryside. In England only Cornwall and Scotland have a few wild places left, which I love. You can keep Surrey and the goodstyle Cotswolds! But then I don’t belong in England. I don’t belong anywhere – it is rather restful!

SG : After The Wilder Shores of Love you wrote a long preface to Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, The Game of Hearts. She was a famous courtesan – the great Duke of Wellington was one of her clients. She tried to blackmail him, which elicited the famous reply: “Publish and be damned!” What interested you in her?

LB : Her delightful immorality. For the first edition I wrote a long preface of some fifty pages in which I spoke about prostitutes and their place in society, which I think very necessary. It was stupid to close down the brothels, because prostitution goes on but now it can’t be controlled, whereas if brothels were permitted, and properly supervised from the point of view of health and hygiene, they would be agreeable places, free of blackmail and scandal. Homosexuality has now become perfectly acceptable – about time too – though I think that demanding women, particularly in the United States, have made it so impossible for men that they have to turn to each other.

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