Books: Why sticking strawberry ice cream down the Prince of Wales's back is a bad idea

Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals

by Laura Beatty

Chatto pounds 20

Lillie Langtry couldn't go shopping without crowds turning up to gawp at her. When she stepped off a train, she was inevitably confronted by a brass band, a red carpet and an effusive mayor. When she arrived in America for the first time, she was met by an army of reporters and Oscar Wilde, waving a bunch of lilies in the air.

And why was she famous? Well, she was a great Victorian actress, right?

Wrong. She took up acting as a last resort during a financially sticky moment in 1881. And by all accounts, she was pretty mediocre. A crushing notice in an American periodical dismissed her as a pointless novelty, comparing her unfavourably to a well-known performing elephant of the day: "But let me do justice to Jumbo, even though I seem severe upon Mrs Langtry. He was not only a notorious elephant, but a very large one and the way he devoured things was thoroughly artistic. Mrs Langtry is not an extraordinarily beautiful elephant, she has no artistic skill."

Laura Beatty's new biography of Langtry is troubled by the suspicion that its subject was a self-serving vacuity; a kind of fin-de-siecle Liz Hurley who dabbled in acting, did a bit of light modelling, and was famous mainly for her looks and her boyfriends. Famous, perhaps, just for being famous.

She was born on Jersey as Lillie Le Breton in 1853. Her alliterative surname was conferred upon her by Edward Langtry, the heir to a dwindling shipping fortune, whom she married in 1874. The couple moved to London, where Lillie began to sleep her way through Society and Ned began to drink himself to death. She had a long-running affair with the Prince of Wales (swiftly broken off after she stuck a glob of strawberry ice cream down his back at a ball thrown by Randolph Churchill). She sat for Millais and Whistler, was worshipped by Oscar Wilde, collected rich paramours, amassed a great fortune and ended her days gambling it away in Monte Carlo.

It's a story with much chilly tragedy in it, but certain aspects of Beatty's style make her book a rather irritating read. Her liking for pat generalisations about Victorian culture, for instance, won't endear her to anyone with a knowledge of the period: "Adultery, bawdy conversation, immodesty of dress or behaviour were all out, and piety of all kinds was in."

Her predilection for tortuous metaphor won't win her any admirers: "In the second half of the nineteenth century the English artistic pantechnicon was grinding through the gear shifts of aestheticism and pre-Raphaelitism in the search for a new language." And later, Beatty explains that Lillie "got used to the blaze of publicity that illuminated her every move. If the public saw her in a certain way she played on it, blinding them with the mirror-dazzle of the star they had imagined. She learnt that she could hide her real self behind it like an eclipse." If you can follow that, then your astrophysics is better than mine.

She's also rather fond of naff sub-Wildean aphorisms. We learn that "Discontent, like a plant, grows in wet weather" and that "Mistakes are what give us our third dimension: they prick us into life." By this reasoning, the liveliest passage of Beatty's book is on page 132, when she erroneously claims that Oscar Wilde's mother was known not as "Speranza" (after the Italian word for "hope"), but as "Esperensa" (presumably after the well- known artificial language).

But the central difficulty lies with Lillie herself, who seems vapid in the presence of her dynamic supporting cast. She can't compete with Sarah Bernhardt, who, Beatty informs us, was rumoured to travel "with a circus of pet cheetahs and pythons and took a daily rest in a coffin lined with pink silk". Or Lord Charles Beresford, commander of HMS Thunderer, who - just for a wheeze - pumped the air out of a cabin occupied by Langtry and the Prince of Wales. Or her lover George Baird, an aristocratic thug who hired a theatre for her, then used the foyer to stage rat fights. Lillie Langtry's story is how she turned the attentions of these figures to her advantage. And perhaps the only really fascinating thing about her was that lots of people thought she was really fascinating.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea