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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week