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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.