In the spring of 1877 a beautiful young woman with violet eyes slipped shyly into a London society gathering on the arm of her husband. She was 23 years old, and the couple had settled in London only a few months previously, after moving from her native Jersey. Her entrance caused a sensation, especially among the men - a veritable Who's Who of famous names from art and literature that included the American artist James McNeill Whistler and the actor Henry Irving. Unlike the wealthier ladies of the capital, she wore no satin, fur or jewellery. Still in mourning following the recent death of her favourite brother, she wore only a plain black gown with a square-cut neck. Her red-gold hair was gathered in a simple knot at the nape of her neck. And her creamy-white throat was unadorned. As she later confessed, she owned no jewellery at that time.
The young woman was Lillie Langtry - "arising", as Oscar Wilde was later to write, "like Venus from the Jersey foam". And this was the fairy-tale beginning of the celebrated career that was to make Lillie a by-word for fin-de-siècle glamour. For the next 50 years, her progress as professional beauty, royal mistress, actress, raconteuse and millionaire racehorse owner (taking in bankruptcy and two disastrous marriages along the way) was to fascinate fans and foes alike.
Back in the salon, as a tidal wave of attention began to swell among the many artists present, the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais was first off the mark. Although born in Southampton, he had spent most of his boyhood in Jersey's capital, St Helier, and was quick to seize his advantage. Within minutes he had claimed the privilege of escorting Lillie down to supper as a fellow countrywoman, throwing in a little Jerriais (Jersey Norman-French) to press his suit. By the end of the evening he had persuaded her to allow him to paint her portrait. And by the time the resulting painting was first exhibited, Lillie was already so famous that the picture had to be roped off to protect it from the gallery crowds.
Millais titled his painting The Jersey Lily - although the crimson flower Lillie held for the sitting (which her mother sent specially from Jersey) is actually of the Guernsey variety. This linking of woman and place was no mere romantic fancy. Lillie was fiercely proud of her Jersey origins - she was born there, married there (twice) and buried there. And all surviving accounts attribute a great part of her charm to her small island upbringing - quirky, unconventional, a little wild even. "She has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent as well as lovely," complained George Bernard Shaw.
Lillie (her name from early childhood) was born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton in October 1853 at St Saviour's Rectory in Jersey. Her father was rector of the parish and Dean of Jersey. The lone girl among six brothers, she grew up strong-willed and fearless. She could swim, sail and ride from an early age, and her happiest early memories - as recorded in her heavily airbrushed autobiography The Days I Knew - were of enjoying the beauty and freedom of the island.
Jersey was, and remains, a wonderful place for a child to grow up. The climate is mild, and the island's 50 miles of coastline - varying from long sandy beaches in the south to rugged cliffs in the north - are studded with romantic castles, caves and coves. Lillie recalled with nostalgia the "intense blue" of the sky, the sea "more violet than the Mediterranean" and the "numberless small and beautiful bays with their stretches of golden sand" along which she would ride bareback, red hair streaming behind her in the wind. Equally, she loved the island's wild flowers and its leafy interior - its secret tunnels of green lanes ("high hedges topped by green aisles of arching trees") winding through pastureland, apple orchards and potato fields.
One hundred and fifty years years later, all of these features still remain. The Old Rectory, on the eastern outskirts of St Helier, is still standing - and still very much in use, judging from the brightly coloured children's tricycles that were strewn across the lawn when I last visited. A handsome granite building, with climbing roses, lawns and fruit orchards, it stands close to the red-roofed St Saviour's parish church, where the Very Rev William Corbet Le Breton preached his sermons and his daughter attended Sunday school. The church's cemetery, where Lillie's white-marble memorial bust now stands, backs on to Government House, the official residence of Jersey's Lieutenant Governor.
By chance, I was there on the day of the island's official garden party, held every June. Listening to the clinking of champagne glasses and the rising sounds of gossip and laughter from behind the wall, it was easy to imagine a gathering of top hats and silks and Edwardian finery, with Lillie herself - dazzling everyone - at the heart of the party.
After her success at the salon, Lillie's fame spread in a matter of months. Her husband Edward became an increasing irrelevance, although the couple never divorced. As a "PB" ("professional beauty") she was fêted and adored. Oscar Wilde - professing himself "an apostle of the lily" - took to bearing a single lily daily to her front door. Occasionally he even slept overnight in the doorway, although he discontinued this habit after Edward Langtry returned home drunk late one night and fell over him. Meanwhile, artists queued up to paint her portrait. Society belles copied the "Langtry Knot" hairstyle. Manufacturers sought endorsements for their products. And Albert Edward, the libidinous Prince of Wales (known as "Bertie", and later to become King Edward VII), let it be known that he would welcome an introduction...
The rest is history. For three years Lillie flourished as official royal mistress, and although her star fell briefly when the affair ended, her name was made. A career on the stage followed, with triumphant tours of the United States, including a visit to Texas at the behest of a local lawman, Judge Roy Bean. A lonely Texan township is still named Langtry in honour of her visit.
Returning to England and remembering her enthusiasm as a young girl for the annual Jersey Races on Gorey Common - as well as her Ascot days with the prince - Lillie took up a new career as racehorse owner. Ever the mould-breaker, she raced under the name of "Mr Jersey" to gain membership of the all-male Jockey Club. She amassed a fortune from the winnings of her most successful horse, Merman.
Merman is the name of Lillie Langtry's last home on Jersey, near the seashore at Beaumont in St Brelade. It's still easy to locate - a white cottage with pale-blue railings on the road from St Helier to St Aubin's, opposite the present-day Bistro Soleil. She bought it in 1899 following her second marriage - three years after the death of Edward Langtry - to a young aristocrat who was 19 years her junior. She didn't live there much, in fact - the new marriage foundered quickly, with the couple heading ultimately for different parts of the Riviera (husband to Nice, and Lillie to Monaco). But she continued to return to Jersey - most spectacularly in July 1900 to open the island's new Opera House in St Helier, and most poignantly in February 1925, to be buried in the rain in St Saviour's churchyard.
Her beloved homeland was the first-named beneficiary in Lillie's will. The Jersey Museum in St Helier holds many of her treasures: paintings, photographs, furniture, a scarab necklace that she wore as Cleopatra, a Tiffany belt buckle, and - last but not least - an enormous gilt-and-turquoise travelling toilette service that she took with her on her American tours. It is totally hideous. For someone who made an art form out of travelling light, that somehow always strikes me as quite comical.
The Langtry trail: Linda Cookson travelled to Jersey on a weekend break with Sovereign (08705 768373). In November, a three-night break, flying from Gatwick and sharing a "premier" room in St Helier's Pomme d'Or Hotel costs £249 per person.
The Langtry Manor Hotel (01202 290115; www.langtrymanor.com) in Bournemouth is the gable-roofed "Red House" bought for Lillie by King Edward VII at the height of their affair. A night in Lillie's former bedroom (complete with non-period heart-shaped whirlpool bath) costs £219.50.
Finally, at the Cadogan Hotel on Sloane Street in London (020-7235 7141; www.cadogan.com) a gallery of pictures reminds you that part of it was Lillie's London home. It was the hotel in which Oscar Wilde was arrested, in room 118.