Perfectly Human

Jenny Diski

  • Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals by Laura Beatty
    Chatto, 336 pp, £20.00, March 1999, ISBN 1 85619 513 9
  • Véra (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage by Stacy Schiff
    Random House, 456 pp, US $27.95, April 1999, ISBN 0 679 44790 3

Whatever the truth of the appealing though dubious proposition that by forty everyone has the face they deserve, it looks as if getting the biographer you deserve post-mortem is pretty much pot luck. Here are two beautiful, displaced, canny women with a powerful sense of their own purpose. For Stacy Schiff, the Véra Nabokov she introduces is ‘the figure in the carpet ... Hers was a life lived in the margins, but then as Nabokov teaches us – sometimes the commentary is the story.’ Laura Beatty, however (including the word ‘Morals’ in the title for more than mere alliterative satisfaction), prefaces her tale of Lillie Langtry with the following deadly judgment: ‘Motivation is the key to character, and Lillie’s reasons for doing the things she did, range through panic and muddle to greed and plain wrong-thinking. She was after all seduced, and it will not be possible to exonerate her from the ultimate charges of corruption and betrayal of self ... The genius is the only type of human whose agenda is pure enough for his [sic] motives to be incontrovertible. Lillie was not a genius.’

One of these women devoted her accidental gift of beauty to carving out a vivid, hectic and erratic life of her own, the other used her accidental gift of intelligence to support and protect the genius of the man in her life. Both women died quite sad and lonely, but then, dying sad and lonely is for humans close to tautologous; it proves, as Schiff understands and Beatty certainly doesn’t, nothing much about the moral quality of a life.

It never becomes clear how, exactly, Lillie Langtry betrayed her self, or what the pure self she betrayed consisted of. In fact, self seems in Beatty’s understanding to be coterminous with soul, an even more slippery notion, but one which enables what Nabokov called the biograffitist to thunder on both counts with all the moral fervour at her disposal that Lillie had ‘sold her soul’ and in the very first line that ‘this is the story of a woman who sold her human nature for a legend.’ The legend, essentially, is the one in Beatty’s fevered mind of a Faustian compact, a Dorian Gray-like perversion of human destiny. But Lillie was just trying to make the best of things under the circumstances: a perfectly human way to proceed, I should have thought. As for her soul – who’s to say?

Lillie had the good fortune not just to be born physically attractive (‘What woman would not be beautiful if she had the chance?’ she demands), but to have a philandering, radical Nonconformist Dean of Jersey as a father, who would have scorned the cant in the pages of his daughter’s biography. Lillie herself showed a proper disrespect for moral outrage in the inscription she had written on the minstrels’ gallery of the house the Prince of Wales had designed for her: ‘They say – What say they? Let them say.’ She was allowed to ramble carelessly through her childhood around the countryside with her six brothers, and then in 1874, at the age of 19, made the understandable error – wishing for something more than rural domesticity – of marrying the wrong man. Ned Langtry, then in his thirties, was neither as rich nor as fascinating as she had imagined, and the longed-for broadening of her provincial life turned out to be a charmless house on the fringes of Southampton, the social isolation of being a wife, and a near-fatal bout of typhoid. The doctor, egged on by his patient, prescribed London for the convalescent, and the convalescent prescribed for herself the great daily parade of seeing and being seen in Rotten Row, while Ned stayed home to begin his career of drink and debt.

She was seen.

At first glance it seemed a very young and slender girl, dowdily dressed in black and wearing a small, close fitting black bonnet: she might have been a milliner’s assistant ... or a poorly paid governess hurrying to her pupils. As I drew near the pavement the girl looked up and I all but sat flat down in the road. For the first and only time in my life I beheld perfect beauty. The face was that of the lost Venus of Praxiteles, and of all the copies handed down to us must have been incomparably the best, yet Nature had not been satisfied and had thrown in two or three subtle improvements.

Doubtless the model-agency scout who spotted Kate Moss on a plane would have thought much the same as the painter Graham Robertson when he noticed Langtry walking past Apsley House. Lillie began her career as muse, model and archetype to the likes of Millais, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Watts and Poynter within the month. Society was just as quick to take her up. Vanity Fair gushed in 1877: ‘All male London is going wild about the Beautiful Lady who has come to us from the Channel Islands ... She has a husband to make her happy, but still awaits a poet to make her known.’ Her husband most certainly did not make her happy, but Oscar Wilde volunteered for the poet’s position and spent a night composing a poem to her on the steps of her house – ‘To Helen, formerly of Troy, now of London’ – and tutored her in Latin and Greek (essential languages for a goddess).

But it looks very much as if the plain black dress – and Langtry’s grasp of the nature of style – was the key to her social triumph. When she arrived in London she was in mourning for her favourite brother, and due to poverty, that black dress was the only one she had. London society, coutured to within an inch of its life and bored to distraction, was enchanted by such stark simplicity, unable to imagine the condition of having no alternative. The Prince of Wales and all her other lovers adored it. Lillie’s genius was in retaining the dress for as long as she could, collar turned in or out according to the time of day, until it was deliberately borrowed and trashed by her friend Lady Cornwallis West, when she had another black dress made. Her first downfall was a failure of style, not soul. She put herself into irreparable debt and lost her uniqueness when she finally ordered a full and fashionable wardrobe of frocks to die for.

What lies at the heart of Laura Beatty’s condemnation, however, is the notion that she exchanged true love for a career. Beatty’s contribution to Langtry’s biography is the discovery of letters to her lover Arthur Jones. Most of what we know of the woman is gossip-column scandal and her own heavily massaged memoirs. She destroyed her own papers, and told her story as she wished it to be heard. Arthur Jones may or may not have been the father of her secret child; it was just as likely that Jeanne was the daughter of the Prince of Wales or Louis Battenberg. But he accepted the role, from something of a distance, and while she hid in Jersey she wrote the letters that suggest to Beatty that he was the real love of her life.

You won’t go back my darling till you know what I am going to do. Please promise not to. If you love me you can’t be so unkind as to leave me ... You are very unkind not to write to me ... The sea is dreadfully rough. Do come Artie for Heaven’s sake if you care for me ... You must try to get back to help me more ... won’t you darling. I always have you at all events darling haven’t I? To care for me whatever happens.

Given the circumstances (the Prince of Wales supplied money and kept the bamboozled husband out of the way, but he was not going to admit paternity; Battenberg was sent overseas for a year by his alarmed family), it could as well have been that she was desperate to keep him standing by her and the baby. In the end, however, she knew from her experience of going home to find the bailiffs sitting in the hallway and Ned dead drunk upstairs, that someone had to earn a living, and if it was to be her it would be at the expense of romantic love. Jones was no better a bet than her other lovers – she had execrable taste in men or had the misfortune to be the taste of execrable men – gambling and drinking and making vague promises of his presence while she begged him to visit her in her seclusion and depression and take charge of her life.

So Jones faded out and Lillie pulled herself together. This, Beatty claims, was her ‘terrible exchange: money and fame for the security of self’. It was, you might think, no more than survival, what anyone must do when there is no one and nothing to fall back on. When her social and artistic triumph waned, she took acting lessons from Ellen Terry, knowing herself to be no natural on stage, but marketing her beauty and notoriety as she had to. She took off for and stormed America and its cattle and railroad millionaires and when that palled, she returned home, adjusted to reality yet again and played the music halls. Finally, in her fifties, exchanging a fading mask of beauty for a mask of masculinity, she took up a life of racing. Since the Jockey Club only admitted men, she became Mr Jersey in order to race her stable of horses. Beatty, positively smacking her lips, sees some form of nemesis in this: ‘Photographs at this time’ – 1910 – ‘show her mouth set, at her most masculine, in an attempt to drown out the voices of her lost past. She towers, inappropriately in white lace, over slight young men at Goodwood, or stamps down the London pavements military style, lantern-jawed, heavily upholstered, arms swinging, toes turned out. Gone are the soft smile, the curves and the sleepily sensuous eyes. Now she is angry and huge and male.’ Not only beauty, but independence and achievement, too, are indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Doubtless, Laura Beatty would have approved of Véra Nabokov, who grew more beautiful with age and remained a wisp of a thing. Proof perhaps that devotion of the heart is good for the complexion. There was nothing monstrous about Véra, except perhaps her capacity to divest herself of herself. ‘She had both the good and the ill fortune to recognise another’s gift; her devotion to it allowed her to exempt herself from her own life while founding a very solid existence on that very selflessness.’ Or if she is a monster, she is a Nabokovian monster, and is well served by Stacy Schiff who understands mirrors, magicians and doppelgangers well enough to appreciate the double creation that was VN and VN, and who has the wit and style to eschew moral judgment for something more perceptive. ‘Véra saw her husband always before her; he saw her image of him. This optics-defying arrangement sustained them at a time and in a place when little else did; it was the first in what was to be a repertoire of deceptive techniques, for which the couple had only begun their magic act.’

Véra wore an actual mask at their first rendezvous – a promise to the man she had clearly studied of what was to come. Thereafter for more than fifty years she earned money, typed, edited, corrected, corresponded for, drove, agented, protected, cleared snow from the car, and whole-heartedly agreed about everything with the man of whom she made her life. She was, according to friends, ‘the international champion in the Wife-of-Writer Competition’, ‘the Saint Sebastian of wives’. The marriage and Vladimir’s artistic greatness, as they both perceived it, was the only real country to which either of them belonged once each had been geographically exiled. Their son, Dmitri, was given residential rights, though he must have felt an exile of another kind. They never settled anywhere (their final 30 years in a hotel in Montreux was to both of them provisional) except with each other. Véra was the keeper of the flame, the muse who was ‘the shadowy figure in the foreground’ of Vladimir’s life and work. When a friend suggested she needed a rest she responded: ‘V. is the one who works very hard (I do write an enormous number of letters, also an occasional contract, and I read proofs and translations, but this is nothing compared to his work).’ Vladimir was her sense of self, and if that sticks in the onlooker’s craw, her power was more than felt by those who tried to get in touch with the great man, professionals, fans, friends or even family. She conducted his life with the world at large; sometimes she signed his name to letters she wrote, at others it was V. Nabokov, Mrs Vladimir Nabokov, Véra Nabokov and for special occasions, J.G. Smith. Those in the know addressed themselves to the complete set: ‘Dear V and V’.

Véra’s individuality was most publicly evident in her Jewishness. Unlike her husband, she was a double exile: a refugee from the Bolsheviks and from Russian anti-semitism. She lost no opportunity to remind the Gentile world that she was Jewish. In prewar Berlin she was advised to apply for a stenographer’s job in the office of a German minister organising an international congress. ‘I said “they won’t engage me, don’t forget I’m Jewish.”’ When she applied and got the job, she recalled querying the decision: ‘“but are you sure you want me? I’m Jewish” ... “Oh,” he said, “but it does not make any difference. We pay no attention to such things. Who told you we did?”’ In 1958 she wrote to the New York Post: ‘In your article you describe me as an émigré of the Russian aristocratic class. I am very proud of my ancestry which actually is Jewish.’ When she was asked if she was Russian she replied: ‘Yes, Russian and Jewish.’ She was appalled when her sister Lena, living in Sweden, renounced her Judaism, or as one family member happily put it, had ‘gone the whole hog into Catholicism’. When, in 1959, not having seen Lena for years, she considered making a visit, Véra wrote first: ‘I have one question to ask you. Does Michaël’ – Lena’s son – ‘know that you are Jewish, and that consequently he is half-Jewish himself? ... I must admit that if M. does not know who he is there would be no sense in my coming to see you, since for me no relationship would be possible unless based on complete truth and sincerity ... Please answer this question frankly. It is a very important one for me.’ Lena wrote back fiercely that Michaël knew very well who his ancestors were, but that Véra had escaped much of the difficulty when she left Europe in 1940. ‘You were not involved in the war. You didn’t see people die, or be tortured. You don’t understand what it is to barely escape a violent death. I did that twice. You don’t know what it is to, alone, build a life for two.’ The sisters remained estranged.

The editing of past events that Laura Beatty so disapproves of in Lillie Langtry, is taken to its highest form by Véra Nabokov. ‘She engaged in a veritable cult of denials. She swore up and down that she had never said a single word Boyd quoted her as saying; she abjured all marginal notes, even those in her firm hand; she went so far as to deny to a reporter that she was proud of Dmitri.’ The perfect marriage was not without its troubles. Fourteen years into it, Nabokov fell passionately in love with Irina Guadanini in Paris and wrote extensively to tell her so. Véra, living with his confession and the reality of his affair, dealt with it by never mentioning Irina. ‘I know what she is thinking,’ Nabokov wrote to Irina. ‘She is convincing herself and me (without words) that you are a hallucination.’ The affair came to an end when Vladimir, deciding as any sensible genius would to go for reliability, announced to Irina that ‘he could not slam the door on the rest of his life.’ Véra attempted to deny the whole event to Boyd until he told her that Guadanini, more concerned about her own life than Véra could imagine, had kept the letters in spite of Vladimir’s own attempt to expunge reality by asking for them back and claiming that they contained ‘mostly fictions’. At Wellesley, Vladimir mooned over several of his students, ‘kissing and fondling’ one young woman who testified: ‘He did like young girls. Not just little girls.’ She claimed he told her: ‘I like small-breasted women.’ In the margins of Andrew Field’s biography, where this is cited, Véra – displaying the makings of a sense of humour – denies the truth of the quote: ‘No, never! Impossible for a Russian.’

What counted for Véra was the fiction, the suppression of fact was merely in the cause of that overarching good. In this sense, Véra was not so much the sorcerer’s apprentice as the magician herself. Vladimir had little patience with his own reality, explaining, as Schiff says, that ‘the living, breathing breakfasting Nabokov was but the poor relation of the writer, only too happy to refer to himself as “the person I usually impersonate in Montreux”.’ ‘It is a false idea to imagine a real Nabokov,’ their friend Jason Epstein concluded. The reality of the life was for the two of them alone, only the writing and the selling of the books mattered, and Véra attended to that with the tenacity of a literary rottweiller. ‘It was her fervent and unreasonable conviction that books should be accurately translated, properly printed, appropriately jacketed, aggressively marketed, energetically advertised ... she seemed to believe that [royalty statements] should be intelligible and arrive punctually.’ This was Véra’s life, and Schiff contends plausibly that it was only different in detail from that of any other good wife: ‘It has been noted that women are accustomed to tending to chores that are repetitive in nature, tasks that are undone as soon as they are accomplished. The pursuit of the accurate royalty statement, of the carefully proofread manuscript, were not the Sisyphean labours those who first observed this phenomenon had in mind. But they constituted the dusting and vacuuming of Véra Nabokov’s life.’ Véra is the devoted wife that all writers, regardless of gender, long for and for whom the most passionate believer in the right of individuals to pursue their own destiny might well give up his or her principles. Who knows what lurked underneath her passion for her husband’s art, what might have been? She was a kind of art form herself. Seconds after Vladimir Nabokov died, ‘a Lausanne nurse precipitated herself bodily upon Véra with condolences. Véra pushed her away with an acid, “S’il vous plaît, Madame.”’ And yet, after her son drove her back from the hospital that day, Véra sat in silence in his car for a few minutes and ‘then uttered the one desperate line Dmitri ever heard escape her lips: “Let’s rent an airplane and crash.”’