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.

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