Lillie Langtry was one of the most celebrated society beauties of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. She thoroughly fascinates me, since, looking at pictures of her today, my modern eye doesn't rate her looks especially highly. But since contemporary reports always mention her sparkling wit and intelligent conversation, I feel that she may have been one of those women who, while definitely of above average looks, is so bewitching and magnetic in person that she caused all who met her to fall under her spell. That or she was actually a witch. Who knows!
Born Emilie Le Breton in Jersey in 1853, Lillie was an intelligent and well-educated young woman. Many suitors were captivated by her violet eyes, but Lillie wouldn't even consider marrying a local, having ideas far above her station. A sensible girl, even then! She married Edward Langtry at the tender age of twenty, for the solvent Langtry had himself a yacht, and together they sailed off to the mainland; and thence to London. Lillie had finally escaped the confines of Jersey! It wasn't long before she made an impact on London Society, but, like so much in life, it was sheer (and rather rotten) luck that brought her to the attention of the elite.
Her young brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident and, while attending a memorial gathering held by Viscount Ranelagh at his home in Lownes Square, Lillie's rather unfashionable, simple black gown and her outspoken views marked her out as something very special indeed. Sketched that very night by society artist Frank Miles, then painted by one of my very favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists, Millais; Lillie's image was soon everywhere, outselling pictures of all the starlets of the time. And with her new-found fame came countless invitations to glittering balls, elegant soirées and sporting events came pouring in. Her rise to celebrity was nothing short of meteoric. It wasn't long before the Crown Prince insisted on an introduction.
Prince Bertie was very fond of the ladies. Very fond indeed. And in those days, of course, taking a mistress was not only accepted, it was expected! And when he heard about Mrs Langtry and saw her picture, he arranged a dinner, ensuring she was seated next to him. And the rest is saucy history. He made her his mistress to the exclusion of all others, and given the Prince's reputation as the Hugh Hefner of his day, this was a testament to her irresistible charms. Only a year after they met, The Red House was built.
You see, Lillie was a canny sort. A business woman to the core, she eschewed gifts of gowns and fripperies, preferring the long-lasting benefits of owning property. Having a private lovenest was evidently something that also appealed greatly to Edward, and so the house that is now Langtry Manor Hotel was built in 1877.
When I discovered this information, I couldn't resist going along and finding out more about the lady of the manor.
I thought it only right to wear something a little slinkier than my usual attire, so on went one of my prized Able Grable dresses, accessorised with a bottle of KGL. The staff were so warm and welcoming, which is always welcome after a long journey. And, as fortune would have it, the King's Room was unoccupied, and I was allowed to have a look around!
The furniture is magnificent, completely befitting of a king. From the elegantly carved chairs, to the plump sofa and the huge, four poster bed. Four posters and I don't get on, as I am incapable of not hitting my knee on them usually (last time, so hard I swear I actually reversed time a few seconds). But I managed to avoid it this time!
I just made myself at home, basically.
The hotel is also home to a small but fascinating Lillie museum, with dozens of photos, prints, playbills, pieces of memorabilia, and even one of her dresses, a magnificent cream silk number. Lillie was the very first ever woman to do a celebrity product endorsement, for Pears Soap! I hope one day I get famous enough to advertise Matey bubbles.
After her affair with Edward ended in 1879 (after, as urban legend had it, she made fun of him at a dinner party, and they fell out), financial problems led her to a hugely successful career as an actress. Edward obviously continued to care for her, as he was known to support her plays and comment positively on her work. Whether she was actually good at acting and not just a beautiful piece of wood, I have no idea. But I was fascinated to see pictures of Lillie in costume and the posters from her shows.
The house is indelibly stamped with Lillie's personality. Not only did she design it, but she had mottoes inscribed all over it: Dulce Domum (Home Sweet Home) on the back and Stet Fortuna Domus (may fortune attend those who dwell here) outside the King's Room. The stained glass windows in the dining room are exquisite, and the little details within, such as the King's Peephole, where he could spy on the dining room guests to see if he wanted to come down and see them, are marvellous.
But while this learning history malarky is interesting, it doesn't half make you peckish. There was only one thing for it... to eat. I made a bee-line for the bar, and found my gingery friend in pride of place. I'm afraid to say I went for something a little weaker though...
Oh, afternoon tea. The best of all the things. The best time of the day, the best drink and the best meal known to man. The tea at Langtry Manor is a fraction of the cost of teas in the smart London Hotels, but it is absolutely heavenly. Home made sandwiches, freshly baked cakes and warm scones, plus fresh smoothie shots and the richest little tarts I've ever tried. I think Lillie would have approved.
But after all that delicious grub, and all that history detective-ing, I was feeling rather stuffed and sleepy. Good thing that ginger is good for the old digestion, eh? There was only one thing left to do, have a lie-down on the King's Bed for forty winks before home!
Langtry Manor is a wonderful place to visit, if you ever find yourself in darkest Dorset. Not only is it fabulous in itself, but owner Tara even runs a rather splendid scheme, The Dorset Local Business Women Awards; something else of which Lillie would also highly approve, I've no doubt.
Until next time, hope you're all having a spooky Halloween... check back tomorrow to see my rather un-terrifying costume effort.