The actress Lillie Langtry - born Emily Charlotte Le Breton on the island of Jersey, the daughter of Rev. Corbet Le Breton, Dean of Jersey - married Edward Langtry in 1874 and soon moved to the fashionable Belgravia section of London. Widely accepted in society as the most beautiful woman of her time, Langtry was painted by Whistler, Burne-Jones, Frederick Leighton, and John Everett Millais, whose portrait The Jersey Lily provided her with the epithet (but caused confusion over the spelling of her adopted Christian name). Frank Miles, who had drawn her many times, introduced her to Wilde in the summer of 1877. In her memoirs, Langtry recalled her first sight of Wilde:

The plainness of his face was redeemed by the splendour of his great, eager eyes.... To me he was always grotesque in appearance, although I have seen him described by a French writer as "beautiful" and "Apollo-like." ... He had one of the most alluring voices that I have ever listened to, round and soft, and full of variety and expression ... (83)

In July 1879, Wilde hailed Langtry as "The New Helen," the title of his poem that appeared in Time (in her memoirs, Langtry errs in citing the World as its first appearance), then revised it for his Poems (1881). Drawing a parallel in the poem between the actress and Helen of Troy (which Yeats would later do with another actress, Maud Gonne), Wilde later reportedly said: "Yes, it was for such ladies that Troy was destroyed, and well might Troy be destroyed for such a woman". The poem reveals his worship of Langtry's beauty: "Yet care I not what ruin time may bring / If in thy temple thou wilt let me kneel." Referring to her as the "Lily of love, pure and inviolate," Wilde calls her a "Tower of ivory," both flower and tower symbols of purity and strength associated with the Virgin Mary. When Poems appeared, Wilde sent her a copy with the inscription: "To Helen, formerly of Troy, now London". In her memoirs, Langtry included the text of "The New Helen" in its entirety

At this time, Wilde had been acting as Langtry's secretary, advisor, and apparently tutor, as an undated letter from her indicates:

Of course I'm longing to learn more Latin but we stay here [near Plymouth] till Wednesday night so I shan't be able to see my kind tutor before Thursday.... I wanted to ask you how I should go to a fancy ball here, but I chose a soft black Greek dress with a fringe of silver crescents and stars, and diamond ones in my hair and on my neck, and called it Queen of Night.

In time, however, Langtry probably found Wilde a somewhat officious attendant, for she had attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales (the Prince's nephew, Louis of Battenberg, was the father of her only child, Jeanne Marie, born in 1881).

Despite her relationship with the Prince of Wales, Wilde continued to amuse and instruct her; indeed, rumors circulated that every day he would present her with a lily. He also urged her, in view of her beauty, to become an actress, thereby dashing cold water on Frank Miles's suggestion that she undertake a market garden of hardy flowers, then an undeveloped industry. The "well-meaning Frank," Wilde allegedly argued, would "compel the Lily to tramp the fields in muddy boots".

Subsequently, Wilde introduced her to Henriette Labouchere, the wife of the M.P. and editor of Truth (later responsible for the passage of Article XI of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, under which Wilde was later convicted and imprisoned: see Labouchere, Henry). Mrs. Labouchere, formerly an actress, was training people for the stage: she and Langtry acted in a two-character one-act play in November 1881. Langtry, with the moral support of the Prince of Wales, soon established herself as a talented, though not gifted, actress.

On his lecture tour of Canada in October 1882, Wilde reportedly said in an interview conducted in Halifax, Nova Scotia: "I would rather have discovered Mrs Langtry than have discovered America". When Langtry, in her first American stage appearance, acted the leading role in Tom Taylor's An Unequal Match, Wilde reviewed her performance in the New York World (7 Nov. 1882), under the title "Mrs. Langtry". Celebrating Langtry's beauty, which he referred to as "Greek," Wilde writes: "It is Greek because the lines which compose it are so definite and so strong, and yet so exquisitely harmonized that the effect is one of simple loveliness purely...." During Langtry's second American tour in 1883, Wilde wrote to her in mid-December of that year: "...I am really delighted at your immense success.... You have done what no other artist of your day has done, invaded America a second time and carried off new victories". In the same letter, Wilde informs her of his engagement.

After his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884, he understandably saw less of Langtry, but in 1891 he offered her the role of Mrs. Erlynne (Langtry later insisted that Wilde wrote Lady Windermere's Fan for her), but at the age of 39, she declined, protesting that she could not portray a mother with a grown-up daughter. Langtry was in the audience when the play opened on 20 February 1892. At the time of the Wilde trials, Ellmann remarks, "Even Lillie Langtry talked against him...". Furthermore, Ellmann asserts, though she "pretended in later life that she had sent him money in his last years, she did not" (586/551).

References: Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew (1925); Pierre Sichel, The Jersey Lily: The Story of the Fabulous Mrs. Langtry (1958); Noel B. Gerson, Lillie Langtry: A Biography (1972); Kevin O'Brien, Oscar Wilde in Canada (1982).


Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks, and Morals

by Laura Beatty

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