March is Women’s History Month!
In honor of the occasion, I will be reposting some of my previous articles about women who’ve helped pave the way for empowered women everywhere. Here is a two-part article I published in June of 2012 about Lillie Langtry, also known as The Jersey Lilly–a social climbing powerhouse who rocked Victorian England. Her popularity was so immense it became termed, “The Langtry Phenomenon.”
Considered the most beautiful woman in England, Royal Mistress to the Prince of Wales, paramour of the Earl of Shrewsbury and Prince Louis of Battenberg, Lillie Langtry, a Victorian beauty, caused a commotion wherever she went. She became a controversial figure who challenged Victorian society’s attitude toward women and paved the way for future women entrepreneurs all over the world.
Born in 1853 on the island of Jersey, located off the Normandy coast of France, Emilie Charlotte Le Bretton, affectionately called Lillie, grew up with six brothers. Her father was the Reverend William Corbet le Breton, the Dean of Jersey, and her mother, Emilie Davis, a woman noted for her beauty.
Lillie inherited her mother’s good looks and had many suitors on the island. One asked Lillie’s father for her hand, but the Reverend turned him down as Lillie was only fifteen years old. She paid the suitors no mind preferring to roughhouse with her boisterous brothers, join in their pranks, and ride horses bareback on the beaches and throughout the countryside of Jersey. Her father also insisted that she have the same educational opportunities as the boys and she proved to be an ardent and talented student.
When it became known that her father, the religious authority on the island, was a habitual philanderer, Lillie decided it was time to leave Jersey and wanted to sail to the continent and live in London. Her reprieve came in 1874 when at twenty years old she married Edward Langtry, a wealthy landowner, yachtsman, and angler. He took her from the island to his home in Southampton. Having escaped Jersey and her family’s troubles Lillie expected marriage to open up a whole new world for her. But, married life and her new husband proved to be disappointments. Edward often left Lillie alone in their grand house with no one for company except servants, to go on his sailing and fishing excursions.
Despondent and unhappy Lillie contracted Typhoid Fever. Her doctor, her sole source of company for weeks, soon became besotted with his beautiful patient. She confided in him that she wanted above anything else to move to London. When Edward returned from his adventures the doctor insisted that the couple move to London or else risk Lillie’s good health.
After the move, Lillie received word from her family that her younger brother Reggie was killed in a riding accident. She went home to comfort her mother and when she returned to London she wore a simple, black, form-fitting dress for all occasions – even soirees and balls — in honor of her favorite brother. The simplicity of her attire only enhanced her beauty.
Lillie and Edward were invited to a reception given by her father’s friend and fellow Jerseyman, the 7th Viscount Ranelagh, in Lownes Square. Many of the guests became enchanted with the Jersey beauty who stood out in contrast to the glittering and tailored ladies of London’s elite in her simple, black gown. Frank Miles, an up and coming young artist and guest, was so taken with her he immediately took out his sketch pad and made a line drawing of her right there at the party. Drawings of beautiful society women were printed on postcards and sold to the public. Miles’ postcard was an instant bestseller and out-sold all the other postcards of society beauties. Thrilled with the success of the postcards, Miles begged Lillie to honor him with a formal sitting. The resulting portrait was immensely popular and purchased by England’s Prince Leopold.
Lillie had arrived.
Soon, other artists were clamoring for her to sit for portraits. Sir John Everett Millais’ depiction of her became her most famous. Dressed in her usual black gown with a white lace collar Langtry held a Guernsey Lilly, as no lilies from Jersey were attainable. Millais named the portrait, A Jersey Lilly. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy and caused quite a stir. After the exhibition, Lilly was always referred to as “The Jersey Lilly.”
Read Part Two Here.