“I would rather have discovered Mrs Langtry than have discovered America” – Oscar Wilde (attributed)
The American West, 1883
Last night I was dreaming again of home. The images were so incredibly vivid. I was larking again in our old rectory at St Saviour, waiting for my father the Dean to return from some urgent business in Town. The air was heavy with high summer. I was running wild and free around the great stone cider press in the courtyard, jostling with my brothers and smiling in the warmth of the gentle Jersey sun. O happy childhood days! The memories trickled back from this honeyed lost world, long before this cascade of fame and champagne and pearls swept me away for ever.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons public domain)
Those were simpler, larrikin days. We would rampage in the streets and steal brass door-knockers. At night we would drape ourselves in white sheets and lurk in the graveyard, scaring the living daylights out of the local bumpkins stumbling back from the tavern. So in my mind’s eye I was laughing myself hoarse, japing and prancing in the sweet sunset of the Jersey summer, when I was jolted from my reverie by the sharp whistle of a steam engine. I smile as I wake.
How the world has changed. Our glorious steam folly, the Lalee, is rapidly gathering pace across the empty desert. The gossipmongers in the press speculate that this luxurious rail barge has cost half a million dollars, and to be fair I could trade it tomorrow for a neat little street in Knightsbridge. Yet that wouldn’t be half as much fun.
It has been a glorious adventure over here in the Promised Land. I dreaded that first tedious rat-infested voyage on the SS Arizona, but the frightful sixteen-day transit was soon forgotten just as soon as the bright lights of New York City winked into view off our starboard bow.
America is simply a revelation. Manhattan is a blazing whirlwind of energy and optimism. New York really is a great and growing adolescent of a city. We transferred to the decadent splendour of the Albermarle hotel, toured Central Park by carriage and dined at Delmonico’s, the most famous restaurant in the city. Dear Oscar joined us that evening to trade a few bon mots with the creme de la creme of New York society. Millionaires and courtesans, stuffy New England squires and Wall Street bucks raised their glasses in unison to toast my health. The champagne flowed as freely as rain.
Read more of Lillie Langtry’s imagined recollections in Jersey: The Hidden Histories.
You can read the Historical Novel Society review of the book here; in summary, “The book is well-written, expertly researched and interesting to read”