Originally published in 1954, The Wilder Shores of Love is the classic biography of four nineteenth-century European women who leave behind the industrialized west for Arabia in search of romance and fulfillment. Hailed by The Daily Telegraph as "enthralling to read," Lesley Blanch’s first book tells the story of Isabel Burton, the wife and traveling companion of the explorer Richard Burton; Jane Digby, who exchanged European society for an adventure in loving; Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a Frenchwoman captured by pirates who became a member of the Turkish sultan’s harem; and Isabelle Eberhardt, a Swiss woman who dressed as a man and lived among the Arabs of Algeria.
This reading group guide forThe Wilder Shores of Love includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The Wilder Shores of Love is the true tale of four fearless women, all of whom left the safety of home to know and inhabit the mysterious East. Isabel Burton meets her destiny through marriage to the adventurous travel writer Richard Burton and becomes his companion in travel and love; Jane Digby marries a series of husbands on her quest to find her true love, whom she finally meets and marries in a tent in the desert; Aimée Dubucq de Rivery is kidnapped and forced into the Sultan’s harem in Turkey, only to become a beloved favorite and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire; and Isabelle Eberhardt defies every convention to live as a man among desert Arabs. These stirring biographies by Lesley Blanch illustrate the lengths these four women went to in order to fulfill their longings—whether it was giving up family or living forever outside their homelands. The spirit of the desert moved each of the four with dramatic consequences.
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
Needless to say, travel was essential to the heroines of The Wilder Shores of Love. Their desire to travel defined them aspeople. How have the places you’ve visited or lived influencedyou? Is there a place that holds a special place in your heart—either as one you’ve been to, or as one you long to see?
Whether it’s Isabel Burton’s fortune as told by the gypsywoman of her youth or the palm reading by the Pythonessof Martinique, destiny plays a large part in these women’sstories. Do you believe in destiny or are you the captain ofyour own ship? To what degree do you think the women aligntheir lives with their foretold futures, or do you think theirdestinies were decided long before they lived them?
Do you believe these women could have accomplished theirgoals without getting married? How does each woman relateto her husband (or husbands)—as harbinger, gatekeeper,impediment?
“Isabel acted toward Burton very much as England was thenacting toward the East. She colonized him” (p 5). What are theattitudes of “colonizer and colonized” in The Wilder Shores of Love? Are there tensions between Eastern and Western Europe?How do these tensions impact the four women of the book?
The Wilder Shores of Love was originally published in 1952.How do you think the book stands the test of time? Nearlysixty years later, does the book still have something to teachus about love, destiny, and the limitations that were placedon women?
Isabel Burton married late and was considered by some tobe an old maid before she married; Jane Digby was “thoughtto be forty” when she was sixty-eight (p 181). By contrast,Isabelle Eberhardt died young while struggling with a rapidlydebilitating body. How did each of these women deal withthe reality of aging? How do you think their attitudes differed from the convention of the time?
What did you think of the fortune Lesley Blanch hadcommissioned for the end of Isabelle Eberhardt’s story? Wereyou impressed with its accuracy? Or did you think that Blanchwas stretching the story to fit the reading?
All of the women in The Wilder Shores of Love mastered manylanguages—Arabic, French, desert dialects. How do you thinkthis multiplicity of speech and writing affected their lives?Do you speak any other languages? How does the ability tounderstand someone else in their native language affect yourinteraction with that person?
Discuss Isabel Burton’s decision to burn Richard’s translationof The Scented Garden. Do you think she made the rightchoice? What might have been gained, by her and by theworld, if she’d allowed it to be published? Do you think it iswhat Richard would have wanted or was Isabel acting on herown rationalization?
Blanch argues that Aimée’s influence on the Turkishgovernment was substantial and affected Napoleon’s Frenchempire. Do you agree? How much influence do you thinka wife or mother can have on a ruler? Do you think Aiméeaffected the history of Europe in a profound way? How mightthings have turned out if she hadn’t been the sultan’s favorite?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
Explore your destiny: hire a palm reader, a mystic, or someone who specializes in Tarot readings and have everyone’s fortunes told. Or you can pick up a book of horoscopes or a Tarot card book from the library and have someone in your group read the fortunes of everyone else.
Experience Middle Eastern food: babaganoush, moussaka, or some other delicacy that you wouldn’t normally eat can add new flavors and textures to your palate—you might even discover a new favorite food! You can have everyone bring a different item, or order in from a local Iraqi, Pakistani, Indian, African, or Turkish restaurant.
Blanch speaks often of the haunting melodies of desert music. Download or get a CD from the library of TurkishTraditional Music by Ensemble Tahir Aydogdu; discuss how the music influences the mood of the book club meeting. How does it differ from Western music that you’re probably more familiar with?
Lesley Blanch was a distinguished writer, painter, drama critic, and Vogue editor. The author of twelve books, includihng Pierre Loti and The Sabres of Paradise, she died in 2007. To learn more about Lesley, visit her website at www.lesleyblanch.com.
“Love, wanderlust, faraway places—all that Romance implies—make up this delicious book. . . . Ideal reading.” —Washington Post Book World
“Over the years, many full-length biographies of [these] four heroines have been published. . . . But Lesley Blanch’s short, imaginative, and highly poetic account of their lives and personalities remains unsurpassed.” —The Independent (London)
“An exuberantly colorful book.” —Orville Prescott, The New York Times