Emilie Charlotte le Breton, known as Lillie, was born on 13 October 1853 on the channel island of Jersey. We know little of Lillie’s childhood but do know that her parents were Emilie Davis and her husband William Corbet le Breton, who was a reverend.
Lillie was one of seven children and was the only daughter in the bunch. After tormenting her governess, she ended up being educated alongside her brothers, so she received a broader education than most girls in the period. It is said that Lillie grew up running free around the island and playing tricks on people with her brothers, she was often out playing dares and seeking attention to stand out from her brothers; once even streaking in the street at the age of eleven!
As time went on, her father was involved in numerous affairs and her mother started acting quite strangely – she began to take a pet seagull out and about with her and then eventually stopped leaving the house altogether. When Lillie was sixteen, she entered into a romantic relationship with a boy from the island; her father disapproved and tried to break the pair up. When all else failed, William had to admit to Lillie that the boy was in fact her own half-brother who was the product of one of his affairs and the relationship had to be stopped before it led to incest! This child was just one of a string of children in the area that suspiciously had the reverend’s eyes and good looks. After having quite enough of her father’s behaviour and wishing to leave the island, Lillie aimed for a marriage match that would allow her to move away.
In 1874, Lillie had supposedly set her sights on a man named Edward Langtry when he sailed in on a yacht called the Red Gauntlet. Lillie later met the wealthy, recently widowed Edward at a ball and they were married with Lillie’s father acting as Reverend. Many people wondered what Lillie saw in the shy Edward who was called “dull” and a “pudgy chap” and later in life, Lillie exclaimed, “to become the mistress of the yacht I married the owner”. Clearly for her, marrying Edward was a means to an end and a way out of Jersey. Within a few years, Lillie had realised her husband was not as well-off as he first appeared, she was bored on the island, and the pair were frequently bickering. At this point, Lillie got her wish, and the couple moved to the mainland.
In 1876, after living in Southampton for a while, Lillie convinced her husband to move to Belgravia in London in order to aid in her recovery from typhoid fever, Edward hated the idea but agreed, and they quickly began to live separate lives. A year later, Lillie made her first public appearance in London at the home of Lady Sebright, people loved her, and from then on she was a highly sought after guest for dinner parties and balls. Lord Randolph Churchill said she was “a most beautiful creature, quite unknown, very poor and they say she has but one black dress”. It is doubtful that Lillie did own just one dress at this time, but as she was in mourning after the death of her brother Reginald she was often seen in plain black clothing with no jewellery, surrounded by finely dressed women covered in jewels and bows, her natural beauty was allowed to shine.
Lillie soon found herself as an artist’s muse – she was sketched by Frank Miles and the prints of this were distributed far and wide. The young Jersey woman was then painted by John Everett Millais and was meeting with the likes of Oscar Wilde. Millais was blown away by Lillie and called her “the most beautiful woman in the world” while Oscar Wilde added that her charm, wit and her mind were her true weapons. Within a year of stepping out into London society, Lillie had somehow become a professional beauty and muse. One portrait of Lillie was displayed at the Royal Academy and had to be cordoned off due to keep the crowds back! Lillie spent her time posing for portraits and photographs which eventually ended up in the hands of the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Queen Victoria.
While his wife Alexandra was away in Greece, the Prince of Wales asked his fashionable friends to arrange for him to meet with Lillie Langtry. At a dinner party held by Arctic explorer Sir Allen Young, the Prince’s wish was granted and he was introduced to Lillie and her husband, with Lillie being given the title of “the Jersey Lily” a nickname that stuck. The Prince was besotted and arranged to meet Lillie more discreetly the next day, which led to romance. Lillie was shocked by her sudden fame, later writing “surely I thought London had gone mad, for there can be nothing about me to warrant this extraordinary excitement”.1