Lola Montez 19th Century Radical
In this video the complex and fascinating life of Lola Montez is discussed, covering her activities as a dancer and as a significant political force in the royal courts of Europe.
Lola Montez was born Maria Eliza Dolores Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland in 1818. Her father was in the military and the family travelled to India, Scotland, London, Paris and Bath. When she was 18 years-old, Montez’s mother tried to marry her to a 60 year-old judge in India. Lola eloped with a young Lieutenant and they married in Ireland, but he soon left her for another woman. Montez then went to Spain where she learnt Spanish dancing, which enabled her to travel the world and gain access to people of power and influence, both politically and culturally.
Most notably, Montez was friends with George Sand (with whom, wearing male attire, she smoked cigars); a lover of Franz List, Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dujarier. She discussed matters of the state with Emperor Nicholas I of Russia and around 1845 became the lover of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her influence on Ludwig helped the push to overthrow the conservative Jesuit-led bureaucracy, but with Europe in turmoil, Ludwig abdicated and Montez fled.
Having had her Bavarian rights annulled, Montez commenced a performance tour, taking the Spider Dance to the Californian goldfields, and then to the Victorian goldfields, where her performances and radical behaviour caused a sensation. Eventually, she returned to America, where she lived penniless for a number of years before dying alone in her early 40s, in a New York boarding house.
Text based on A Lover and A Fighter; Clare Wright on the trouble with Lola Montez, Overland 2009, p195.
Barry Kay: She's not born Lola. She's born Eliza Gilbert. From memory, she's not born into a wealthy family. I think she was smart and ambitious, and I think she just grabbed opportunities as they came to change her circumstances and see what would happen.
Dr Clare Wright: The opportunities for women to have a role in public life were very few and far between in the mid-19th century.
And being on stage, being an actress or a performer in some way was one of the few avenues that women could really take centre stage and get attention for themselves.
She takes herself off to Spain and decides to learn a bit of Spanish dancing. I don't think she was there very long. But then there's this woman called Lola Montez who's performing in London and causing a sensation with her Spider Dance, which is certainly a much racier version, I would imagine, than any other tarantella that you might have seen at that particular time. And so that was her meal ticket - dancing.
But really what she loved was power and politics. And because she was able through her dancing to open doors to herself into the royal courts of Europe - and she danced all over Europe - she came to find that where she was most comfortable was talking politics with the men.
And interestingly they came to find that they really enjoyed talking to her too and that she had radical ideas.
Now, the first time we get a sense that Lola is having an influence on politics is when she becomes the lover of King Ludwig of Bavaria.
And she becomes one of the prime movers in shifting the Jesuit-led bureaucracy of the monarchy there. And she made a lot of enemies because of that. But she was really in step with the people's mood at the time.
So she was a political animal, and it was those ideas that informed the theatre that she started to write for herself and informed her very idea of herself as a modern woman.
Eloise Gooding: I think she was quite incredible, because, for the day, she was self-employed, she had to look after herself, she had to... Many a time she was bankrupt and it was only up to herself that she built her name back up again, maybe reinvented herself as well.
She was just... yeah, amazing.
Not just a performer and able to manipulate - which we do know she was able to manipulate people - but also there was an intelligence behind it and she was doing it to further her career, and to look after herself.
Who of us wouldn't want to do that?
I really like her and admire her for challenging society and the role of women in the 1850s.
She's the first woman to be photographed smoking a cigarette, which was massive taboo.
She was known also she would wear trousers occasionally.
Dr Anne Beggs Sunter: She does appear as quite a strong feminist.
She was very assertive, that it was totally right and proper for her as a woman to have this role in the public sphere as a performer. That she was not going to be trapped into any kind of domesticity.
She was going to lead a full and active life, as she had led when she was involved with the royal court of Europe.
Dr Clare Wright: What I find really fascinating is that if you were educated in Europe, you would actually have some idea from your high school education that Lola Montez played an important role in modern political history.
Whereas in Australia, we really just understand Lola Montez as a showgirl. And as a showgirl, she becomes symbolic of all sorts of other things - she was a bad girl, she was louche, she was immoral.
And it's so underselling Lola. By just seeing her as a showgirl, by just a goodtime girl, we undermine all of that power in her story.
Performer: Madame, are you upset with me because I can perform deeds that have left their mark on society, or that you cannot?
I'm not merely consisted of living a life that contains drinking tea, powdering, flirting, going to the opera, and sleeping.
Those women that do... Not you, of course, my dear.
Those women that do are inane pieces of human waxwork, and this conventional femininity, I believe, only invites men's scorn.
You're upset with me because I possess the independence and the power of self-reliant strength to assert my own individuality, while you, ma'am, you do not.
Until tonight, my friends, until tonight...
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