Lola Montez Star Attraction at the Ballarat Goldfields
This video explores the social forces at play when Lola Montez arrived in the new colony and performed the Spider Dance. With the influx of people for the goldrush beginning to settle, the radical and fluid nature of the goldrush towns was shifting toward the more conservative morals associated with a clearly stratified society.
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.
Dr Ann Beggs-Sunter: Lola Montez was one of a number of star attractions that came to Ballarat.
We had many Europeans, British performers, there were Americans, who really saw the goldfields as a great pot of gold for entertainers to make their fortune.
Dr Clare Wright: When she comes to Ballarat, we have to understand the context in which she arrives.
Anne: Life was pretty free and easy on the goldfields.
There'd been no time for the typical structures of a civilised society to build up. It was very much that...that wild frontier.
Claire: There's so much social flux. I mean, people's roles are being expanded – Jack is as good as his master.
Suddenly, men who had nothing have riches.
Men, who in England, had had quite high roles in society, had been well-respected professionals, are now diggers down on their luck.
Anne: Writers talk about the clay-covered democracy of the early goldfields, when everybody was really equal.
If someone was a doctor, or a lawyer, or a painter from the courts of Europe, they were absolutely equal with the ex-convicts who might have come over from Tasmania.
And women who were supposed to accept any marriage proposal that was come to them and be grateful for it, now were finding, in Australia, that because there was this huge disproportion of the sexes, they could choose who they wanted to marry. And this was unheard of. And there's all sorts of anxiety at the time around these gender power imbalances and reversals.
And so Lola arrives right at that moment, and, in a way,she becomes a lightning rod for all of that controversy and all of that social anxiety about place - about women's place, about class. So she was used in a sense as a way for society to be able to explore the tensions that were going on.
Anne: There is this change occurring around the time that Lola came.
There's... More and more women have settled in Ballarat, so there's more families. There's beginning to be a much greater concern about propriety in the behaviour of women, and modesty of dress and these kinds of matters.
Clare: And so there's a lot of outcry, public outcry, about the more out-there aspects of her performances.
And interestingly, it's not the political aspects of her performances that are really focused upon. There's much more concern that Lola is lifting the heights of her skirts, that she's being lewd, that she's testing the boundaries of morality.
Anne: Of course, the diggers loved it.
But it's this... the beginnings of the stratified society, the emergence of class structures basically, that meant that it's the upper classes that are tending to suddenly look down their noses morally at the behaviour of Lola Montez.
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