Friday 18 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 1)

Lola Montez. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
In 2005 I researched an article about infamous courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her tour of Victoria and other Australian colonies. As it never went online, I'd like to share it here. Enjoy!

Bendigo had never seen a night at the theatre quite like it. On the evening of 2 April 1856, residents of the thriving gold mining town had paid five shillings to see a performance of Asmodeus, or The Little Devil.

It wasn’t the play they were interested in, but its star, Lola Montez. Celebrated and condemned in the world’s media, she was a magnet for scandal and gossip.

However, she was about to be upstaged. As a thunderstorm raged outside, a bolt of lightning broke through the roof, darted toward the stage, and struck with explosive force.

Audience members screamed, actors ran wildly across the stage, and scenery smouldered in the aftermath. The Bendigo Advertiser, with a delightful sense of understatement, later described it as “a scene of real interest, not often parallelled on the stage”.

Montez remained in place throughout. After the confusion had abated, she calmed the audience and reportedly remarked that no stage effects would be required in the circumstances: “Only a little brandy”. The show went on, increasing Lola’s popularity with the punters.

Lola Montez was the original dirty dancer and bad-girl global celebrity. Although she visited Victoria before its connection to the world via telegraph, her reputation preceded her.

She was known primarily as a dancer, but not a particularly good one; so she was an early example of the celebrity who’s famous for being famous. In short, Lola Montez was the Paris Hilton of her day. Like the present-day staple of gossip mags, her fame was forever linked to sex and scandal.

She had certainly led a colourful life before her arrival here 150 years ago, in September 1855. Her 34 years had produced a biography of dishonour and outrage that would take most people a lifetime to amass.

Born Eliza Gilbert, she had grown up in India and England before eloping from a girls’ school with a young lieutenant. After a later divorce, she re-emerged as Lola Montez, an exotic performer of Spanish folk dances.

What followed was a dizzying adventure surpassing the most imaginative fiction. Careering across Europe, Lola danced before the King of Prussia and the Russian Tsar, and famously horse-whipped a Berlin policeman on horseback. She befriended composer Franz Liszt and writer Alexandre Dumas, then settled in Paris until her then lover was killed in a duel.

Arriving in Munich in search of a dancing engagement, she unexpectedly entered into the greatest role of her career: mistress to the 60 year old King of Bavaria, Ludwig I. But Lola lacked the discretion required of a courtesan.

Her flamboyance, uneven temper and young male entourage earned the hatred of the Bavarian population, though the king created her Countess of Landsfeld. After indirectly causing the fall of governments and the king’s abdication, and contracting a new husband who she soon abandoned, Lola left Europe for America.

This is where her fortunes finally started to turn. In a nation where acceptance was more contingent on money and fame than social standing, Lola was able to milk her sensational past without being fatally injured by it. After performing across the USA and settling in the west, she heard about Australia’s gold rush and decided to tour, visiting Sydney, Melbourne, Geelong, Adelaide and the goldfields over nine months.

Lola arrived in Melbourne to find the city still humming from the discovery of gold. With the influx of miners from all over the world, and with the Eureka Stockade rebellion a recent memory, Lola Montez may have expected a frontier society which would give her greater acceptance than she could hope to find in stratified Europe.

However, Melbourne University historian David Goodman says she just missed Melbourne’s wildest days.

“By 1855, Melbourne has settled down after the early gold rush years, when new arrivals were living in a tent city in South Melbourne. It’s a ‘miracle city’, in that it was built so quickly, but it’s also an established town familiar to someone from one of the newer English cities. It has all the trappings of civilisation: police, courts, churches and schools. It’s not a wild frontier town.”

So Lola did experience censure, focused on her notorious 'Spider Dance'. This was a faux Spanish folk dance which involved her energetically searching her skirts for an invisible spider, then stamping it to death. The local critics were hostile to luke-warm: The Argus described it as “utterly subversive of all ideas of public morality”; The Age was initially impressed, until a second reviewer decided the dance was “simply ridiculous”.

Next post: Backlash (and a horse-whipping!)

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