Friday 25 October 2019

Lola Montez: Un-Victorian in Victoria (Part 2)

Lola Montez and Henry Seekamp,
depicted in
Melbourne Punch in 1856.
Courtesy of State Library of Victoria
From last post: In 1855, the notorious courtesan and entertainer Lola Montez visited the Colony of Victoria, shocking many with her saucy 'Spider Dance'. Her story continues...

Moral reaction came quickly. In Melbourne, Dr John Milton, head of the City Court Mission, appointed himself as Montez’s arch-enemy.

After her first performance of the Spider Dance, he demanded a warrant be issued for her arrest, to prevent any repetition of the affront.

He was unsuccessful, perhaps due to mayor and theatre-builder John Smith being in the chair as presiding magistrate. Worthy citizens of Geelong also tried to shut her act down, without success.

Things were easier for Montez in gold mining country.

“Bendigo and Ballarat were turning into settled towns, but their goldfields still held large migratory male populations,” says historian David Goodman. “Entertainment was very welcome, so touring companies and other entertainers quickly got onto a circuit through the area.” Ever the canny self-publicist, Lola visited Ballarat miners at their diggings, and shouted them at local bars.

Her time in Ballarat included a violent incident that was reported in newspapers around the world. After a disapproving letter to the Ballarat Times described Lola as possessing “notoriety of an unenviable kind”, she laid into the newspaper’s editor, Henry Seekamp, in the bar of the United States Hotel, with a whip she’d just won in a raffle (see cartoon above).

Seekamp had been a hero of the 1854 Eureka Stockade revolt through his support for the rebel cause, and was known for his energy and temper; so he was unlikely to take the attack lightly. He replied with his own whip, and the two had to be separated by bystanders.

With highlights like these, Victorian newspapers used up plenty of newsprint on Lola. As they do now, the media loved a controversial woman for her ability to increase sales, whether they were praising or damning her. They were also happy to exaggerate existing stories about Montez, repeat unlikely rumours, and make new ones up, in an ever-expanding game of Chinese Whispers.

It was a situation that would suit her down to the ground. Lola thrived on controversy, often stoking the fires herself via letters to the editor, twisting facts to suit her public image.

She also gave the colony’s moral guardians a clear target, though they’d rarely seen the work they were complaining of, and the varied reactions of newspaper critics suggests the Spider Dance’s impropriety was very much in the eye of the beholder. But as we see today, outbreaks of moral panic have a lot to do with expressing the ego of the complainant, via the volume of his or her moral indignation.

Despite this sporadic resistance to her tour, accompanied by unsubstantiated rumours of intoxication and other unladylike behaviour, her audiences voted with their feet. They were happy to buy a ticket to be in close proximity to fame. They may also have sided with her dismissal of accepted authorities, not unlike the audiences who applauded Madonna’s critically panned West End stage debut in 2002.

Though Montez was only in the colony for a few months, she brought an air of international glamour to this remote part of the Western world. Did her success foreshadow the cultural cringe by which Australians sought validation from imported figures and culture?

No, says Goodman. “International entertainment was welcome, but ‘cultural cringe’ is anachronistic. Most of the population had only been here a couple of years, so they’re not thinking of themselves as Australian. Gold rush Melbourne is a very cosmopolitan society; more so than an English regional city like Bristol, for example.”

How significant was her visit to our developing colony? There’s no question that Lola Montez was one of the most colourful characters to visit Victoria, in the most colourful era of its history. But on the face of it, it’s hard to see her as anything more than a footnote.

Her outspoken commitment to liberal democracy was adopted for a New World audience, and her possibilities as a feminist icon are problematic. Though she was clearly a woman with a desire for an independent life, it was driven by her own demons rather than commitment to a cause.

Whatever her importance beyond the stage, Lola Montez is remembered. Even now, many Victorians recognise her name, some from history lessons at school. There’s even been a children’s book and a musical inspired by her tour. Why is she still so fascinating to the inhabitants of a post-modern era awash with celebrity scandals?

Maybe her memory lives on because, like Oscar Wilde, Lola Montez seems a contemporary figure trapped in an unforgiving earlier age. Or possibly, despite all our advances in equality between the sexes, we’re still fascinated by a woman who could break all rules of female propriety and get away with it.

No comments:

Post a Comment