Spanish for Beginners

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Lola Montez: A Life by Bruce Seymour
    Yale, 468 pp, £20.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 300 06347 4

The fake Spanish dancer Lola Montez, née Eliza Gilbert, had one of those lives which make us aware of unlikely simultaneities. Operetta clanked against Western as she toured the gold-towns of the American West and Australia with a skit called ‘Lola Montez in Bavaria’. It was a farcical whitewash of her most infamous hour, when as a fake countess she had rocked an Ancien Règime court in the Year of Revolutions. The play consisted of five scenes: ‘The Danseuse’, ‘The Politician’, ‘The Countess’, ‘The Revolutionist’, ‘The Fugitive’ – the last being the real story of her life. Hounded out of theatres, countries and continents, she was always on the run and always bounced back, expiring with one finger on the Bible in 1861.

This unpretentious biography, whose author used vast winnings on Jeopardy! (the US quiz show) to finance four years’ research, excitedly promises and, for all we know, delivers God’s truth about La Montez. Past biographers, according to Bruce Seymour, were hoodwinked by one of the great self-inventors in an age of invention – and it would be foolish to have expected anything less of this amazing woman, the Madonna of her day, a star in the firmament of ball-breakers.

The clever, spoilt and wilful child of an illegitimate Irish beauty and a short-lived British ensign, Eliza Gilbert was shipped from India at the age of six into the care of her stepfather’s relatives in Scotland, and later enrolled at the Aldridge Academy in Bath. In 1836, before she was 17, her mother came to fetch her back, with plans, Eliza claimed later, to marry her off to an elderly widower in Bengal. She got out of this by eloping to Ireland with her mother’s admirer, Lieutenant Thomas James. The shotgun marriage soon failed, however, and she escaped by way of another scandalous affair, with another lieutenant (called Lennox), who dumped her penniless in London just as James began suing for adultery. Rather sensibly, Eliza resolved to abandon her life so far and start another with better prospects, in the exotic shape of María Dolores de Porris y Montez, the aristocratic, exiled widow of an executed hero.

Eliza had a brisk period of metamorphosis in Spain, lasting for a few months in 1842-3, and of this, Seymour informs us, there are no documentary traces. We rejoin ‘Lola’ as she surfaces fully formed in London, with a smattering of Sevillian folk-dance, a taste for tobacco, and what can only have been a cartoon Spanish accent. This is a tantalising point, never sufficiently addressed: how could an Englishwoman, even with Irish r’s, have passed for Spanish for so long? Wishful thinking, the power of the stereotype, the imprecise linguistic ear of a stratified society, and a public which had yet to discover the Costa del Sol must all be part of the answer. In the twenty years she kept it up, Lola’s fiction came closest to exposure on the occasion of her stage début, performing a sexy piece in the interval of The Barber of Seville at Her Majesty’s Theatre. The publicity had been drummed up by influential gentlemen friends. The Morning Post previewed the act: ‘Lolah Montes is a purely Spanish dancer ... In person she is truly the Spanish woman – in style, emphatically the Spanish dancer.’ ‘El Olano’ was described as ‘an intensely national dance’, which would be ‘as new to the generality of English eyes as we believe it to be beautiful’.

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