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’.

Lola’s ‘Spider Dance’, which had a long and mixed future ahead, involved much flashing of eyes and stamping on licentious tarantulas hidden up petticoats. The performance was accessorised with black lace mantilla, castanets and theatrical displays of haughtiness or languor. It had little to do with prevailing French-Italian styles and certainly surprised the habitués of the London theatre. Planted supporters got the applause going, but even as she was swept from the theatre in triumph, protests were being lodged with the impresario by spectators who were familiar with Spain or the notorious Mrs James. Publicly unmasked in the Age, Lola wrote to defend her persona with shameless verve, and in faultless English, claiming to have spent only seven months in this country at the age of ten, but the sceptics now threatened to outnumber the believers, and she laid plans for a prudent retreat in the direction of Russia. So began a rampage around Europe from Hamburg to Petersburg and beyond. Could a common English rose have got away with the scenes and scandals Lola created? Much was forgiven her in the name of southern fire and the lovely, ‘obviously Spanish face’, in the words of a Dresden critic, one of a thrilled and horrified chorus spouting similar nonsense (‘This Atalanta hunt, these antelope leaps seem far too Spanish to us’ was the more perceptive grumble in Danzig). But while her dances might inhabit a novel interface between charm and porn, her manners got her kicked out of almost everywhere.

Having invited herself to the tiny, ceremonious court of Prince Heinrich LXXII, of the Reuss dynasty of Thuringen in south-east Germany, she thumped the coachman in the face when he wouldn’t let her drive, made rude jokes about her host at dinner, decapitated the specially planted flowers, expressed loud pain at a performance of the ‘Reuss Folksong’ by children in trees, and set the master’s dog on one of them. The Prince had her on the coach for Ebersdorf before the rustic breakfast in her honour was even over. She worked her way to Berlin, where public disapproval was temporarily outweighed by the favour of Friedrich Wilhelm IV; a final performance at the Schauspielhaus ended in uproar. Lola stayed on unhired, ‘whether ... enjoying Berlin, or someone in it’. A week later she tried to crash the VIP tribune where the King and the Tsar were admiring a military parade together, and lashed an intervening gendarme with her riding crop. Deportation followed.

Seymour’s very contemporary, American nose for image-building invariably fastens on the advantages of such scandalous behaviour: ‘The incident ... turned into a gold mine of publicity for Lola. The story of her whipping of the Prussian officer was picked up eagerly by the foreign press ... transmuting itself into stories of whole regiments of Prussian officers fleeing her singeing whip.’ It’s a mistake to ascribe canny self-marketing skills to a raving egomaniac, or to credit the 19th-century media with the power of the media today, but Lola did scrape tangible benefits out of every disaster, usually in the form of letters of introduction furnished in order to be rid of her. Having fled St Petersburg because of some unpleasantness and latched onto Franz Liszt, she was expelled from Dresden after a nasty slapping incident. Liszt penned a hasty recommendation and she took off with it for Paris, where it seems that her wit and beauty worked wonders. Soon her friends in the Jockey Club were lobbying so hard that in March 1844 she made her début ‘on the hallowed boards of the Paris Opera’, and flopped. Théophile Gautier wrote sanely in La Presse: ‘Mlle Lola Montez has nothing Andalusian about her except a pair of magnificent black eyes. She hablas very mediocre Spanish ... What country is she really from?’ But few cared. She became a genial character about town and the mistress of A. H. Dujarier, co-owner and cultural editor of the same La Presse. He put her up in a smaller theatre, where she was more favourably received. One critic murmured that Lola had ‘spoiled the flower-bedecked triumph of her entrance by attempting to dance’, but even Gautier now found her as Spanish as her eyes (no matter, again, that they were famously blue). This kind of volte-face was frequent among Lola’s judges, suggesting a certain indulgent complicity in imposture so long as it did the job.

When Dujarier was killed in a duel she went on another European spree and in due course was thrown out of Baden Baden. The next stop was Bavaria, where King Ludwig was publishing soulful poetry and wondering if he would ever fall in love again, according to a new trove of correspondence that Seymour has mined to prurient effect: Ludwig’s letters are sentimental, coyly lascivious, increasingly distraught; Lola’s are of a breathtaking duplicity. Most histories hurry over the fact of Bavaria’s February 1848 insurgency, making curt reference to Ludwig’s ‘senile passion’ for Lola Montez. It is the not very glorious case that once he had set her up with a mansion and pension, made her Countess of Landsfeldt against the law of the land, and reshuffled his government a couple of times to please her, she became the catalyst for a revolution that would almost certainly not otherwise have occurred. Rumbling crowds began to gather under her windows, where she toasted them with champagne and shrilled, ‘Très bien, trés bien!’ as they were driven back at bayonet-point; then they would proceed to trash the police station or besiege the post office.

When the student body’s hostility to ‘her’ Alemannen (a fraternity of red-capped infatuates who stood with the King against the nation’s Lolaphobia) led the King to close the university at her insistence, even the good burghers marched on the palace. There was rioting and violent repression, and on 11 February, Lola was at last dragged ‘kicking and screaming’ out of her house and into a carriage that hurtled away. The crowd surged off to thank the King for this deliverance.

But the king was not at home. At that moment he was trying to get to Lola, who he thought was still in her house in the Barenstrasse. But the crush of bodies was too much even for a king to make his way through, and he was forced to circle behind and climb over the garden fence. The scene that greeted him was an orgy of destruction. As the King walked alone across the courtyard a large stone aimed at the house struck him solidly on the arm. Some of the soldiers, who had been observing the pillage, recognised the monarch ... the mob froze before King Ludwig.

His abdication a month later was not the result of popular will. His subjects had been ready throughout to forgive him for his bewitchment by the Foreign Whore. But as a staunch divinerightist, he found it impossibly demeaning to endorse the liberal, constitutionalist reforms forced through in March – with their clause banishing the Countess. He also believed, mistakenly, that he could rejoin Lola if he relinquished the crown. She harried him from Switzerland, demanding more florins, imploring him to smash the ‘republican canaille’ with the aid of reliably brutal Russian troops, and – herself ensconced in a love-nest with her favourite student – accusing her loyal slave of infidelity. ‘Oh Louis, Louis, how you have betrayed me! What a difference between your conduct and mine, for I am for ever, in the midst of your total abandonment of me, Your faithful and once beloved Lolitta.’

When Seymour wavers in his own infatuation with Lola it is largely because of her rich and elaborate forms of lying (without which, as he admits, he’d have no book). His dismay remains fresh throughout, though lies and their ambiguity are the pith of the Montez story. Eliza had to become ‘Lola’ to be herself; more broadly, in a society where female behaviour was highly circumscribed by male mythologies, the only ‘honest’ course for a ‘free’ woman might well be to lie, fight and manipulate a way out of every predicament. At times, Lola seemed to be modelling herself on the male archetype of the bad woman. And in this sense her bids for autonomy were just another level of falsehood.

Perhaps the most exasperating instance of her self-serving deceit was when – having privately called for repression in Bavaria – she then passed herself off as a fearless liberal, who had urged weak-willed Ludwig towards reform in the face of reaction and ultramontanism. This pose served her well in America, where she disembarked in 1851 after further scandalous adventures. Such were the shock-horror stories that had preceded her to New York that at first she surprised everyone with her restraint and flattering anti-European remarks. But the usual pattern set in. After a reviewer declared that ‘in its obscenity, the “Spider Dance” exceeds anything with which an audience has yet been insulted in this city,’ Lola took to the road. We can only imagine how the ‘Spider Dance’ and ‘Lola Montez in Bavaria’ played to bemused hillbillies across the country as Lola journeyed west towards the rough glamour of California.

She might have done better as gunslinger than as Countess of Landsfeldt. Instead, she chose a quieter course than either, marrying a San Francisco journalist and settling, for perhaps the only stable years of her life, in the boom town of Grass Valley, where she gardened behind a white picket fence and hosted a modest salon. It was also a relief from the poverty – despite an attempt to blackmail Ludwig with the threatened publication of his letters – and the legal pressure (a bigamy suit was pending in the British courts) that she had left on the other side of the Atlantic. One visitor to her home in Grass Valley wrote: ‘I found the gentle Lola in the back garden, having a little game with a couple of pet bears.’ A more considerate side of her character seems to have had room to grow here: the only major fracas was when she pulled a gun on a reviewer who had been unfairly critical of some singers struggling, like her, for acceptance.

The husband took off, however, and one of the bears grew up and bit her. In June 1855 she set sail with a new and quarrelsome troupe for Australia. She was 35 and dancing was taking second place to light romantic comedies, which despite her (ever less justifiable) reputation for smut were only moderately profitable in Sydney. The expensive Californian troupe was left to make its own way home, and she opened with local actors in Melbourne to the usual full house of censorious oglers, which thinned out as the engagement proceeded. The typically stormy Montez tour of the outback which followed was almost her last. On the ship home to an undecided future, her new actor-lover was swept overboard, and his death, according to Seymour, ‘began a transformation of her inner life’. If so, it is something we get little sense of from the book. At this ‘moment of truth’, let alone the more frequent moments of arrogance and self-pity, Lola’s inner life remains anyone’s guess.

Max Ophuls’s 1955 film was alternately called The Sins of/The Fall of Lola Montez, but was Lola – like Pabst’s Lulu – ritually sacrificed to frighten virgins? Her own far wickeder career faded out in semi-repentance and quasi-respectability, and the haunting 1860 photograph of a worn, soft, handsome matron is far away from the naughty prints of earlier days. By that time she had got religion, dropped the accent and become a popular international lecturer on topics like ‘Comic Aspects of Fashion’ and ‘English and American Character Compared’. It seems she still told awful whoppers about her past, but piously left $300 to New York’s Magdalen Society Refuge for reformed prostitutes, and it was at the story of Mary Magdalene that her Bible fell open when she received the last rites in Manhattan.