The Satirical Genius and Revolutionary Feminism of Lola Montez.
“I expect to win the gratitude of the whole masculine gender by these rules of the art of fascinating. It used to be supposed that this art belonged exclusively to my sex; but that was a vulgar error, which the sharp practice of the men has long since exploded. And it is now well-established that gentlemen spend a great deal more time in inventing ways and means to entrap women and get them in love with them, than women do in trying to win the hearts of gentlemen. Love making indeed seems to be the ‘being’s end and aim’ of man. He appears to think that he was born for no other purpose, and he devotes himself to the business with a zeal and an enthusiasm highly honorable to his exalted genius, and to the immortal station he claims for himself of being the Lord of Creation.”
-Lola Montez, 1858. The Arts of Beauty; or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet: With Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating
If you’ve never heard of Lola Montez, you’re wrong.
She’s the famous seductress who inspired the song:
🎶 Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets And little man, little Lola wants you Make up your mind to have No regrets Recline yourself, resign yourself You’re through 🎶
(Feel free to open up the song in another tab for some mood music while you read.)
She was played by Martine Carol in Max Ophuls’ historically inaccurate yet stunningly gorgeous 1955 film, Lola Montès.
Lola is said to have inspired the character of Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes as well as countless other songs, plays, and films. Here’s a short rundown of the generally agreed-upon events of Lola’s early life:
She was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland.
Though her place of birth has been subject to multiple rumors. One biographer, C. Chauncey Burr, notes sympathetically that, “…she had to be born over and over again of the separate brain of every man who attempted to write her biography.” He then goes on to say that she was born in Limerick. This has since been disproven.
The woman was a firebrand from the start.
One teacher from her boarding school recalled how Eliza’s “beautiful countenance” was marred only by her “habitual expression of indomitable self-will.”
That’s so punk rock.
At the tender age of 12 (some say 16), she defied her family’s wishes for her to marry a man 40 years her senior. Instead, she eloped with a young British lieutenant who took her to live with him in India. Some sources say he died and some say she got bored with him. Either way, she left and allegedly slept with another lieutenant on the ship back to England.
She took on the persona of a “Spanish” dancer and began calling herself Lola Montez.
She danced for the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, and the nobility of Central Europe — all while shacking up with famous pianist, Franz Liszt.
She moved to Paris and became popular among the bohemian crowd until another one of her lovers, newspaper tycoon Alexandre Dujarier, died defending her honor in a duel.
She became the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
It’s said that the amount of political power he gave the very liberal-minded Lola by formally promoting her to the rank of Countess and allowing her to assert control over the all-male Jesuit administration is what sparked the outrage that led to an uprising of religious revolutionaries. The king was forced to abdicate his throne and Lola ran to Switzerland, where she waited in vain for him to meet her. When he never showed up, she married a British cavalry officer, who drowned shortly after.
At the age of 30, Lola traveled to the US, where she became famous for her “Spider Dance”-
A sultry and satirical variation of an Italian Tarantella dance. Lola would pretend to have spiders crawling up her legs so that she could lift her skirts up to scandalous levels, swat them away and stomp on them. When she took the dance to Australia, she let it all hang out down under and stopped wearing undergarments entirely.
Soon enough, audiences began to heckle her performances and Lola had to stop performing when people began bringing fruits and vegetables to the shows to pelt her with. Parodies of her performances started to pop up to packed houses. They called her “whore” and “tramp” and whatever other names have been historically shouted at a woman who upsets the status quo.
She married another newspaperman, whom she quickly divorced (It’s said she tossed him down a flight of stairs and threw his clothes out the window). From then on, her only companion was a bear cub she kept as a pet. She died of syphilis in New York at the age of 39. She spent her last days working at the Magdalene Women’s Asylum.
The more biographies and articles I read about Lola, the more frustrated I get that nobody ever mentions her book:
Yeah, the title probably could have left a little to the imagination, but that wasn’t Lola’s style.
The beginning of the book is a beauty guide for women, with recipes for skin-care pastes and advice on how to maintain a shapely figure:
“Exercise, not philosophically and with religious gravity undertaken, but the wild romping activities of a spirited girl who runs up and down as though her veins were full of wine. Everything should be done to give joy and vivacity to the spirits, for nothing so much aids in giving vigor and elasticity to the form as these.”
It must have been refreshing for a woman of the 19th century, a time of forced restrictions on how Western women dressed and behaved, to advocate for uninhibited frivolity.
You could argue that she didn’t go far enough in advocating for women to be allowed to participate in organized sport, and that would be fair. Some women like philosophical and religious physical activity. Lola’s version of exercise is a kind of manic-pixie-drunk-girl dance that might be titillating to men, as opposed to intimidating.
She does, however, do a fantastic job of maintaining throughout the book that nothing — no serum, no clothes, no makeup — can make a woman more beautiful than her intelligence and her confidence can. This was highly progressive for its time:
“The popular cant about beauty of the mind as something which is inconsistent with, and in opposition to the beauty of the body, is a superstition which cannot be for a moment entertained by any sound and rational mind.”
I think, perhaps, that Lola was so far ahead of her time in terms of some aspects of feminism that, when I’m reminded that she was a product of her time in other areas, such as racism, I feel disappointed.
There’s a disturbing number of skin-whitening solutions in this book, as well as a high regard for “fairness”. The practice of skin-whitening is still used today and is as much of an affront to intersectional feminist body positivity as it has ever been. Lola walks a confusing line in her book, first listing off the “generally accepted” features that make a woman beautiful to a man, and then discounting them.