History can be deadly dull. Names, places, dates, events.
What of course makes history interesting is the ‘story’ aspect of it, the interplay between people and events, and also how people got on with everyday life. And of course, there are these occasional wild exotic characters that really you couldn’t invent with any degree of credibility. Characters who seem completely theatrical, such as Jane Ellenborough and Lola Montez, women who both had affairs with Ludwig of Bavaria, and who by force of circumstances took to living on the wild side, and embraced it with gusto.
In the case of Lola Montez, sometime mistress of Ludwig of Bavaria, sometime an exotic dancer who caused near riot in Castlemaine with her ‘spider dance’, she seems to have been destined to live fast and die young.
Her mother was from impoverished Irish gentry stock, who like so many genteel women of that time escaped the life of genteel poverty chronicled by both Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters by marrying an East India company officer and moving to India.
In due time, little Lola was born, except of course she wasn’t Lola then, she was Eliza Roseanna Gilbert. And then as often happened, her father died. The British in India died young, usually of drink or disease, rarely due to fighting. The cantonments of British India were surrounded by graveyards.
Her mother remarried in due course and Lola’s stepfather thought she should be sent to school in Britain, choosing a school in Montrose in Angus where she would be close to his family.
School was not a success. Lola lasted eight or so months in dourly Calvinist Montrose, where she caused outrage by running naked down the high street, for what reason no one knows. She was moved on to other schools, acquired the conventional accomplishments of a mid Victorian young lady, and in due course a husband, another Indian army officer, who promptly ran off with a fellow officer’s wife, leaving Lola on her own and without an income.
She tried being an actress, but was apparently terrible. She tried being a dancer but was not much better, and somewhere along the way hit on her true talent. I would say to be a courtesan but that would be unfair, her real talent was as a businesswomen to turn the money she acquired from her exotic activities into a successful and notorious saloon in California’s gold country. From there she toured as an exotic dancer including to Victoria’s gold country, which says something about nineteenth century communications and how fame and notoriety was spread by the press.
She was a larger than life character, someone who in the course of her career went from abandoned wife to a dalliance with Liszt to someone who negotiated with Metternich’s emissaries during the 1848 insurrections when her lover Ludwig was indisposed to a California bar and brothel owner.
If it was fiction it would seem unbelievable, but as fact …
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