Monday, September 14, 2009

The not-so-good and the not-so-great, number 18: Eliza Gilbert

Malcolm had been relishing getting to this one.

Then, last Thursday, Frank McNally (who else?) in his Irishman's Diary, got there ahead.

Now, Frank's piece seems not to be on-line (or will have disappeared behind the subscription barrier), but his opening paragraph explains all:
Among Munich’s lesser-known tourist attractions is the Schloss Nymphenburg's "Gallery of Beauties": a collection of winsome female portraits commissioned by a 19th-century king of Bavaria, Ludwig I. The gallery thereby combines two of that king's main obsessions, women and the arts. And naturally it includes a picture of his greatest obsession: the Irish-born femme fatale, Eliza Gilbert, better known to the world as Lola Montez.
Miss Eliza Gilbert ...

It is generally agreed (the DNB has it vaguely, and most writers leave it at that) she was born in the County Sligo in 1821. To be more precise, it was at the Grange on February 17th. So let Malcolm start by backtracking a bit.

The 25th, the King's Own Scottish Borderers, arrived at Queenstown on Christmas Day, 1818: among them, Ensign Gilbert. He took up with an apprentice hat and dress-maker in Cork City: the teenage Eliza Oliver. Ahah! Malcolm hears you say: the link to the previous post! Indeed: it's good to see you are all paying attention. Miss Eliza Oliver was one of four children born of the long-term, but unsanctified connection of Charles Silver Oliver (whom we met before) and Mary Green.

Ensign Gilbert and Miss Oliver married on 29 April 1820: the bride was fifteen years old. Gilbert was then posted to Sligo, where his daughter was born; but her baptism was on 16 February 1823, at St Peter's in Liverpool. By then, the 25th were on the way to India, and the Gilberts with them. Soon after, Ensign Gilbert was dead, from Indian cholera, and his young widow quickly remarried: her new spouse, 45-year-old Lieutenant Pat Craigie.

The child Eliza, aged five, was quickly despatched home to her step-family in Montrose, where she showed early promise, offending her elders in kirk, and running naked down the street. The Craigies packed her off to a series of boarding-schools, all of which were severely taxed by Miss Gilbert. Eventually, aged sixteen, she eloped with Lieutenant Thomas James of the East India Company.

... Mrs Thomas James ...

They were married in Rathbeggan, Co Meath, where Thomas’s brother was the parson. Eliza, in her memoirs, described life in Meath as:
hunting, eating, hunting, tea... I wished for nothing more intensely than to be abducted once more, but this time not by a potential husband but by anything or anyone who would rescue me from this deadly monotony.
Lieutenant James had to return to Calcutta. He spent much of the voyage drinking porter, belching and snoring. On arrival in Calcutta he took up with another woman. Mrs James, perhaps none too distressed, pocketed all he had and promptly returned to England. The return trip was passed in the company of well-connected Lt. George Lennox, Aide-de-Camp to Governor General, Lord Elphinstone. Eliza was upwardly mobile, if from a horizontal position.

In London, she hit the stage running (or at least dancing) as:

... Donna Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez

Lords Malmesbury and Brougham, two conquests in many, prevailed upon Benjamin Lumley, the promoter at Her Majesty's Theatre; and on 3rd June 1843 she debuted there in a gala performance.

At first the critics fell for it. The Times approved her:
Spanish dance by a Spaniard, executed after the Spanish fashion.
The Evening Chronicle went further:
Her dancing is little more than a gesture and attitude, but every gesture and attitude seems to be the impulse of passion acting on the proud and haughty mind of a beautiful Spaniard; for she is exquisitely beautiful, in form and feature, realising the images called up by a perusal of Spanish romance. her dancing is what we have always understood Spanish dancing to be - a kind of monodrama.
"Lola", as she now became, represented herself as a betrayed refugee from Seville, in need of protectors, the richer, more grand and more generous the better. Already her strike-list included the son of Prime Minister Peel, Marius Petipa (creator of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker), the odd ambassador, and various literary and business types. She habitually carried a riding-whip to punish any disrespect and on one occasion she took a revolver in pursuit of a rapidly-departing lover who had failed to reach the mark.

Love for sale, and Europe at her feet

In St Petersburg, the Czar found a private audience with her worthy of a thousand roubles.

In Dresden she danced on the table before royalty and deposited the consommé into a ducal lap. The host, Franz Liszt, no laggardly lover himself, became so exhausted by her demands that he locked her in their hotel room, leaving a sum at the check-out to pay for the inevitable mayhem.

In Poland, the Viceroy offered her his country estate and a small mountain of diamonds. When she repulsed him (on grounds of age and appearance) he tried to terminate her engagements. She denounced him from the stage, thus fomenting a significant riot.

Old love, new love,
Any love but true love

If there was one in particular for her, she claimed it was Alexandre Dujarier. He was co-editor with Émile de Girardin of La Presse, the innovative Parisian journal which had fostered the careers of the likes of Balzac and Dumas (another of Lola's passing fancies). Not long after the liaison began, Dujarier was killed in a rigged duel. His opponent, Jean-Baptiste Rosemond de Beaupin de Beauvallon (phew!) was put on trial in Rouen. Dumas arrived to give evidence in an open carriage. The star of the show, mais naturellement, was Ms Montez. Dressed in showy widow's weeds, she described how Dujarier's corpse had been delivered to her in a carriage. Then she plucked from her bosom Dujarier's final note to her:
I am leaving to fight with pistols. This explains why I wanted to sleep alone and also why I didn't visit you this morning. I need all my self-possession and I must avoid all the emotions seeing you would have stirred. At ten o'clock it will all be over and I shall rush to embrace you, unless ...
Despite all, the verdict was not guilty.

The Countess of Landsfeld

Seven months later Lola had her greatest hit.

Her stage performance in Munich had been so execrable, the manager instantly terminated the engagement. Lola stamped off to complain to the highest authority: King Ludwig himself. This, let us be reminded, is not "Mad" King Ludwig II, the Swan King, but his grand-father (left).

Still in her stage costume, she forced her way in the King's private study, demanding "justice". Ludwig, apparently trying to defuse things, enquired whether her figure was a work of nature or a work of art. Lola snatched a pair of scissors off the King's desk, hacked her dress open to the waist, and instantly had his full attention.

Within a month of landing in Munich, Lola was on the royal pay-roll: 10,000 florins a year (4,000 more than the chief minister). Ludwig had built her a small palace (16,000 guildern), bought her a Parisian coach (3,300 francs), porcelain, furniture and much, much more. He impoverished his own family: the queen and his eight children survived on rye bread. Lola's allowance was doubled.

Lola effectively took over the government of Bavaria. Ludwig graced her with a title, Countess of Lansfeld. She took on the Jesuits of arch-Catholic Bavaria. She introduced the Napoleonic code of law. She needed armed protection. She recruited a student fraternity, the Allemania, as her private spy-ring, reporting gossip: their reward was naked parties in which she was paraded shoulder-high -- in one of these, her bearers cracked her skull against the chandelier and left her unconscious. None of this suppressed her continuing sexual adventures, including one with Ludwig's illegitimate 21-year-old son.

By 1847 the situation was about to boil over. Metternich tried to buy her off. Palmerston's nephew could report back to the Prime Minister that:
everyone is alarmed ... The exasperation of all clases is so great that the idea of dethroning the king is daily gaining ground.
On 9 February 1848 a riot, Metternich's fall-back ploy by employing rival student guilds, continued over some days; and ended with the looting of Lola's house. She was deported. Ludwig followed soon after: on 19th March, abdicating in favour of his son, but still loyal to his ever dear Lolitta.

In 1848, the Year of Revolution, Lola Montez had, single-handed, and uniquely, generated the overthrow of a leftist government by the militant right.

Frank McNally sums up the rest
The show had to go on, meanwhile, and Lola duly packaged the Bavarian chapter of her life-story into a stage play. She toured Europe and Australia and the US, a country she found more amenable to her large personality and in which she eventually settled.

Her life remained turbulent, however. When men were not being struck by her beauty, they were being struck by her in other ways. She was a serial assaulter: slapping, punching, kicking and sometimes resorting to other weapons as the mood took her.

When an Australian newspaper wrote about her critically on her tour there, she horsewhipped the editor.

Of her three marriages, the last two were bigamous and none was long-lasting. But then finally she did reform, spending the later part her career as a living morality tale, raising money for prostitutes charities, and going on lecture tours. Among her speaking engagements was one in Dublin's Rotunda. But soon afterwards she suffered a stroke and her highly eventful life ended in 1861, when she was not yet 39.
What that skims over is that Lola was a success to the end. Her stage play, Lola Montez in Bavaria, may have been lightweight, "with feeble gags thrown in"; but it continued to put bums on theatre seats across three continents.

One lover, who failed to provide satisfaction, went overboard mysteriously, off Fiji, with rumours of cannibalistic rituals.

She opened a saloon in the California gold-rush frontier: the floor-show was Lola at her most -- err ... -- unrestrained. Some letters, found after her death, imply it was all part of a plan to separate California from the Union as an independent -- wait for it! -- Lolaland. However, her Californian home at 48 Mill St, Grass Valley, CA, is preserved as State Historic Landmark 292 and a couple of lakes are named for her (right).

When she went on the lecture circuit she could command a better fee than even Dickens.

At the end she discovered religion, affecting Swedenborg sincerely but with no knowledge. On her death-bed she received a message from Ludwig, that it was:
a great consolation to hear her dying as a cristian [sic]. LM was a much distinguished lady.
And what's left?

Malcolm has singularly neglected one of the lady's conquests -- Harry Flashman:
one of the most remarkable women in my life—or in the life of anyone in the nineteenth century, for that matter. Who could have guessed then that Marie Elizabeth Rosanna James would turn a crowned head, rule a great kingdom, and leave a name to compare with Dubarry or Nell Gwynn? Well, she was Flashy's girl for a week, at least, which is something to boast of.
The rest, if not history, is Royal Flash, the second outing (published 1970, and as fresh as ever) of George Macdonald Fraser's anti-hero, and the most readable account anywhere of the Schleswig-Hostein Question. Sphere: Related Content

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