The term femme fatale was coined for her, but it seems a little understated. Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer who scandalised 19-century Europe, comes down to us through fiction and film as a full-blooded seductress, a pistol-waving hot-head and ingenious survivor. One of the most sumptuous images of her comes from Max Ophüls’s film Lola Montès, from 1955, which recently had its print restored. Here Lola is paraded in a circus ring, at the mercy of Peter Ustinov’s circus master and a dangerously excitable audience. The director had so little faith in the acting capacity of his star, Martine Carol, that she remains mute throughout, a luminous beauty and a puppet.
It’s a memorable depiction of female sexual power and its flip side: vulnerability and dependence – a tightrope that Lola Montez negotiated adroitly in her short life. Performing and sleeping her way through the capitals of Europe, she invariably managed to re-invent herself when her luck ran out, moving on to another city and another male benefactor. When passion is at its height, collect jewels, a street-wise maid advised her, and she took it to heart, benefiting from the patronage of Franz Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria, among many others.
Author Marion Urch loved the Orphüls film as a student, and when she learned that Montez was Irish – born Eliza Gilbert – she was hooked. Her new novel, An Invitation to Dance, explores Eliza’s Irish origins, opening in Cork in 1820 where her mother, a teenage milliner’s apprentice, first met her father, an ensign in the British army. By the time he discovered that she was the illegitimate daughter of an Anglo-Irish lord, she was already pregnant. A shotgun wedding preceded an army posting to India, with their new baby girl in tow.
The fact that she was Irish was fundamental to my understanding of Lola Montez, says Urch. I read everything I could about her, but most of it was quite hostile. I became determined to unlock her character, and rescue her from all the B-movie clichés and the implausible life story. None of the biographies I read really thought about her in the context of what life was like for women in Ireland and England at the time. Even the idea, always repeated, that she was a bad dancer: she did get some good reviews, in fact. It’s just that her dancing seemed raw and unrefined because it was based on flamenco. It came as a shock to audiences used to seeing ballet.
In Urch’s first-person narrative, the young Eliza Gilbert observes the casual cruelties of her world through sensitive eyes. Hurt by her mother’s indifference, she is passed like a parcel among nurses and servants, and eventually sent back from India to a boarding school in Bath on the death of her father. Exile, displacement and constant movement define her life’s history.When her mother arranged to marry her off at 17 to a man old enough to be her grandfather, she rebelled, eloping with an army officer who had originally been courting her mother. It was the first of many impulsive decisions which she lived to regret.