I am very pleased to welcome Cristina Morato today with an excerpt from her new book Divine Lola as she tours the internet with TLC Book Tours. Learn all about the book and then dive in to wet your whistle for this new release!
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About Divine Lola: A True Story of Scandal and Celebrity
An enthralling biography about one of the most intriguing women of the Victorian age: the first self-invented international social celebrity.
Lola Montez was one of the most celebrated and notorious women of the nineteenth century. A raven-haired Andalusian who performed her scandalous “Spider Dance” in the greatest performance halls across Europe, she dazzled and beguiled all who met her with her astonishing beauty, sexuality, and shocking disregard for propriety. But Lola was an impostor, a self-invention. Born Eliza Gilbert, the beautiful Irish wild child escaped a stifling marriage and reimagined herself as Lola the Sevillian flamenco dancer and noblewoman, choosing a life of adventure, fame, sex, and scandal rather than submitting to the strictures of her era.
Lola cast her spell on the European aristocracy and the most famous intellectuals and artists of the time, including Alexandre Dumas, Franz Liszt, and George Sand, and became the obsession of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She then set out for the New World, arriving in San Francisco at the height of the gold rush, where she lived like a pioneer and performed for rowdy miners before making her way to New York. There, her inevitable downfall was every bit as dramatic as her rise. Yet there was one final reinvention to come for the most defiant woman of the Victorian age―a woman known as a “savage beauty” who was idolized, romanticized, vilified, truly known by no one, and a century ahead of her time.
About the Author:
Born in Barcelona in 1961, Cristina Morató is a journalist, reporter, and author dedicated to writing about the lives of great women innovators and explorers that history has overlooked. Her research, tracing the footsteps of these remarkable women, has led her to travel to more than forty countries and has resulted in eight biographies: Viajeras intrépidas y aventureras (Intrepid and Adventurous Women Travelers); Las Reinas de África (African Queens); Las Damas de Oriente (Ladies of the East); Cautiva en Arabia (Arabian Captive); Divas rebeldes (Rebel Divas); Reinas malditas (Tragic Queens); Diosas de Hollywood (Hollywood Goddesses); and Divina Lola (Divine Lola), Cristina’s first to be translated into English. She is a founding member and the current vice president of the Spanish Geographical Society and belongs to the Royal Geographic Society of London. For more information visit www.cristinamorato.com/home-2.
Andrea Rosenberg is a translator from Spanish and Portuguese. Her full-length translations include novels, graphic narratives, and nonfiction, including works by Manuel Vilas, Tomás González, Inês Pedrosa, Aura Xilonen, Juan Gómez Bárcena, Paco Roca, and Marcelo D’Salete. Two of her translations have won Eisner Awards, and she has been the recipient of awards and grants from the Fulbright Program, the American Literary Translators Association, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.
It had been thirteen years since he’d said goodbye to her for the last time, but upon learning of her death, he found himself deeply moved. In all that time, King Ludwig I of Bavaria had been unable to forget his beloved Lola Montez, the beautiful Spanish dancer who’d burst into his life like a whirlwind one sunny fall morning. How could he fail to remember October 8, 1846, when he’d first seen her decked out in a black velvet dress that accentuated her splendid figure and the delicate pallor of her skin? He’d fallen in love instantly, captivated by her beauty, fire, and breathtaking personality.
Over the next few months, he had devoted himself obsessively, indifferent to her past and the notorious reputation that preceded her. In the conservative Bavarian court, rumors flew that the king had lost his head over a scandal-tainted woman who was trying to meddle in state affairs. Ignoring the critics, Ludwig granted her the title of countess, offered her a generous pension, and bought her a palatial mansion that he visited daily.
Now, in his old age, a smile played on his lips as he recalled that happy period during which he’d felt so profoundly rejuvenated. He still trembled when he remembered the afternoons they’d spent reading Don Quixote in front of the fireplace, whiling away the hours dreaming about a life together far from the dull Munich court. It is true that he had a weakness for beautiful women and had been an incorrigible ladies’ man, but Lola was different from the others-she was his great love.
Though he’d lost his throne and his subjects’ respect because of her, he bore her no ill will. He’d kept tabs on his lover’s adventures through the years, after she had been forced to flee Bavaria and then had swiftly become an international celebrity. His ambassador to Paris sent newspaper clippings about her scandals, her love affairs, and the success she was enjoying as an actress and dancer on tours of Australia and the United States.
Without a doubt, Lola Montez had been an unconventional woman. She could be kind, generous, considerate, and even meek, but she was also reckless, volatile, and wild. She rode a horse like an Amazon, smoked cigarettes, was handy with a revolver, and wielded her riding whip against any man who dared to contradict her. In a time when women dedicated themselves to housework, she had traveled the world and had trodden the boards of the most important stages, from London to Sydney, even though her talent as a dancer left much to be desired.
The king had kept hundreds of letters that she’d written to him over the course of their stormy relationship, as well as the poems she’d inspired as his muse and lover. He also kept, almost as a holy relic, Lola’s foot sculpted in marble, which he used to kiss every night before bed. Today, upon receiving the letter from New York, he was overwhelmed once more by nostalgia:
In early childhood, [I was] school companion in Scotland with a young girl who I little thought would ever have requested me on her death bed to write to your Majesty . . .
She often spoke to me of your Majesty, and of your kindness and benevolence, which she deeply felt-And wished me to tell you she had changed her life and companions.
And now I redeem the promise I made to the late Mme. Lola Montez, known to me as Eliza Gilbert, and to add that she wished me to let you know she retained a sincere regard for your great kindness to the end of her life.
She died a true penitent, relying on her Savior for pardon and acceptance, triumphing only in His merit . . .
I have the Honor to be your Majesty’s Obedt. & Humble Sert.
Maria E. Buchanan
Ludwig grew pensive for a moment, his eyes misting over. “My dear Lolita, did you ever love me?”
No one could have imagined that the little girl who’d just been born that cold, windy day in February 1821 in the town of Grange, Ireland, would become one of the most famous women of her era. She was a healthy, cheerful girl with lovely features much like her mother’s. From her father, Edward Gilbert, an ensign in the British army, she’d inherited her bravery and her thirst for adventure.
The handsome officer had arrived in County Cork with the Twenty-Fifth Regiment of Foot to put down the Irish rebellion against King George III of England. Tall, manly, and vigorous, he had thick blond sideburns and a slim mustache. Among all the Irish girls, one in particular caught his eye. Her name was Eliza Oliver. At fourteen-eight years younger than he-she was working as a milliner’s apprentice, even though she came from a good family. She was beautiful, with deep black eyes, pale skin, and long, curly hair. What Eliza saw in the dapper soldier, with his jollity and his splendid red uniform, was an escape from a humdrum life.
The Olivers were a powerful, landowning Protestant family in County Cork. Young Eliza was proud of her roots, even though everybody knew she was illegitimate. Her father, Charles Silver Oliver, was a member of Parliament and an influential figure in his community. Before finally marrying at the age of forty, he’d sired four children with his lover, Mary Green. The couple lived in Castle Oliver, an ancient, stately mansion in the south of County Limerick.
There Eliza came into the world in 1805, the same year her father took a proper lady to be his wife. Though that union produced seven legitimate heirs, Mr. Oliver did not abandon his bastards. Eliza, Mary, and their brothers, John and Thomas, all bore their father’s last name, and the patriarch made sure they were taken care of.
After their mother’s death, the boys started working as apprentice shopkeepers and the two sisters with Mrs. Hall, a milliner who taught them the craft. When the distinguished Mr. Oliver died unexpectedly in 1817, he left them the considerable sum of five hundred pounds each, which they would receive when they turned twenty-one.
In the spring of 1820, Ensign Edward Gilbert and his beautiful fiancee made plans to wed. Theirs was a hasty engagement, as the groom-to-be’s regiment would be leaving Cork to impose peace in a northern area that was being menaced by rebels. With his departure looming, the couple married on April 29 in Christ Church, in the presence of some of the most prominent members of the local Protestant elite.
For Eliza, an itinerant new life began. Discovering she was pregnant at fifteen meant she could no longer follow Edward along the rough, dusty roads of the Irish countryside. In midwinter the couple settled down in a gray stone cottage by the sea, lashed by wind and rain, in the town of Grange, County Sligo. In this remote corner of northern Ireland, Eliza’s only daughter, Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert-who became better known as Lola Montez-came into the world.
After his daughter’s birth, Edward looked for a better-paid position that would offer greater opportunities for advancement. A year later he traded his post in County Sligo for one in India. During this period, trade with India was monopolized by the East India Company, which had been established in 16oo by a group of merchants and operated in the government’s name in places under British control.
Eliza was thrilled to leave cold, gloomy Ireland for such a remote and exotic locale. She imagined India as a sort of paradise where she’d be able to live like a real memsahib, a British officer’s wife, ensconced in a colonial mansion with magnificent staircases and surrounded by a cloud of servants. She dreamed of attending parties and meeting a maharajah, one of those Indian princes who wore gold-embroidered garments and silk turbans like something out of an orientalist tale.
Though Edward knew the voyage would be risky for his young daughter, he was unwilling to be separated from her. At that time, very few British officers lived in India with their wives, since the journey was considered to be too hard on a woman’s “fragile” nature. His family and friends tried to persuade him to leave Lola in their care, but it was no use. He was undeterred by arguments about India’s unwholesome climate and the tropical diseases that ravaged European colonists.
Officers’ salaries were high there, and the low cost of living would allow him to indulge in a level of luxury that was out of reach in his own country. Eliza, with her adventurous spirit, was unconcerned about dangers and discomforts. The Gilberts packed their bags, said goodbye to their loved ones, and traveled to London, where they bought passage on a majestic East India Company steamer.
On the morning of March 14, 1823, Edward and his family set sail into the unknown. They couldn’t afford a first-class cabin as they would have liked, but the couple and other officers on board took part in boisterous evenings in the main salon and gathered on the upper deck to enjoy the stunning sunsets over the Arabian Sea. At the time, prior to the construction of the Suez Canal, the journey to India took four long months, with only a stopover or two to restock water and provisions.
Lola was just two years old, but she eagerly absorbed the new world of odors, colors, and sounds. She probably got seasick, as most did on the uncomfortable, tedious voyage, since powerful storms were commonplace after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. When the ship finally docked at Diamond Harbour, the worst was yet to come. As soon as he set foot on solid ground, Ensign Gilbert was informed that his unit had already left for the garrison of Dinapore, near the Nepalese border, and he was to catch up with them as soon as possible. Irritated, he relayed the news to his wife.
“I’m sorry, my dear, but we must leave immediately. My regiment is already on the road, and if I delay my arrival, I won’t be able to justify it to my superiors.”
“But we’re exhausted,” she protested, on the verge of tears. “We need to recover our strength.”
“I know, Eliza, I know it’s been a hard voyage, but I must follow orders. Soon we’ll arrive at our destination and you can rest. Please trust in me.”
And so they began traveling once more.
Edward didn’t want to worry his wife, but the journey would be a difficult one. His unit was near Patna, some four hundred miles upriver on the Ganges, which they would have to travel on small, triangular-sailed boats, at the mercy of the wind. It was summer, monsoon season, and the frequent torrential rains wouldn’t end until late September. The suffocating heat and the stench of the pestilent wetlands would accompany them throughout the entire journey.
The Gilberts joined the last regiment companies leaving Calcutta, the capital of British India. The fleet was able to navigate an average of only ten miles a day through the treacherous currents and sandbanks. Despite the insects, the meager food, and the vessels’ slow progress, it was a fascinating spectacle. At some spots, the Ganges measured nearly three miles across, and lush vegetation grew along its fertile banks.
The tropical forests full of shrieking gray monkeys gave way to wide grasslands, steaming villages, and ancient fortress ruins. On occasion, they came upon small herds of water buffalo that ventured to the river at dusk. The natives who worked the rice paddies on either side of the majestic river sold them food only reluctantly.
Little Lola’s first impressions of India during that journey through the marshy delta would be etched in her memory forever. Snuggled beside her mother, she surveyed the bright sky and the greenery exploding before her astonished eyes. Ensign Gilbert had come prepared to combat boredom; in one of his heavy trunks, he had brought a ten-volume New British Theatre, three volumes of work by his favorite poet, Alexander Pope, and a book on French grammar.
Early in the trip, he whiled away the hours by pulling out his brushes and painting scenes of daily life on the Ganges. In the evenings, to Lola’s delight, he would entertain the passengers with his silver-trimmed boxwood flute.
After countless days of travel, they reached Dinapore, a steep, desolate jungle outpost. They spotted the officers’ bungalows, half hidden in lush vegetation, high on a promontory. From the small dock, a red dirt road led to the infantrymen’s barracks. Unfortunately, Edward Gilbert was unable to enjoy his garrison mates’ warm welcome or the music that the military band played in his honor.
By the time they reached the river market at Patna, he’d begun vomiting and suffering from diarrhea, the first symptoms of cholera. When the military doctor confirmed how terribly ill he was, Eliza felt as if the earth were caving in. She was alone in a strange place with a tiny daughter who might very well meet the same fate as her father. Despite the risk of contagion, she remained staunchly beside the bed where her gaunt, haggard husband lay, nearly unrecognizable.
One day, feeling that his end was near, Edward took her hand and said weakly, “Eliza, you must be brave, for yourself and for our daughter. When I go, find a good husband. You cannot remain here on your own, promise me that.”
“There, there, rest now,” she murmured, daubing his temples with a damp cloth. “Don’t say anything more. I’m sure you will recover and-”
“No, my love, I’m sorry. We had so many dreams . . .”
Those were his last words. Edward closed his eyes and his name joined the long list of his countrymen who had seen their hopes cut short in that remote outpost. After a solemn ceremony, he was buried next to the simple church. The many tombstones recalled the stories of the brave officers, missionaries, and soldiers of the empire who had met their deaths there.
But what struck Eliza most were the tiny graves containing children who had never seen their parents’ homeland. Dinapore was considered “the white man’s tomb,” ravaged by frequent epidemics of cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. Most of the brave women who had followed their husbands paid with their lives.
At eighteen, Eliza was a widow, alone with a daughter in an unfamiliar country. In the asphyxiating, hermetic society of the British colonies, there was no place for a woman like her unless she remarried. She wanted to flee that jungle full of mosquitoes, filth, and endless rain, but there was no regular passenger service along the river. A month after her husband’s death, the regiment auctioned off all his personal effects, including his prized flute.
They gave the sum collected plus the wages still owed to the deceased officer, a total of sixty pounds, to Eliza. With that money and a paltry widow’s pension, she could survive in India for several months, though it wasn’t enough to pay for passage back to England. Despite these misfortunes, the grief-stricken Mrs. Gilbert refused to give up. She needed to find a husband at once, and there would be no lack of suitors.
In November, Eliza and her daughter left Dinapore for Calcutta. After visiting Edward’s grave one last time, they boarded an old riverboat along with a dozen other passengers. One was twenty-four-year-old Scottish lieutenant Patrick Craigie, a member of the Nineteenth Regiment of Native Infantry of the British East India Company and her dead husband’s comrade in arms.
He’d just been ordered back to Calcutta after making a name for himself as the Company’s political agent at the court in Jaipur. Patrick got along well with his fellow officers, and his superiors held him in high regard. During the trip, to cheer up the beautiful widow, he told her amazing stories from his five years in India. In Jaipur he had seen the country at its most romantic, and he described in detail a world of tiger hunting, jewel-bedecked maharajahs, elephants draped in gold, and sumptuous galas in mansions nestled at the foot of the Himalayas.
This was nothing like Eliza’s experience in Dinapore, of which she remembered only the sticky damp, the mosquitoes, the generously sized rats, the roads that turned into expanses of mud, and the soporific five o’clock teas with snooty ladies who eyed her pityingly. Nor could she forget her shocking visit to the nearby village of thatch-roofed mud huts, where the overpowering smell of smoked fish mingled with the stench of stagnant water and wood fires. In such filthy, stinking towns, naked children splashed in wastewater a stone’s throw from the clean bungalows where the whites resided. Eliza opened her heart to the young officer.
“Since I first arrived in this country, all I have experienced is pain and suffering,” she confessed sadly. “All my dreams have disappeared.”
“That’s to be expected-you’ve just lost your husband, you’re all on your own with a child to take care of . . . But I assure you that Calcutta will be very different. You’ll have a new lease on life.”
“I hope so. I’ve felt so abandoned. All I want is to forget the past and start a new life.”
After Edward’s death, Eliza had quickly lost interest in her child, leaving her in the care of native servants. Suddenly it occurred to her that being on the arm of a gallant, well-respected officer like Lieutenant Craigie would give her access to the closed circle of Calcutta’s British high society. He was a tall, sturdy man, his face tanned by the sun, who wore thick brown sideburns and a white pith helmet. The romance between the Scottish officer and the widow Gilbert blossomed on that voyage through the mangrove swamps of the Ganges delta before the prying gazes of the other passengers. Despite a deep mutual attraction, Eliza had to respect the mourning period. She could not risk sullying her reputation.
In 1823 Calcutta was a bustling, cosmopolitan city that offered the creature comforts a colonist required to feel at home. Built around the imposing Fort William, which had been erected to house British troops, the city had paved streets, a hospital, a prison, a mosque, splendid government buildings, marble palaces, tidy gardens, several cricket fields, and a horse track. Eliza took up lodgings in the tranquil residential area along the banks of the Hooghly River, a golden ghetto where members of the British military and their families lived in isolation from the natives.
Having been raised in the tedium of the Irish countryside, Eliza found her new surroundings immensely exciting. She was young and naive, but she didn’t take long to learn the basic rules for being a respected memsahib: not being too familiar with her native servants, maintaining strict norms of cleanliness and obedience in her home, and never going without a corset, despite the heat and humidity.
Captivated by the tales of some of the English ladies, she dreamed of attending dazzling balls and dancing to the music of grand orchestras, banqueting at luxurious oriental feasts, and rolling alongside the Ganges at dusk in an elegant carriage. Above all, she was eager for her name to be included on the very exclusive guest list of India’s new governor-general, Lord Amherst.
Lola barely saw her mother, who was enjoying a vibrant social life. Like most British children in India, Lola was raised by a native nanny, an ayah, who sang beautiful lullabies, made up games, and humored her every whim. The ayah, Denali, was a kind, affectionate young woman from Punjab. She taught Lola a few words of Bengali and opened the door to an entirely new world of sensations. “Whenever Mother went out to dinner or to some gala or reception and did not return until dawn, I would stay with my dear ayah, and that was always a party. I would sit on her lap and she would tell me magical tales until I fell asleep in her arms. She was a great comfort for me, and I never forgot her,” Lola would recall years later.
Excerpted from Divine Lola by Cristina Morató with permission from the publisher, Amazon Crossing. Text copyright © 2017 by Cristina Morató. Translation copyright © 2021 by Andrea Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
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