Discover more from Dirtbags Through the Ages
castanets for my haters
Or, how Lola Montez danced her dirtbaggy way into my heart.
Uh! Wow! There are suddenly a lot more of you here!
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If you’re one of the literally hundreds of people who have joined Dirtbag Nation after its recent feature on Substack Reads, welcome! I’m delighted to have you! I hope you stick around! I don’t usually use this many exclamation marks, but this feels like a special case!
I’m gonna do a quick shameless plug for the newcomers, and then we’ll move on to our regularly scheduled dirtbaggery.
Because If I Don’t Invite You To Buy My Book, My Agent Will Never Forgive Me
My novel, A Tip for the Hangman, is a historical thriller about the rumored spy career of 16th-century poet, dirtbag, and certified queer disaster Kit Marlowe. I think it’s pretty good. The New York Times liked it. If you want to buy it in print, ebook, or audiobook at your retailer of choice, my publisher and I would love that. If you don’t want to buy it, that’s fine, but you can keep that to yourself.
My second book, an alternate-history folklore-inspired novel set in 19th-century Russia called Let the Dead Bury the Dead, is out next September. I spent all weekend reviewing first pass pages for it, and I think it’s also pretty good. You can’t preorder it yet, but you can look at its largely empty Goodreads page if you want.
OK, enough of that. This is, arguably, barely an author newsletter at all. Mostly, it’s a dirtbag newsletter, so let’s move on to the attraction.
Lola Montez, the Legendary Dancing Dirtbag
Longtime readers of DTTA will know I’m an occasional guest on Vulgar History, the unofficial companion podcast of this newsletter. Ann Foster invites me on when she’s talking about a particularly dirtbaggy individual, and my role is mostly to bask in the historical shittiness, which I am only too delighted to do.
Most recently, Ann and I talked about a god-awful individual named Lola Montez. And I fell in love with Lola’s particular branch of shittiness so hard that I absolutely have to tell you all about her. So let’s go.
Lola Montez was born in 1821 in Grange, Ireland as Eliza Rosanna Gilbert. How did an Irish girl named Eliza somehow go down in history as Lola Montez, you ask? We will very much get to that.
Lola’s father was a middle-aged English soldier stationed in Ireland, and when Lola was about a year old, he decided to keep the colonialism train rolling and headed over to India with his young wife and daughter. Note: when I say “young wife,” Lola’s mother—also named Eliza—was all of sixteen years old at this point. Ah, the nineteenth century
We don’t have to worry about that particular age gap for long, though, because Lola’s father did what Englishmen tended to do whenever they travelled anywhere that got more than 12 days of sunshine per year: he caught cholera and died, leaving Lola and Eliza on their own in India.
Eliza seems to have enjoyed this turn of events, since she quickly married somebody much more age-appropriate and set about having a grand old time. Being like sixteen years old, she left Lola in the care of an assortment of Indian nannies, who had not signed up for the tornado of bullshit that was Demon Child Lola Montez and more or less let her do whatever she wanted. The phrase “Lola Montez did whatever she wanted” will be a theme for the remainder of this story.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dirtbag
When Lola had grown up a bit, Eliza and her new husband decided to send her back to Britain to “civilize her,” about which two things. One, the British imperialist vibes are off the charts here. Two, Lola truly was a nightmare, so, like, I get it. She was sent to a boarding school in Bath, where she spent her time getting into fights, playing mean pranks on people, and running through the street naked, for fun. One of her teachers described her as “a little tigress,” which is probably equal parts colonialist cringe and a fairly accurate description.
Lola also learned the standard Proper British Lady skills at this school, including how to dance, a fact that will be important later.
When Lola was about sixteen, her mom Eliza came back from India and started making plans to marry her off to an old boring man in his sixties. Lola considered this option for about zero point five seconds before running off with a hot militiaman named Thomas James and getting secretly married.
All my Jane Austen girlies in the audience are yelling “No, Lola! Don’t elope with the hot militiaman!” And as is so often the case, the Jane Austen girlies are right. James was a physically and verbally abusive piece of shit who dragged Lola all over the world on his military travels, and she hated every second of being married to him.
So, naturally, she ditched him and had an affair with a rich Scottish guy. James didn’t love this, and he sued Lola for adultery.
Quiz time! When Lola received her summons to come to court for her own adultery trial, what did she do? Did she…
A) Show up and get all charges dismissed?
B) Show up and get convicted of adultery?
C) NOT show up, but instead run away to Spain, take four months of Spanish dancing lessons, and then return to London wearing an elaborate Spanish shawl with a pair of castanets in hand, speaking in a heavy fake Spanish accent, pretending not to be the scandalous wife of Thomas James but instead Maria Dolores de Porris y Montez, Lola Montez for short, the beautiful daughter of a noble Spanish family who had been exiled during the Spanish Civil War and who sought to make a humble living by selling Spanish veils and dancing the traditional dances of her people?
The answer, you will be delighted to learn, is C.
Lola got a gig dancing her Extremely Well-Researched and Incredibly Accurate Spanish Dances (TM) at the intermissions of various operas, and the arts critics of London absolutely loved her. This was not because she was a good dancer, because she wasn’t. It was because first of all, she was smoking hot, and second of all, she was one thousand percent definitely sleeping with the arts critics. We love a bitch who hustles.
Several people around town were like “Uh, this is the least convincing Spanish dancing I’ve ever seen.” Several other people were like “Uh, isn’t that Eliza James, the wife of that shitty lieutenant who didn’t show up to her own adultery trial?” Shortly after this, Lola decided it was maybe a good time to get out of town.
Lola started traveling around Europe, performing for various princes and audiences along the way. The absolute balls on this woman never ceases to amaze me. She took exactly four months of dancing lessons and her immediate next step was performing for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia.
What I love even more about Lola is that even though everything she does should blow up in her face, it just keeps making her more famous. For example. She showed up at a parade honoring Tsar Nicholas I, and because she was who she was, she tried to bypass all security to come up and say hi. One of the tsar’s guards tried to stop her, and Lola’s response was to whip him with her riding crop.
Which should get you hella arrested, right? Except everyone thought it was so cool that it became her signature move, and she became even more famous as That Sexy Spanish Lady With the Whip.
Anyway, after not getting arrested, Lola went to Warsaw, where she got kicked out of the entire country of Poland. Next stop was Paris, where she flirted like hell with noted Romantic Era composer Franz Liszt and became his mistress. His Lisztress, if you will. A good move, if you want to break into the international dance scene!
Liszt pulled some strings and got Lola a job performing at the Paris Opera House. The people of Paris, who had seen real dancers before, were unimpressed. Then Lola got a man killed in a duel and decided, again, that it might be a good move to get out of town. 💃
Sexily Overthrowing the Monarchy of Bavaria
Lola’s next stop was Munich, where in 1846 she became the mistress of the middle-aged King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Allegedly, her opening move with Ludwig was to cut open her dress with a pair of scissors and show him her tits to prove they were real, which is wild but also totally in character. Whatever she did, it super worked.
Lola loved being a royal mistress. She built up her own royal court in Bavaria and held tons of great parties, tried to get money out of the king, and even advised him on matters of state—which, if you’ve been paying attention, sounds like a thing Lola Montez very much was not qualified to do.
The people of Munich absolutely fucking hated this, as well they should have. A revolution broke out in 1848, not 100% because of Lola Montez and her castanets but also not 100% not because of them. Ludwig abdicated, and Lola, having left the monarchy in ruins, moved on to the next stage of her international tour.
There’s Gold in Them There Hills
In 1851, Lola Montez sailed across the Atlantic and took her Spanish dancing gig on the road to the States. This time, she wasn’t restricted to intermissions but staged her own entire show, a play called Lola Montez in Bavaria. Obsessed with the level of dirtbaggery required to overthrow the monarchy of Bavaria and then do a world tour in which you re-enact yourself overthrowing the monarchy of Bavaria.
Lola started on the East Coast, moved to New Orleans where there was a brief interlude involving her faking her own death that I don’t have time to get into, and then made it to Gold Rush San Francisco, where her dancing career took a big and weird turn for two reasons.
Reason two: Lola developed what would be her signature performance: the Spider Dance.
Now, what was the Spider Dance, you ask? According to reports, it began with Lola pretending a spider was crawling up her dress, continued with her pretending to be possessed by the spider, and ended with her lifting up her skirts and flashing the whole audience.
Reactions to this performance were, as my favorite historical image of all time clearly shows, mixed.
The California Gold Rush miners were very into this, though, allegedly throwing literal gold nuggets onto the stage to show their appreciation. I had to read that fact twice because it sounds like a dumb joke I would make about old-timey prospectors, but here we are.
Watch Me Whip, Watch Me Nae Nae
From California, Lola sailed on to Australia to bring the wonders of the Spider Dance down under.
She received equal parts rave reviews and horrified pearl-clutching during the early run in Melbourne, but I want to spotlight one particular reviewer, who is maybe my favorite supporting character in any Dirtbags story to date: Henry Seekamp, editor of the Ballarat Times. After attending one of her performances, Seekamp wrote a review of the Spider Dance that essentially said “what the fuck is this shit and why are we paying money to watch it happen in front of us.” Lola, not about to take that lying down, busted out Old Reliable (her riding whip) and headed to Henry’s hotel to attack him with it.
But Henry! My hero! CAME WITH HIS OWN WHIP. And challenged her in the street to a WHIP FIGHT. I love this man so much! We stan a bitch who comes prepared!
Lola, taken aback by the sudden potential of whip-on-whip combat, challenged Henry to a duel and gave him two options: either pistols at dawn, or the old Sherlock Holmes classic of choosing between two vials to guess which one wasn’t poisoned. Henry—again, my hero—said “uh, nah” and went home.
The Great Australian Whip Fiasco was the beginning of the end for Lola’s international tour of Spider Dance: Turn Off the Dark. In 1857, she returned to the US and embarked on a lecture tour, and the following year she released a book of advice for ladies. I personally dare you to find a lady less qualified to give other ladies advice.
Lola published her lie-filled autobiography—written in the third person, because how else—in 1860, and the following year she died of syphilis at the age of 39.
RIP, Lola Montez. I hope a dozen mourners clacked their castanets sadly at your funeral. You sucked so bad in literally every imaginable way and I think you are a delight.
That’s all for this edition, friends. Until next time, be well, and make sure you always come suitably prepared to any possible whip fights,
Thanks for reading Dirtbags Through the Ages! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.