Cranky Ladies: Lola Montez and The Arts of Beauty

The Arts of BeautyIn March, I am writing about some Cranky Ladies of History across my Kitty and Cadaver, Mortal Words and Adventurous Hearts blogs, in honour and support of the Cranky Ladies of History anthology Pozible campaign. The contents of the book haven’t been finalised, but the anthology has submissions from amazing writers like Karen Healey, Jane Yolen, Rob Shearman, Foz Meadows, Kirstyn McDermott, Garth Nix and Deborah Biancotti!

I’d heard of Lola Montez in vague terms before my brother sent me the Bruce Seymour biography of this fascinating woman for my birthday one year.  (His inscription to me reads in part: ‘The story of one amazing and outrageous woman as a gift for another amazing and outrageous one‘ – my brothers say the best things about me!)

Lola Montez was born a middle class Brit, but passed herself off as a Spanish dancer. In her short life, she scandalised society with her dancing, took a horsewhip to a detractor, berated an audience for cowardice as a theatre burned around her, wrote a book, probably inspired a character in the Sherlock Holmes stories, brought down a government and pretty much lived her own damned life, thank you very much.

Bruce Seymour’s fabulous biography, Lola Montez: A Life covers these astonishing years with detail and flair, including that fascinating period where she was the mistress of the King of Bavaria, and her influence was considered so dangerous that a revolution resulted. (Well, the 1850s were rife with that kind of thing, but she was certainly a flame to the tinder.)

As a dancer and performer with links to a German monarch, it’s no wonder that many believe she was an inspiration for the character of Irene Adler in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, although Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry are among the contenders for that honour.

She came to Australia too, and it was at a theatre in Bendigo that had been hit with ball lightning where she made her famous (and possibly apocryphal) stand against the fleeing audience. Her spider dance (where she stomped about and looked for a spider in her skirts) made her popular on the goldfields, and the incident with the horsewhip is noted to this day in one of the daily reenactments at Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill.

Lola was the Pink of her day – the Bad Girl, the wicked celebrity, confident in her own power and shocking everyone from London to the antipodes. Her ending is sad, alas, but her life was one big middle finger to the world.

She also wrote a book, published not long before her death, called The Arts of Beauty, or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, with Hints to Gentlemen on the Arts of Fascinating.  I was delighted to find a 1982 reproduction of the 1858 edition one year at Clunes Booktown Festival. The little tome is full of actually quite sensible advice on being active and healthy, eating well, not keeping late hours, exercising restraint with the make-up and beauty treatments, and developing one’s mind as well as one’s body to have the necessary grace and inner beauty.

Still, she notes that most men of her time spoke disparagingly of a woman’s intellect, but would get rhapsodical over their looks, and thus encourages the development of your beauty in order to find a good husband.

“Preach to the contrary as you may, there still stands the eternal fact, that the world has yet allowed no higher ‘mission’ to woman, than to be beautiful.”

There’s a certain snark inherent in the observation, but her advice and tips on maintaining one’s natural vivacity and beauty are sincere enough.

But, ho! The layers and layers of snark in the 50 tips she gives men on The Art of Fascinating! I can’t help but think she encountered a lot of boorish behaviour in her time, and she presents all the worst examples of such in a sly and sarcastic litany of how men should behave if they wish to win a lady.

For example:

Rule 10

and this:

Rule 19

And there’s this:

Rule 42

And her concluding remarks:

Rule 50

Ah, Lola. Something tells me you have had it to the back teeth with badly behaved fellows.

She tries to take some of the sting out of the list in her forword.

“The Hints…I am sure, will prove amusing to the ladies. And I shall be disappointed if it fails to be a useful and instructive lesson to the other gender. The men have been laughing, I know not how many thousands of years, at the vanity of women, and if the women have not been able to return the compliment, and laugh at the vanity on the other side of the house, it is only because they have been wanting in a proper knowledge of the bearded gender.”

cranky ladiesLola, you magnificent Cranky Lady of History, I’m sorry things ended badly for you (and that in many ways you were a hot mess from start to finish) but I still think you were terrific. I’m proud that my brother saw you, and thought of me.

What cranky ladies of history do you admire? Please comment and share the joy!

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.

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Posted on March 12, 2014, in creativity, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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