The Satirical Genius and Revolutionary Feminism of Lola Montez
“I expect to win the gratitude of the whole masculine gender by these rules of the art of fascinating. It used to be supposed that this art belonged exclusively to my sex; but that was a vulgar error, which the sharp practice of the men has long since exploded. And it is now well-established that gentlemen spend a great deal more time in inventing ways and means to entrap women and get them in love with them, than women do in trying to win the hearts of gentlemen. Love making indeed seems to be the ‘being’s end and aim’ of man. He appears to think that he was born for no other purpose, and he devotes himself to the business with a zeal and an enthusiasm highly honorable to his exalted genius, and to the immortal station he claims for himself of being the Lord of Creation.”
-Lola Montez, 1858. The Arts of Beauty; or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet: With Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating
If you’ve never heard of Lola Montez, you’re wrong. She’s the famous seductress who inspired the song:
🎶 Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets
And, little man, little Lola wants you
Make up your mind to have no regrets
Recline yourself, resign yourself
You’re through 🎶
(Feel free to open up the song in another tab for some mood music while you read.)
She was played by Martine Carol in Max Ophuls’ historically inaccurate yet stunningly gorgeous 1955 film, Lola Montès.
Lola is said to have inspired the character of Irene Adler in Sherlock Holmes as well as countless other songs, plays, and films. Here’s a short rundown of the generally agreed-upon events of Lola’s life:
She was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland in 1821.
Though her place of birth has been subject to multiple rumors. One biographer, C. Chauncey Burr, notes sympathetically that, “…she had to be born over and over again of the separate brain of every man who attempted to write her biography.” He then goes on to say that she was born in Limerick but this has since been disproven.
The woman was a firebrand from the start.
One teacher from her boarding school recalled how Eliza’s “beautiful countenance” was marred only by her “habitual expression of indomitable self-will.”
That’s so punk rock.
At the tender age of 12 (some say 16), she defied her family’s wishes for her to marry a man 40 years her senior. Instead, she eloped with a young British lieutenant who took her to live with him in India. Some sources say he died and some say she got bored with him. Either way, she left and allegedly slept with another lieutenant on the ship back to England.
She took on the persona of a “Spanish” dancer and began calling herself Lola Montez.
She danced for the Emperor of Russia, the King of Prussia, and the nobility of Central Europe — all while shacking up with famous pianist, Franz Liszt.
She moved to Paris and became popular among the bohemian crowd until another one of her lovers, newspaper tycoon Alexandre Dujarier, died defending her honor in a duel.
She became the mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
It’s said that the amount of political power he gave the very liberal-minded Lola by formally promoting her to the rank of Countess and allowing her to assert control over the all-male Jesuit administration is what sparked the outrage that led to an uprising of religious revolutionaries. The king was forced to abdicate his throne and Lola ran to Switzerland, where she waited in vain for him to meet her. When he never showed up, she married a British cavalry officer, who drowned shortly after.
At the age of 30, Lola traveled to the US, where she became famous for her “Spider Dance”-
A sultry and satirical variation of an Italian Tarantella dance. Lola would pretend to have spiders crawling up her legs so that she could lift her skirts up to scandalous levels, swat them away, and stomp on them. When she took the dance to Australia, she let it all hang out down under and stopped wearing undergarments entirely.
Lola, the original Scarlet Woman.
Soon enough, audiences began to heckle her performances and Lola had to stop performing when people began bringing fruits and vegetables to the shows to pelt her with. Parodies of her performances started to pop up to packed houses. They called her “whore” and “tramp” and whatever other names have been historically shouted at a woman who upsets the status quo.
She married another newspaperman, whom she quickly divorced (It’s said she tossed him down a flight of stairs and threw his clothes out the window). From then on, her only companion was a bear cub she kept as a pet. She died of syphilis in New York at the age of 39. She spent her last days working at the Magdalene Women’s Asylum.
The more biographies and articles I read about Lola, the more frustrated I get that nobody ever mentions her book: The Arts of Beauty, or Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating.
Yeah, the title probably could have left a little to the imagination, but that wasn’t Lola’s style.
The beginning of the book is a beauty guide for women, with recipes for skin-care pastes and advice on how to maintain a shapely figure:
“Exercise, not philosophically and with religious gravity undertaken, but the wild romping activities of a spirited girl who runs up and down as though her veins were full of wine. Everything should be done to give joy and vivacity to the spirits, for nothing so much aids in giving vigor and elasticity to the form as these.”
It must have been refreshing for a woman of the 19th century, a time of forced restrictions on how Western women dressed and behaved, to advocate for uninhibited frivolity.
You could argue that she didn’t go far enough in advocating for women to be allowed to participate in organized sport, and that would be fair. Some women like philosophical and religious physical activity. Lola’s version of exercise is a kind of manic-pixie-drunk-girl dance that might be titillating to men, as opposed to intimidating.
She does, however, do a fantastic job of maintaining throughout the book that nothing — no serum, no clothes, no makeup — can make a woman more beautiful than her intelligence and her confidence can. This was highly progressive for its time:
“The popular cant about beauty of the mind as something which is inconsistent with, and in opposition to the beauty of the body, is a superstition which cannot be for a moment entertained by any sound and rational mind.”
I think, perhaps, that Lola was so far ahead of her time in terms of some aspects of feminism that, when I’m reminded that she was a product of her time in other areas, such as racism, I feel disappointed.
There’s a disturbing number of skin-whitening solutions in this book, as well as a high regard for “fairness”. The practice of skin-whitening is still used today and is as much of an affront to intersectional feminist body positivity as it has ever been. Lola walks a confusing line in her book, first listing off the “generally accepted” features that make a woman beautiful to a man, and then discounting them.
“The following classical synopsis of female beauty, which has been attributed to Feliebien, is the best I remember to have seen:
‘The head should be well rounded and look rather inclining to small than large.
The hair either black, bright brown, or auburn, not thin but full and waving, and if it falls in moderate curls, the better- the black is particularly useful in setting off the whiteness of the neck and skin.
The ear should be rather small, well folded, and have an agreeable tinge of red.
The mouth should be small, and the lips not of equal thickness; they should be well turned, small, rather than gross, soft even to the eye, and with a living red in them; a truly pretty mouth is like a rose-bud that is beginning to blow. The teeth should be middle-sized, white, well ranged and even.
The shoulders should be white, gently spread, and with a much softer appearance of strength than in those of men.
The fingers should be fine, long, round and soft; small and lessening to the tips, and the nails rather long, round at the ends, and pellucid.
The bosom should be white and charming, neither too large nor too small; the breasts equal in roundness and firmness, rising gently, and very distinctly separated.
The sides should be rather long and the hips wider than the shoulders, and go down rounding and lessening gradually to the knee.
The knee should be even and well rounded.
The legs straight but varied by proper rounding of the more fleshy parts of them and finely turned, white and small at the ankle.’”
When we’re sufficiently offended and horrified (not just for ourselves in our own “imperfections” but for literally every woman we know and love, particularly those of color), she adds a twist that’s supposed to make us feel better:
“It is very fortunate, however, for the human race that all men do not have exactly a correct taste in the matter of female beauty, for if they had, a fatal degree of strife would be likely to ensue as to who should possess the few types of perfect beauty. The old man who rejoiced that all did not see alike, as, if they did, all would be after his wife, was not far out of the way.”
A modern feminist reader isn’t inclined to forgive the implication that women and their beauty are possessions — that the upkeep falls to women and ownership belongs to men. But Lola is trying to at least make her audience understand that there isn’t one “perfect” type of beauty. And that’s nice.
I don’t want to pass over the obvious issues with Lola’s brand of feminism but, when I go back to her life story, I can see why she felt so strongly that the end goal was to obtain the attention of a man. And I can see why she would want to share her beauty secrets with other women who, like her, might have longed for more autonomy than most women were afforded at the time.
This is a woman whose economic status, travel, shelter, and well-being were all dependent upon the men who were taken in by her charms. Having run away from a “traditional” life as a child bride, Lola’s beauty was her only currency.
At this time in history, women’s rights were dependant upon their status as wives. In 1872, 14 years after this book was written, Marietta L. Stow of California was denied her inheritance of $200,000 after her husband died. The court’s reasoning was that she was no longer married and, therefore, didn’t have the right to it. She would later gain so much notoriety in the suffragette movement that she would run for Governor of California and Vice President of the United States on a platform of “anti-monopoly, anti-ring, and anti-Chinese” — because, once again, feminism has a long-ass history of sucking for anyone who isn’t white.
My point is — for most of history, marriage has been a double-edged sword for women. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Lola had to do what she could to survive.
But she didn’t want to just survive.
She wanted to thrive.
Hints to Gentlemen.
As fascinating as the beauty section of the book is, it’s just the headliner to the show we actually came here for.
What I really want to discuss is the section titled “Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating”. I have reason to suspect this section is not actually written for men, but exists as a wink and a nod of solidarity to other women.
This section of the book drips with sarcasm. Once I figured that out, I started reading it as though it was a sketch on SNL or The Daily Show. Let’s dive right into these “Rules for Gentlemen” so you can see what I’m talking about:
Rule The First-
Women prefer triflers to men of sense, and when you wish to make one of the sex tremendously in love with you, you will, of course, make yourself as big a fool as possible, in order to ensure the most speedy and triumphant success. You will do this not only because women prefer such characters, but you will also consider that so little do the most sensible and fascinating women know of their own power, that, Nero-like, they will only stop to catch flies and gnats.
Oh, shit. That’s biting stuff.
Rule The Second-
You will make an immense hit with the ladies by pretending to be no admirer of any particular woman, but a professed adorer and slave of the whole sex; a thing which you can easily show by staring insultingly at every pretty woman you meet.
Tell’em Lola. I’m gonna skip ahead a bit…
Rule the Seventh-
Remember that we do not like men for the merit we may discover in them, so much as for that they can find in us; therefore be sure that no man out-fawns you in the attentions paid to the woman of your choice. Let your compliments be of so marked a character that there can be no mistaking them. For instance, you may ask her if she is always particular to shut her eyes on retiring to bed. She will ask why? And you will answer, “because if you do not, I fear that the brightness of your eyes will burn holes in the blanket, or set the house afire!” This kind of compliment is of the most delicate nature, and will be certain to impress the lady, especially if she is a person of sense, with the sincerity and purity of your intentions.
That’s right. She came after your corny pickup lines that haven’t changed in almost 200 years.
There are fifty of these rules. Fifty. Some of them make unfortunate racist or homophobic references in an attempt to be “funny”, but others may look strangely relatable to modern readers:
Rule the Twenty-Seventh (on manspreading)
Always make yourself comfortable in the presence of a lady, which you may do by sitting on the outer edge of your chair and allowing your shoulders and body to fall backwards while your legs are projecting forward into the middle of the room, and thrown apart like the divergent prongs of an immense pitch-fork. This is an elegant and tempting position.
Rule the Twenty-Fourth (on staring at women in the street)
You must do everything in your power to convince a lady that you are, in a modest way, a great admirer of beauty; an excellent way to prove which is, to be always seen on rainy days, when the streets are muddy, standing at the corners where most ladies pass, staring at the embarrassments of pedestrian beauty, picking its blushing way through the mud. This is a compliment to the ladies, and proof of your modest and elevated admiration of the beautiful, which every respectable woman will duly appreciate. And, by simply reflecting upon the gratitude with which you would see the same delicate attentions paid to your own wife or daughter, you can more fully realize the fascinating excellence of your character.
Rule the Forty-Third (on “no means no”)
If a lady begins to show evident signs of weariness at your frequent calls, by all means, double your attentions — call oftener and stay longer, until you make yourself a fixture in her presence, like a dummy in the doorway of a haberdasher. This will soon do the business for you, and leave no possible grounds for doubt as to your real position in her affections.
This, I believe, is where we see the true Lola Montez.
A woman who has endured.
By the time we get to this section of the book, you can see that this is why she really wrote it. Lola’s got something to say. And can you blame her? Throughout her entire life, and still in death, Lola has been stuck with the reputation of a black widow, a dangerous seductress who got whatever she wanted and was tainted forever. A living embodiment of feminine evil, come to steal your husband and drag him down into the pits of hell.
Eve herself — after she’s had a big, juicy bite of the apple.
This reputation made Lola an outcast, but it also gave her a unique platform to be able to say whatever she wanted. And dammit, she took that opportunity for as long as her sharp mind held out against the Neurosyphilis.
After Lola’s death, it was even easier to turn her into a cautionary tale. In a collection of Encyclopedia-style books called, “The Making of America”, published in 1920, there’s a section about Lola’s death titled, “The Story of a Penitent: Lola Montez”.
Get ready to roll your eyes-
“A brief outline of the life of the remarkable woman who is the subject of this little sketch is all that can be given; and all that is essential to illustrate an added instance of the power of divine grace to rescue a sinner deeply dyed in guilt, and to minister to the truly penitent spirit that peace of the lord ‘which passeth all understanding.’”
It’s a story about how she came to live in the Magdalene Women’s Asylum, an institution known for kidnapping prostitutes out of brothels and detaining them for three years at a time. It’s possible that this place may have saved a lot of women from sexual slavery, and perhaps those women were grateful, but there are also stories of women who got hurt or died falling from windows during escape attempts. We, therefore, can’t know if this was truly a safe place for them.
When Lola came at the urging of a friend, she was already many years into the final stages of Neurosyphilis. She apparently begged the forgiveness of the lord and, in her last painful days (they describe her as “paralyzed with sickness”, as opposed to “dying and mad with syphilis”), they say her only comfort was in her Christian friends reading passages to her from the bible.
“Upon one conversation, when Dr. H had been conversing with her and was about to leave, she grasped his hand and, with child-like eagerness of manner exclaimed, “Tell me, tell me more of my dear Savior!”
I find this story to be too convenient for my liking. Too sickly sweet and condescending.
I don’t think it’s impossible that Lola could have become spiritual when she realized she was sick; that happens a lot. And I would never want to reduce her to a one-dimensional character trope like she so often has been by other biographers. She was a woman with many layers who was certainly capable of writing revolutionary feminist satire and also being deeply religious and also being racist. Reflecting on some people’s lives (hell, tons of people’s lives) requires a bit of doublethink.
But the power that this particular story wields in shaping her narrative into one of a “saved sinner” bothers me a lot. And maybe especially if it’s true. Because when I read Lola’s “Hints to a Gentleman on the Art of Fascinating”, I can’t imagine that version of Lola ever feeling remorse for her words, which seem to come from a hard-won inner-strength and from personal trauma and experience.
“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.”
— Molly Ivins
Lola was a woman dealing with a lot of the same bullshit we deal with today and a lot of injustices besides, and she refused to keep her anger to herself. She fought, kicked, and bit back against a world that gave her an impossible choice — to endure a life of family-and-church-sanctioned rape, forced childbearing, and servitude… or to set out on her own and cut through the status quo with a machete. She was utterly imperfect about her choices, but the fact that she made them in the first place is part of why her memory endures today.
Here’s one last Gentlemen’s rule I picked out, specifically because I feel it posthumously addresses “The Story of a Penitent: Lola Montez” as well as any biographer, including me, who dares to try to spin her life story in a way that suits them:
Rule the Thirty-Third.
Always talk a little doubtingly of female virtue, for that will show that you are rigidly virtuous yourself, and that you associate chiefly with a class of women who cannot fail to be of great advantage to you in giving you proper, and sufficiently cautionary, ideas of the character of the sex.
“Lola Montez”. Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 1 May 2018.
Montez, Lola. The Arts of Beauty, or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet: with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating. J. Lovell, 1858.
Diane L. Day, “Lola Montez and Her American Image,” History of Photography 5, no. 4 (1981): 339–53.
Kamiya, G. (2014–05–31). “Notorious Lola Montez kept the men in S.F. panting”. SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on 1 June 2014. Retrieved 2014–06–01.
Michael Cannon, Melbourne After the Gold Rush, pp.313–4
Christopher Redmond, Sherlock Holmes Handbook, Dundurn Press Ltd., 30 October 2009, p. 51; The new annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, W.W. Norton, 2005, p.17.