When the good citizens of Ballarat stopped in the street in February, 1856, to watch a comely young woman beating seven kinds of hell out of Henry Seekamp, editor of the Ballarat Times, with a horsewhip, they probably thought it was just a fun new type of public entertainment.
This was the gold rush, after all, and excessive behaviour was all the rage. It seemed quite in keeping with the free-spirited times that attractive women should assault journalists in the street. Few, if any, of those fun-loving Ballaratians would’ve known that the whip-wielding lady was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary personalities, a woman who not only scandalised the masses with her provocative public performances, but showed the ability to influence world events with her even more provocative private ones. For this was Lola Montez, whose outsized ambition was exceeded only by her capacity to drive sane men mad.
Lola Montez was born Marie Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Limerick, Ireland, and with a name like that, it’s no surprise she decided to switch to something snappier. Her parents were, as they say, “good stock”, being an English army officer and the daughter of a Member of Parliament.
Having a good look at the respectable life, she quickly determined that she’d follow the diametrically opposite path, eloping with Lieutenant Thomas James at the age of 16. Married life, however, was not for young Eliza and she split from the lieutenant five years later, beginning her career as a Spanish dancer. As Eliza Gilbert wasn’t the most convincing name for a Spanish dancer, she assumed the moniker Lola Montez, birthing a legend.
Lola was a big hit in Europe, although not always for her dancing. As she quickly discovered, her career fortunes trended upwards the more amiable she was towards certain influential men. While living in Paris, she found critical acclaim, coincidentally at the same time as she was carrying on an affair with Alexandre Dujarier, who was the owner of France’s most popular newspaper, as well as its most prominent theatre critic.
"Upon their first meeting, Ludwig asked Lola whether her breasts were real, and Lola immediately provided him with incontrovertible proof"
It was not in Paris but in Munich that Lola made her biggest splash, after bewitching King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Upon their first meeting, Ludwig asked Lola whether her breasts were real, and Lola immediately provided him with incontrovertible proof. Ludwig was convinced: he must have this woman. In fact, not only must he have her, he must give her land, a fortune, and the title Countess of Landsfeld.
The newly ennobled Lola had such an effect on the lovestruck Ludwig that she actually exercised political influence, pushing his administration in an ever-more liberal direction and angering Bavaria’s religious conservatives. Ludwig’s infatuation with Lola did not end well: the public, sick of a king in thrall to the policy prescriptions of an Irish dancer, rose up in the revolution of 1848 and turfed him out. Still, it could’ve been worse: Ludwig lived 20 years after being deposed; Dujarier’s romance with Lola ended with him being shot dead in a duel.
After a brief stint in America, she decided, like so many thousands of others around the world, to head to the goldfields of Australia to see how rich the pickings were. Thus did the naïve colonials of Victoria discover the pleasures of Ms Montez.
She toured the regions, thrilling diggers from Bendigo to Castlemaine with her legendary “Spider Dance” (details are scant, but suffice to say when she got going you could’ve sworn she had eight legs).
But it was in Ballarat that her notoriety hit its peak, after the distinguished Mr Seekamp published a scathing review of her dancing in the Times. Living the dream of millions of performers throughout the ages, Lola tracked Seekamp down at his local pub, dragged him into the street, and laid into him with the whip.
Unlike many other gentlemen of the time, Seekamp apparently didn’t enjoy being whipped by Lola Montez at all. In the colonies, this spectacular exercising of the right to reply would go down as Lola’s most indelible moment. But for the lady herself, it was just another day in one of the most remarkable lives anyone has ever lived.
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