THE IRISH TIMES
Magazine | June 13, 2009
Max Ophüls’s film about the original femme fatale, Lola Montez, has been restored to its Technicolor glory and is being released on DVD, while a new novel reveals her many adventures, writes HELEN MEANY
THE TERM FEMME FATALE was coined for her, but it seems a little understated. Lola Montez, the “Spanish dancer” who scandalised 19-century Europe, comes down to us through fiction and film as a full-blooded seductress, a pistol-waving hot-head and ingenious survivor. One of the most sumptuous images of her comes from Max Ophüls’s film Lola Montès , from 1955, which recently had its print restored. Here Lola is paraded in a circus ring, at the mercy of Peter Ustinov’s circus master and a dangerously excitable audience. The director had so little faith in the acting capacity of his star, Martine Carol, that she remains mute throughout, a luminous beauty and a puppet.
It’s a memorable depiction of female sexual power and its flip side: vulnerability and dependence – a tightrope that Lola Montez negotiated adroitly in her short life. Performing and sleeping her way through the capitals of Europe, she invariably managed to re-invent herself when her luck ran out, moving on to another city and another male benefactor. “When passion is at its height, collect jewels,” a street-wise maid advised her, and she took it to heart, benefiting from the patronage of Franz Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria, among many others.
Author Marion Urch loved the Orphüls film as a student, and when she learned that Montez was Irish – born Eliza Gilbert – she was hooked. Her new novel, An Invitation to Dance , explores Eliza’s Irish origins, opening in Cork in 1820 where her mother, a teenage milliner’s apprentice, first met her father, an ensign in the British army. By the time he discovered that she was the illegitimate daughter of an Anglo-Irish lord, she was already pregnant. A shotgun wedding preceded an army posting to India, with their new baby girl in tow.
“The fact that she was Irish was fundamental to my understanding of Lola Montez,” says Urch. “I read everything I could about her, but most of it was quite hostile. I became determined to unlock her character, and rescue her from all the B-movie cliches and the implausible life story. None of the biographies I read really thought about her in the context of what life was like for women in Ireland and England at the time. Even the idea, always repeated, that she was a bad dancer: she did get some good reviews, in fact. It’s just that her dancing seemed raw and unrefined because it was based on flamenco. It came as a shock to audiences used to seeing ballet.”
In Urch’s first-person narrative, the young Eliza Gilbert observes the casual cruelties of her world through sensitive eyes. Hurt by her mother’s indifference, she is passed like a parcel among nurses and servants, and eventually sent back from India to a boarding school in Bath on the death of her father. Exile, displacement and constant movement define her life’s history.
When her mother arranged to marry her off at 17 to a man old enough to be her grandfather, she rebelled, eloping with an army officer who had originally been courting her mother. It was the first of many impulsive decisions which she lived to regret.
“Ordinary unhappiness was common enough: why couldn’t I have settled for it like everyone else?” she wonders later, after a broken marriage in India and a passionate affair on the voyage home that outraged her relatives, alienating her further from her mother.
Back in London in the 1840s, divorced and penniless, Eliza lived from week to week, struggling to maintain the appearance of gentility. She survived by becoming the mistress of a succession of wealthy middle-aged gentlemen, who kept her in finery. “The spectre of poverty dogged my every step. I saw fallen women everywhere.”
As in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or the novels of Trollope, the imperative for young women to make a prudent marriage permeates Urch’s novel. For those who didn’t, their financial dependence made them extremely vulnerable. “It was impossible for women to earn a living,” Urch says. “Thousands of them went into part-time prostitution, and that’s very far from the image we have of 19th-century London. Everyone was scrabbling around, pretending to be something they weren’t.”
Encouragement from a charlatan dancing master prompted the crucial decision that shaped Eliza’s self-invention as a great Spanish artist, “Lola Montez”. With only her reluctant maid in tow, she travelled to Andalucía for a few months and studied flamenco.
“To me she was foolhardy and brave,” Urch says. “She was a woman who had run out of options. That period in Granada left a huge mark on her. From that time, she decided to live for the moment, following her whims and impulses.”
Urch herself has lived in Spain, and talks about duende , the ferocious, indefinable spirit of flamenco, celebrated in an essay by Federico García Lorca. It’s clear that Andalucían culture impressed her hugely: this section of the novel is steeped in sensuous language. The textures and colours of Lola’s costumes are rendered in painterly detail, as she begins to develop a new performance style that is not pure flamenco but a hybrid form.
The notion of hybrid identities – cultural and national – recurs in the novel and feels very contemporary: Eliza/Lola and her mother, living between Ireland, England and British India, were neither fully Irish nor English. Eliza’s mother’s illegitimacy added to the necessity for her to be endlessly socially adaptive.
For Urch, these slippery self-definitions heightened her interest in Lola’s story and sympathy for her character. Born in England to Irish parents, with a father in the navy, Urch’s childhood was spent moving between England, Malta and Leitrim, where she spent her school holidays every year. Her next short story collection will reflect these diverse settings, but for her, Leitrim is one constant place, which has made a deep imprint.
“I have an emotional connection to the landscape. It’s also where I found an aptitude for stories. The oral history and storytelling tradition of north Leitrim comes through from my grandfather, and I realised that through it, I found my vocation.”
An Invitation to Dance is published by Brandon, €18.99 (hardback), €12.99 (paperback)
© 2009 The Irish Times