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Missybaba who made her own rules

The Victorians were much fond of the word “adventuress” and bestowed it freely on women who refused to lead conventional lives. But there were some who wore it like a badge of honour, and none more so than the fiery Lola Montez, dancer and actress, and who lived in Calcutta for several years in the 1820s.

Lola was born Marie Dolores Eliza Roseanna Gilbert in Limerick, Ireland, in 1818. In 1823, the family moved to India after her father Edward Gilbert of the 25th Regiment was posted there. Following Edward’s death from cholera, her mother Eliza married Lieutenant Patrick Craigie who seems to have cared for Dolores but was also alarmed at her ungovernable ways. She went to a series of schools in England but at age 14, her mother arranged a marriage with Abraham Lumly, a judge of the Supreme Court in India and described as a ‘rich and gouty old rascal of sixty years’. Dolores’s response was to elope with one of her mother’s friends, the 27-year-old Lieutenant Thomas James. This was to be the first of a series of escapades, spanning three decades and four continents.

After his marriage with the underage Dolores, James returned to India and set up house in Calcutta. During this time, she was memorialised in a song which her palanquin-bearers improvised as they jog-trotted their way along the streets of Calcutta: “She’s not heavy/ cabbada/ Little Missy-baba/ cabadda. / Carry her swiftly / cabadda / Pretty Missy-baba / kabadda”. (Kabbada is of course khabardar). James, on the other hand, went to seed very rapidly, and Lola complained that ‘he slept like a boa-constrictor’ and ‘drank too much porter’. Then there was a blazing cantonment scandal with a certain Mrs Lomer who could have been straight out of Kipling; the upshot of which was a parting of ways in 1842, and Lola’s return to Scotland.

From this point, Dolores’s life is so full of incidents that it would take a whole page of this newspaper to chronicle it. For a while, she was reduced to singing for a living in the streets of Brussels (or so rumour goes) but what is certain is that she travelled to Spain and transformed herself into a Spanish dancer by the name of Lola Montez. She created an erotic dance-piece called the Spider Dancer and gave performances in Berlin, Warsaw, Dresden, St Petersburg and the Paris Opera. During this period, her list of lovers reads like a virtual Who’s Who of Europe’s Page 3: the conductor Franz Liszt, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, père, and the most glittering catch of them all, King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Her subsequent career took her to virtually all parts of the world, to Melbourne where she outraged local morality by dancing without tights, and to San Francisco, where she performed for the Californian gold-rushers. Her short and incredibly crowded life ended in New York in 1861, when she was just 43. She wrote two books: The Art of Beauty, and Lectures, which also comprises a memoir.

(The writer teaches English at Jadavpur University)

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