LOLA MONTEZ- HISTORY’S FIRST “COSMO” WOMAN
AND THE START OF THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Lola Montez was born in 1820 (give or take a year or two) and died in 1860, so her adulthood was lived in the 1840s and 50s. During this period, there were unbelievable breakthroughs in medicine (anesthesia) and transportation (railroads), upheavals such as the Irish Potato Famine and the Anglo-Sikh wars, the 1848 Revolutions in Europe, the Crimean War, and the gold rushes in California and Australia. The Communist Manifesto was published, and, just before Lola’s early death, The Origin of Species. Rapid and incredible changes; it was as if the world had suddenly sped up.
Women, however, did not yet have the vote, nor could they own property, once married. Their role was to take care of the home, and to mother children; they were referred to as “angels of the hearth”. If they weren’t lucky enough to marry or at least belong to a wealthy family (the maiden aunt), they could perhaps become a governess (think of Jane Eyre), or—at the drop of a hat through some misfortune or miscalculation—fall from grace into worse (think of Nancy in Oliver Twist). Adventuring was done by men.
“With a modern mind-set, she followed adventure— she sought it out.”
But, from a young age, Lola traveled—and in her adult years, she chose to travel under her own steam and for her own purposes. With a modern mind-set, she followed adventure, she sought it out—journeying to places as far flung as Australia and California (in both cases, to take part in the gold rush), as well as all over Europe and into Russia. Sometimes she was married, sometimes she wasn’t—but she never allowed marriage or a husband to stop her from doing what she chose to do. There are other 19th century women who travelled, but more often under the banner of whichever church they belonged to or with the back-up of their family money and station. Lola did not come from wealth, nor was she ever wealthy; she belonged to no church. She made her own way—another ‘modern’ trait for a woman. And she made her own money, once she was there.
As well, Lola loved to give an opinion, and was very outspoken about what she thought. This, too, was unusual in a woman of her time. She adored the limelight, craved an audience, enjoyed making people laugh while admiring her beauty and wit. I consider that a modern trait, one that we’ve grown accustomed to—but in mid-Victorian society, it was more common to be modest and retiring, and to wait for others to say nice things (especially for a woman). Lola’s motto was “Courage, and shuffle the cards.” She liked who she was, and if others didn’t, that was their lookout; she wasn’t about to change to please someone else.
“Lola’s motto was, ‘Courage, and shuffle the cards.’”
Lola always held an unapologetic attitude about her lovers. She didn’t feel guilt about the long succession of them—nor about how much she enjoyed their company and her own sexuality. She never spoke about feeling shame, that dreadful 19th century curse which we’ve come to expect from female characters in books or in real women from the era.
The motto that Lola Montez has come to be known by was her favorite expression: Courage, and shuffle the cards. She took up gambling on certain occasions, and she loved to win. But more than the literal meaning of it, I think that it summed up Lola’s attitude to life. What would she have to say to us today? What is inside that beautifully succinct expression?
“Don’t start waffling or second-guessing yourself, and don’t apologize.”
Perhaps, to Lola Montez, something like this: When life is going well, you need courage to keep believing that it will always do so. Don’t start waffling or second-guessing yourself, and don’t apologize. Live it now! Life doesn’t stand still, however. Failure or sorrow is never further away than just around the next corner. When it comes, face it bravely. Roll with it, or you’ll be lost. You’ve pulled a bad hand—play it hard, without fear. Just as hard as you play the good hands. And laugh along the way. Even if it gives you wrinkles. Laugh a lot, you deserve it. We all do.
Kit Brennan is the author of the bestselling Whip Smart: The Lola Montez Series, a nationally produced, award-winning playwright, and teacher of writing and storytelling at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. Her adventure novels are based on the real-life story of Lola Montez, a top-notch, notorious bad girl of the Victorian world. Kit divides her time between the vibrant city of Montreal and the quiet lake wilderness of Ontario alongside her husband, Andrew, and a variety of animal friends. Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution is her third novel. Visit her online at www.kitbrennan.com.
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