Turtle Bunbury

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Eliza Roseanna Gilbert (1821-1860)
aka Lola Montez

Fans of Sir Harry Flashman, VC, may recall the delectable Lola Montez, the femme fatale with whom the disreputable soldier enjoys a short and violent affair. Lola was one of the most famous women of her generation, an exotic dancer, a champion of fallen women, a manipulative man-eater. Her lovers included composer Franz Lizst and King Ludwig of Bavaria. Lola Montez was the most successful of her many stage names. When she was born in Co Sligo in 1821, her parents named her Eliza Roseanna Gilbert. The raven-haired beauty would pack in an enormous amount into her short 40-year life, roaming from Calcutta to County Carlow, from San Francisco to the Australian outback.

Her story began on Christmas Day 1818 when a young English soldier by name of Ensign Edward Gilbert of the 25th Regiment (King's Own Borderers) arrived at Cobh with his garrison to begin a two year tour of duty in Ireland. He soon came upon a pretty young orphan, Eliza Oliver. Eliza’s father was the Eton-educated County Limerick landowner, Captain Charles Silver Oliver, MP (1763-1817), a somewhat reviled figure in Irish history. He is remembered as the man responsible for the hanging the highly respected Patrick ‘Staker’ Wallis in 1798. Eliza was his one of four illegitimate children born to the Captain by a woman called Mary Green. By the time the Captain died at Castle Oliver near Kilmallock in 1817, Eliza’s two brothers were employed as apprentice grocers in Limerick and Cork, while she and her elder sister Mary were despatched to live with Mrs. Hall, a Milliner and Dress Maker in Cork City.

It is not known how Gilbert and Eliza met but he evidently mesmerised the young dress-maker with his red jacket, red sash and his new felt top cap. They were married in Cork on 29 April 1820. Eliza was just fifteen years old. His regiment was subsequently posted to Sligo where Lola was born at Grange on February 17th 1821. In 1822, Edward was posted to India. Upon arrival, he set off to join his new regiment in Calcutta but alas the 26-year-old soldier appears to have contracted cholera almost immediately and died on 22 September 1823.

Left with his uniform, his poetry books, his playing cards and his baby daughter, young Eliza wisely took up with another officer, Lieutenant (later Major) Pat Craigie (1779-1843), a cheerful Scottish quartermaster who was then closely involved with the political agent at Jaipur. They were married at Dacca on 16 August 1824 and Craigie quickly assumed a paternal love for young Lola. India was no place for children, particularly one as determinedly stubborn as Lola. On 18 December 1826, the Craigie’s put the 5-year-old on a ship bound for Britain where she went to live with her stepfather’s family in Montrose, Scotalnd. Signs of trouble ahead emerged when she was caught sticking flowers into the wig of an elderly man during a church service. On another occasion, she ran through the streets of Montrose naked.

At the age of 10, Lola was sent to a school in Sunderland run by her stepfather’s sister, Mrs Rae, but the ‘queer, wayward little Indian girl’ only lasted a year. Her art teacher JG Grant later remarked on her beauty in great length, adding that ‘it was impossible to look at her for many minutes without feeling convinced that she was made up of very wayward and troublesome elements’. When she emerged from solitary confine after one era of mischief, she resembled ‘a little tigress just escaped from one den to another’. ‘Her animal spirits were naturally very great’, concluded Grant. ‘She romped as assiduously as any girl of her age; danced gracefully, talked with great animation in her merry moods, and seemed altogether what is called a "clever child;" although I confess that my remembrance of her general intellect is not sufficiently distinct to enable me to speak beyond that’.

In 1829, the Raes sent the troublesome child to Catherine Aldridge's Ladies Boarding Academy in Bath. Lola’s mother seemed to have turned her back on the girl by then for, in 1834, a rather vexed Mrs Rae wrote that she had finally heard from Eliza Craigie (after writing her six letters) in relation to the ‘thankless task’ of raising Lola. (‘I likened her to a tortoise who buries her eggs lightly in the sand, and leaves them to the sun, and to chance’).

Eliza finally returned from India in April 1837. On board the ship with her was a young Irish officer from the East India Companyman, 30-year-old Carlow-born Lieutenant Thomas James (1807-1871). [His father Thomas James lived at Ballycristal, near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford]. Eliza invited him to come and visit her in Bath. James cannot have been long through the door when he fell under the spell of 16 year old Lola. In June 1837, ‘the dirty ungracious whelp’ skipped out of school and eloped with the penniless Lieutenant James. The marriage took place in Rathbeggan, Co Meath where Thomas’s brother John James (1813-1862) was Vicar. ‘At all events the £2000 spent on her education & her mothers voyages is lost’, lamented Mrs Rae. Lola and her husband were in disgrace; their apparent contrition was regarded as an attempt to swindle Mrs Craigie from further money.

After a year lodging in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, Lt and Mrs “Eva” James returned to India but things did not pan out for the couple and they were soon living apart. In late 1841, recovering from a horse-fall at Meerut, Lola left India. On board her ship was a young cavalry officer, Lt George Lennox, son of Lord George Lennox and Aide de Camp to Governor General Lord Elphinstone. They were seen kissing and Mrs James was seen putting on her stockings with Lennox present in her cabin. On landing in London, the couple took a room at the Imperial Hotel, Covent Garden, where they ‘lay naked and alone in one and the same bed … and there had the Carnal use and knowledge of each others Bodies’. The following year, Captain James launched a divorce action against Lola, citing adultery as his cause and pointing the finger at Lennox. He sought to ‘recover damages for the loss of the affection and society of his wife’. Lola claimed that Lt. James had run off with the wife of a fellow officer, Captain Lomer. However, much of this is now deemed to be typical Lola fabrication. She was, it is now clear, something of a compulsive liar.

After the Lennox affair, Lola lived with a relative of her step-father in Nelson Street, Edinburgh, where she tried unsuccessfully to get work as a theatre actress. She tried again in London, becoming a professional dancer with financial support from two smitten peers, Lord Malmesbury and Lord Brougham. In June 1843 she launched her stage career, debuting as "Dona Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer”. Although her performance was a hit, someone recognized her as ‘Mrs. James’ causing uproar over her masquerade.

If she wanted to make it as a dancer, Lola would have to go some place where nobody knew her past. Thus the Sligo girl departed for the Continent, where she became as well-known for her ‘excessive beauty’ and quick temper as she was for her dancing. Many wealthy men came a-courting and, in return for certain favours, she did what courtesans do best. Her scalp collection is said to have included French writer Alexandre Dumas, Hungarian composer Franz Lizst and newspaperman Alexandre Dujarier.

In 1846, she hit the jackpot when she became mistress to Ludwig I, the eccentric art-loving King of Bavaria. However, Lola’s tempestuous demeanor swiftly brought her into conflict with the Jesuit-heavy Bavarian parliament in Munich. On August 25 1847, his birthday, Ludwig infuriated the opposition when he made Lola a Bavarian citizen and created her Countess of Lansfeldt. He also gifted her a newly-built palace and lavished a pension of 20,000 florins on her. Ludwig’s popularity duly plummeted. In March 1848, Europe erupted in revolution and Ludwig was among those monarchs forced to abdicate. Ludwig moved to France and died in Nice in 1868. His eldest son succeeded as Maximilian II.

Meanwhile Lola returned to London and married George Trafford Heald, a young cavalry officer with a recent inheritance. However, under the terms of her divorce from Captain James, Lola was prohibited from marrying again until the Captain was deceased. When Heald’s scandalized aunt learned this, she began pushing for a bigamy case against Lola. The newly-weds abandoned England, making their way to France, Italy and Spain, but the marriage came asunder in Barcelona. Heald died of TB in 1856.

In 1851, the 30-year-old Lola made her way to America to start all over again. She danced her way up the east coast and then moved to San Francisco where she found her third husband, a newspaper man called Patrick Hull. They rented a cottage from an Irish woman Jennie Moore in California but this marriage soon also collapsed. (The restored Home of Lola Montez has gone on to become a California Historical Landmark).

In the summer of 1855, Lola took to the seas again, this time making her way to Australia where she entertained miners during the gold-rush of the 1850s. She caused an uproar when she performed her erotic Tarantula Dance at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne, raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no panties. The Tarantula Dance went down considerably better in Castlemaine eight months later where she was “rapturously encored” by 400 diggers. But she even antagonized these men by hurling abuse at them when some heckling got underway. When The Ballarat Times gave her a scathing review, she sought out the editor and attacked him with a horse-whip.

In 1856 Lola returned to America, lecturing on beauty and gallantry in San Francisco, and then moved to New York where she seems to have spent her latter days visiting other women who had become outcasts. In the summer of 1860 she suffered a stroke and was briefly paralyzed. She contracted pneumonia and died on January 17th 1861, one month before her 40th birthday. She was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. The Californians named Mount Lola in her honor, Mount Lola. At 9,148', it is the highest point in Nevada County.