Friday, September 3, 2021

Divine Lola

 ~ I received no compensation and opinions are 100% my own or my family. ~

Synopsis:  An enthralling biography about one of the most intriguing women of the Victorian age: the first self-invented international social celebrity.

Lola Montez was one of the most celebrated and notorious women of the nineteenth century. A raven-haired Andalusian who performed her scandalous “Spider Dance” in the greatest performance halls across Europe, she dazzled and beguiled all who met her with her astonishing beauty, sexuality, and shocking disregard for propriety. But Lola was an impostor, a self-invention. Born Eliza Gilbert, the beautiful Irish wild child escaped a stifling marriage and reimagined herself as Lola the Sevillian flamenco dancer and noblewoman, choosing a life of adventure, fame, sex, and scandal rather than submitting to the strictures of her era.

Lola cast her spell on the European aristocracy and the most famous intellectuals and artists of the time, including Alexandre Dumas, Franz Liszt, and George Sand, and became the obsession of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. She then set out for the New World, arriving in San Francisco at the height of the gold rush, where she lived like a pioneer and performed for rowdy miners before making her way to New York. There, her inevitable downfall was every bit as dramatic as her rise. Yet there was one final reinvention to come for the most defiant woman of the Victorian age―a woman known as a “savage beauty” who was idolized, romanticized, vilified, truly known by no one, and a century ahead of her time.

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Wednesday, September 1st: Books, Cooks, Looks – excerpt

Friday, September 3rd: Seaside Book Nook – excerpt

Sunday, September 5th: The Cozy Book Blog – excerpt

Monday, September 6th: @babygotbooks4life

Wednesday, September 8th: Literary Quicksand

Friday, September 10th: Nurse Bookie and @nurse_bookie

Monday, September 13th: @Bibliotica

Wednesday, September 15th: @aimeedarsreads

Thursday, September 16th: @msanniecathryn

Friday, September 17th: Maryann Writes

Monday, September 20th: @chez_colline

Wednesday, September 22nd: @as_seen_in_life

Thursday, September 23rd: @thebookishalix

Friday, September 24th: @jenniaahava

Monday, September 27th: Eliot’s Eats

Wednesday, September 29th:

Thursday, September 30th: @rickys_radical_reads

Friday, October 1st: @amanda.the.bookish

Monday, October 4th: Reading is My Remedy

Excerpt: Calcutta's lush green foliage, the blinding sun, the violent storms, the brightly colored birds, the delicious fruit, the music, the ritual dances-everything-sparked Lola's curiosity. The penetrating aromas of spices, incense, and earth would remain with her forever. The slen-der Indian women wrapped in saris, with their arms covered in silver bangles, looked like princesses from a fairy tale.

            From time to time, with Denali, she would go to the "black city," a tangle of narrow, dusty streets where the Europeans never ventured. There, the natives lived in a tumult that Lola found invigorating. She wasn't afraid of anything-not the snake charmers or the fakirs or the thick-bearded holy men who smeared their naked bodies with ash. But her biggest adventure happened on the day she accompanied her ayah to the temple dedicated to Kali, the patron goddess of Calcutta. Inside, barely lit by the dim light of the oil lamps, a striking statue of the god-dess sat atop the altar, all in black marble except for the eyes and tongue, which were painted gold and blood red. At one time, Kali's devout wor-shipers had made human sacrifices to her, but now they offered only the blood of chickens and black goats. Legends of the powerful goddesses Kali and Durga, protectors of the truth and destroyers of evil, kindled the little girl's imagination and transported her to a magical world.

            Twice a week she would bathe at twilight in the Hooghly River, even though her mother had forbidden it out of fear she might be bitten by a snake. As Lola grew older, she became more and more beautiful-and more and more reckless. She almost always went barefoot, she climbed trees, she chewed betel nuts until her mouth was stained bright red, and she played with the native children on streets littered with cow patties. She never forgot those sweltering afternoons when it was too hot to go outside and she would lie under a gauzy mosquito net, drifting off to the rhythmic whisper of the punkah, a cloth ceiling fan that a native boy would move by pulling on a rope in exchange for a few pence a day.

            Less than a year after Edward's death, his widow agreed to marry Lieutenant Patrick Craigie. The officer had been posted to Dhaka, in central Bangladesh, where the pair were married on August 16, 1824, in a small civil ceremony. The city was a wealthy, bustling trading cen­ter for British India on the banks of the Buriganga River. Though it offered more comforts than Dinapore, summers were unbearably hot. And since it was at sea level, enormous monsoon floods would wipe out entire villages. After the wedding, Eliza and her daughter moved into a pretty bungalow near the military headquarters. Europeans con­sidered Dhaka less civilized than vibrant Calcutta, but the house was large, with a lovely garden, and they had a dozen servants. In the center of the city were several well-stocked shops, a public park, a bank, a steepled church, a small school, and a club where officers gathered to have a whiskey and read weeks-old issues of the Times. Lola now had a stepfather, whom she always remembered fondly. Though he referred to her as "Mrs. Craigie's daughter," he was affectionate and invested in her well-being. Unfortunately, his military obligations forced him to spend long periods away from home.

            When Lola turned five, her stepfather made a decision that brought her happy, lazy days in India to an end. Convinced that the child needed more discipline, one afternoon he suggested to his wife that they send her to Scotland to live with his elderly father. The conventional wisdom was that English children raised in India would become wayward sheep, and Lola was showing no signs of being an exception.

            "It will be good for her," he said firmly. "India isn't her home and the education is inadequate."

            "I suppose you're right," Eliza admitted, "but I'm worried about how she'll take it. She seems so happy here."

            "She's too young to understand that we're doing it for her own good," Lieutenant Craigie said. "She'll be in the care of my family in Montrose. It's a quiet town where everybody knows one another."

            Upon learning that she would be sent back to the British Isles in less than a month, Lola shut herself in her room and wept. She never forgave her mother, convinced that Eliza wanted to rid herself of her daughter's burdensome presence once and for all. In the winter of 1826, Patrick Craigie was named deputy assistant adjutant-general of the regiment in Meerut, northeast of Delhi. At the same time, his former commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Innes, decided to retire to England with his family. It was a happy coincidence, and the Inneses agreed to escort Lola to London; from there, the girl would continue on to Montrose.

            It was the last Christmas she spent with her family in India, and Lola remembered it as the saddest she had ever experienced. As December drew to a close, she said goodbye and boarded the Malcolm, carrying her little suitcase. From the deck, hidden among the throng of passengers waving their handkerchiefs in the air, she watched the gangway be pulled back and the huge sails unfurl. She felt expelled from paradise, headed for an unfamiliar place where she didn't know a soul. She was leaving behind a childhood full of magical memories and her loving Denali, whom she would always carry in her heart.

            Lieutenant Colonel Innes and his wife didn't have an easy time wrangling the willful, disobedient girl for the more than four endless months. It was a particularly difficult and hazardous journey from the moment they weighed anchor. The Malcolmstopped for provisions in Madras and then crossed the Indian Ocean, rocked by violent storms. Water and food were rationed, and the torrential downpours made life on board even more trying. By the time the ship passed the Cape of Good Hope, two soldiers returning home on leave had died, and a third died a month before they reached their destination. Luckily, they were able to restock their provisions at the port of Saint Helena, and the rest of the voyage was somewhat calmer.

            Though Mrs. Innes was kind and patient with her, Lola was miser­able. She spent most of the journey huddled behind the curtain that covered her bunk, refusing to talk to anybody. As the ship approached England's shores, she was gripped by a powerful sense of anguish and unease. On May 19, 1827, the Malcolm berthed in Blackwall, east of the Tower of London, and the luggage was unloaded in an intense downpour. On the docks, Lola said a chilly goodbye to the Inneses and left with one of her stepfather's relatives who had come to take her to Scotland.

            After vibrant Calcutta, Montrose seemed as cold, damp, and gray as a cemetery. It was located between Dundee and Aberdeen on the banks of an estuary that formed an inlet and protected it from the North Sea's powerful storms. Wealthy merchants had built a few luxurious mansions on its main street, but the rest of the buildings were drab and charmless. Her step-grandfather, also named Patrick Craigie, had been provost of the town for a quarter century and was now enjoying his retirement. He and his wife, Mary, had nine children, the youngest just seven years older than Lola.

            In a sleepy town like Montrose, a little girl arriving from the East Indies caused a sensation. Her unusual manner of dressing, her com­portment, and the familiar way she addressed strangers provoked all sorts of commentary.

            Contrary to her expectations, Lola's step-grandparents were kind to her. But the household's old governess tried unsuccessfully to reform the mutinous child. Lola relished being the center of attention and let her imagination run wild. She loved to recount how a rich maharajah in Jaipur had tried to pay her father a fortune in gold to allow her to marry the maharajah's son. The people of Montrose remembered her as a mischievous, lively girl who amused herself during Sunday mass by sticking flowers in the wigs of elderly gentlemen sitting in the next pew. Lola spent the next four years in the green, misty landscapes of the Scottish countryside. She learned to ride horses and galloped through the broad fields near her step-grandfather's farm every day. Though

she wrote her stepfather several letters begging him to let her return to India, he ignored her pleas.

            When Lola turned ten, her stepfather's older sister, Catherine Rae, and her husband, William, moved to Durham, England, where they opened a girls' boarding school in Monkwearmouth. Lola's step-grandfather decided that the girl should go with them.

            "Sweetheart," he said tenderly, "you're nearly a woman now. You can't stay here. You know that we love you and you're part of this fam­ily, but at boarding school you'll learn good manners and be with other girls your age."

            "Grandfather, I've been moving around my entire life," Lola said, downcast. "I've never had female friends, and all I want is to go back to India to be with my parents. I miss them so much."

            "But that's not an option now. Your parents want what's best for you, and you have to be strong. It's already been decided, darling, don't make things more difficult."

            Even at that young age, Lola was already well acquainted with lone­liness and alienation. She'd been forced to abandon her native Ireland, her first home in Dinapore, and the house in Calcutta where she'd been happy; she'd watched her father die, been separated from her beloved Denali, and now was going to be deprived of her step-grandparents' love. But all she could do was pack her bags again.

            Lola was at the boarding school in Monkwearmouth only a year, but her presence didn't go unnoticed. Her drawing teacher, Mr. Grant, remembered her as rebellious, eccentric, and very stubborn:


Eliza Gilbert . . . was at that time a very elegant and beautiful child . . . 

[her charm] only lessened by . . . indomitable self-will . . . Her complexion 

was orientally dark, but transparently clear; her eyes were of deep blue, 

and, as I distinctly remember, of excessive beauty . . . [A]ltogether, it was 

impossible to look at her for many minutes without feeling convinced that 

she was made up of very wayward and troublesome elements.


            In late 183o Lola's stepfather had been promoted to captain, which enabled him to enroll the girl in a more prestigious school recom­mended by his division mate, Major-General Sir Jasper Nicolls. The distinguished officer was planning to return to England on a two-year leave, and Craigie asked him to look after Lola until classes started. In mid-September 1832, Lola and Mrs. Rae made a long trip by horse-drawn carriage from Durham to Reading, west of London. The general, a rigid man who was used to giving orders and seeing them carried out, lived there with his wife and their eight daughters. From the start, he was convinced that the wild child would never come to anything good. Lola stayed with the Nicollses for a few weeks and enjoyed a level of comfort and luxury she'd never experienced before. Then she was sent to Bath, where she would continue her studies.

            Her new boarding school was a prestigious and very expensive insti­tution located on Camden Place (now Camden Crescent), a large, half-moon-shaped terrace of Georgian-style residences that included some of the city's most coveted mansions. The elegant academy occupied a two-story building with a neoclassical stone facade decorated with slender Corinthian columns. All the students-fifteen girls between the ages of ten and eighteen-came from wealthy families with good reputations. The rigorous curriculum included the customary feminine disciplines, such as dancing, needlepoint, drawing, singing, and piano, but they also learned French and Latin. The girls were allowed to speak English only on Sundays, and anyone who broke this rule had to pay a fine from her pocket money. Although Bath was an elegant resort city popular in British high society for its thermal waters, Lola was not able to enjoy its lively atmosphere. The rules at the Aldridge Academy were very harsh, and students were allowed to go out only very rarely and under strict supervision.

            Still, Lola looked back on her years in Bath as a happy time during which she shared secrets and pranks with her first female friends. The education she received was fairly comprehensive for a girl of that era. Aldridge's young women were trained not only to be good wives and diligent housekeepers but also to cultivate their minds and spirits. Lola lived there for five years. She would never again spend so long in one place.

            Though Sir Jasper Nicolls admired Captain Craigie and considered him one of his finest officers, he didn't care much for his wife. After eighteen months with Lola in his care, Eliza hadn't displayed the slight-est interest in her daughter's education. The officer wrote in his diary on February 14, 1834:


At last we have heard from Mrs. Craigie, who was I supposed constrained 

to answer our numerous letters tho' she heard from us 6 times before this 

effect was produced-I felt great surprise-not a little vexed-and in some degree 

repented of having so easily undertaken an unpleasant and apparently thankless 

task. I likened her to a tortoise who buries her eggs lightly in the sand, and 

leaves them to sun, and to chance.


            In the autumn of 1836, when Lola was almost sixteen, Eliza wrote a brief letter announcing that she was coming to Bath so they could return to India together. Her mother's impending arrival filled Lola with dread. She barely remembered Eliza's face and had conflicting emotions about her absent mother.

            Mrs. Craigie left Calcutta for England on the steamship Orient. She hadn't seen her daughter in more than ten years. By now she was the wife of a very important man in the East India Company, a captain respected and admired by his superiors, who would soon be promoted to major. Unlike during her first voyage to India as a young roman-tic, Eliza was traveling as a grande dame, with copious luggage and a

first-class cabin. Her husband had given her a substantial sum in case of unexpected obstacles.

            Aboard the Orient, Eliza met Thomas James, a lieutenant working for the East India Company who was returning to his native Ireland on sick leave. Twenty-nine years old-two years her junior-he was a slim man with blue eyes and brown hair. Romantic dalliances were very common on these protracted voyages, and the handsome officer soon began wooing her. Thomas was a member of the Protestant landed gentry in County Wexford, but he did not enjoy a noble title or great wealth. During the five-month journey, Eliza flirted with him openly despite the other passengers' stern looks. One day she told him the reason for her trip.

            "My daughter is at boarding school in Bath, and I am headed there to fetch her. I will be staying until her classes end. Maybe you could visit us there-I am sure that the city's thermal waters would be most beneficial, and we could have a lovely time."

            "I can't make you any promises, my dear, however much I would love to see you again and meet your daughter."

            The morning that Eliza strode through the foyer at the Aldridge Academy, she felt her heart pounding. For days she had been imagining how the reunion would go. She'd last seen Lola when the little girl was just five years old, and now she'd become a woman. The encounter was a disastrous one. The girl eagerly embraced her mother, who gave her a chilly kiss on the forehead. Lola was almost as tall as she, and more beautiful than she'd expected.

            "My dear child!" Eliza exclaimed, looking her up and down. "You are so profoundly changed that I scarcely recognize you. That hairstyle is most unbecoming."

            "Welcome, Mother," Lola replied.

            "Come along, grab your suitcase and say goodbye to your friends. We must do some catching up-it's been such a long time, hasn't it? You have so many things to tell me."

            Lola had no idea how to react. Despite all the time that had passed, the elegant, handsome woman was utterly unchanged and seemed inca­pable of expressing any emotion. After a brief conversation with Lola's teachers, the two women left the school. Mrs. Craigie had rented some well-appointed rooms for them in Camden Place so she could spend time alone with her daughter while Lola was finishing her school year.

            Eliza tried to be friendly, and in the afternoons the two would go shopping in the city's famous clothing stores. Lola was surprised by her mother's sudden generosity; no expense was spared in buying her dresses, corsets, silk stockings, shawls, boots, and even a flattering riding outfit that Lola loved. They also strolled together through the botanical gardens on the banks of the River Avon and visited the Roman baths. For a moment tensions seemed to wane between the two, and Lola was grateful for her mother's attentions and the gifts she showered on her. But Eliza found her daughter's radiant beauty irritating; it reminded her of herself in her youth. At thirty-two she was still a beautiful woman, but India's climate had taken its toll. She could not deny that her little girl had become a stunning woman who inspired admiration wher­ever she went. She was slender, with a slight, well-proportioned build, and she had magnificent blue eyes framed by long, thick eyelashes and voluptuous red lips. But her most striking feature was her long, curly black hair. She could have passed for Romany or Andalusian. Eliza would have liked to have had a demurer daughter, but Lola had been a troublemaker since early childhood. One day, after a heated argument, Eliza asked her to sit down next to her.

            "I know you hate me because you have felt abandoned, but I did it all for you. Now I want you to listen to me-I have something very important to tell you."

            "I don't hate you, Mother," the young woman stammered, "but many years have passed and you never even answered my letters. How could I not feel abandoned? I was only a girl when you sent me away."

            "Forget about the past now and listen: you are of marrying age, you are beautiful and well educated . . . and there is an important man in India who would like to meet you. He has seen your portrait and fallen in love. It is a good match, believe me."

            Suddenly everything became clear to Lola. Eliza had come from so far away only because she had arranged for her to marry a rich, distin­guished gentleman. The prospect was the adjutant-general of Bengal, Sir James Lumley, an elderly widower. The general, who had two bachelor sons near Lola's age, was Captain Patrick Craigie's commanding offi­cer. Upon hearing her mother's proposal, Lola lashed out. She couldn't believe Eliza would try to marry her off to a man fifty years her senior whom she'd never met and did not love. Now she understood why her mother had given her all those beautiful gowns.

            After that, the relationship between the two became unsustainable. Lola tried to spend as little time as possible with her mother, a sophisti­cated, superficial, irresponsible woman for whom she felt no affection.

            That's how matters stood when Lieutenant James unexpectedly arrived to visit Mrs. Craigie that hot summer of 1837. Lola, who'd had little contact with the opposite sex, thought him old-though he was only thirty-but also pleasant, courteous, and very protective of her mother. She was most struck by his handsome smile and "gleaming white teeth," a rarity at the time. From the start, Thomas was drawn to the innocent freshness of the schoolgirl, whose grace and charm eclipsed her mother's. Gradually he worked to gain Lola's trust and would walk with her from her rooms on Camden Place to the Aldridge Academy. In her stepfather's absence and without anyone to whom she could pour out her heart, Lola befriended the stranger, and he became her confi­dant. One day, in distress, she described her mother's plan to marry her off to an elderly stranger. Thomas, who had lost all interest in Eliza and was smitten instead with her daughter, began to reflect on his future. He would soon need to return to Calcutta to rejoin his regiment, and doing so with a beautiful young wife on his arm suited him very well. Out of the blue, he made an unexpected proposition.


Excerpted from Divine Lola by Cristina Morató with permission from the publisher, Amazon Crossing. Text copyright © 2017 by Cristina Morató. Translation copyright © 2021 by Andrea Rosenberg. All rights reserved.


Born in Barcelona in 1961, Cristina Morató is a journalist, reporter, and author dedicated to writing about the lives of great women innovators and explorers that history has overlooked. Her research, tracing the footsteps of these remarkable women, has led her to travel to more than forty countries and has resulted in eight biographies: Viajeras intrépidas y aventureras (Intrepid and Adventurous Women Travelers); Las Reinas de África (African Queens); Las Damas de Oriente (Ladies of the East); Cautiva en Arabia (Arabian Captive); Divas rebeldes (Rebel Divas); Reinas malditas (Tragic Queens); Diosas de Hollywood (Hollywood Goddesses); and Divina Lola (Divine Lola), Cristina’s first to be translated into English. She is a founding member and the current vice president of the Spanish Geographical Society and belongs to the Royal Geographic Society of London. For more information visit

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