|A Gift From The Past|
|By Marina Maxwell|
lthough I consider myself to be a rational, level-headed person, I am fairly open-minded to the idea that we have all lived before, that we encounter each other over and over again through many lifetimes. For me it explains why, for no apparent reason and knowing little about them, I immediately connect with certain people or why I am instantly repelled by others. Being an historical novelist, I find I feel the same about history. Certain periods, places and people seem to call out to me, others leave me cold and I avoid them at all costs. During the nine years in which I have been seriously pursuing my historical writing career, I have had some strange experiences which only add weight to this idea, none more so than my contact with Lola Montez.
Lola Montez, the famous 19th Century whip-cracking, cigar-smoking, good-time gal who caused a ruckus around the world (even a revolution in Bavaria) and left a trail of broken hearts in India, England, France, Russia, New York, California, and even in Australia—has always been a heroine of mine. She was unafraid of defying the rules of society and she is my antidote to all those simpering well-behaved Regency and Victorian misses (some say Thackerays anti-heroine Becky Sharp was based on Lola, and I can well believe it). Anyhow, I always knew that I would write a novel about her and, about three years ago, I decided it was time to tackle Lolas extraordinary life. My book is called The Fatal Touch, which comes from a quote by Alexandre Dumas on Lolas tragic track record in love.
For research, I already had a very comprehensive collection of books and articles on Lola, but I was lacking a complete copy of her own Autobiography and Lectures, published in 1858 in New York. I applied to an international book-searcher to find me a copy. She hunted around the world for it, finally coming up with a list of the five or six copies that were available. They ranged from less than $200 for a badly damaged copy up to over $2,000 for one in an excellent condition. As I really only wanted the content, I opted for the cheapest one and sent off my payment.
A week later, a package arrived for me, postmarked Nevada City, California. I found this rather curious as I knew very well that Lola had lived not far from Nevada City during the Gold Rush days. Inside the package was this small book, shabby and dog-eared. As I opened it, I was assailed by a smell of tobacco (being a non-smoker, Im highly susceptible to the smell of cigarettes, cigars in particular). I sat and looked at the book, and a prickle travelled down my spine. There is the name Jas. Maple written in pencil on an inside page, and it looks as if a photograph was once stuck to the inside cover. As I flicked the pages, many of which were heavily underscored in pencil, with scribbles and notes in the margin, I was filled with the sense that I knew this cheapest copy was ultimately going to be the most valuable. Then suddenly, a small piece of paper about 2" x 1" fell out, and on which in shaky handwriting were the following words: Please except the widows mite.
I studied the paper for a long time, trying to figure out what it meant. I realized that the word except should really have been accept for the sentence to make sense. I then consulted my reference books and confirmed that a widows mite could be described as a gift of sacrifice or, in other words, a gift from someone who has nothing left to give. I then re-read through some of the scribbles in the margins, many ill-spelt and to do with love and loss. I scoured the book again and this time I discovered a minuscule piece of black lace tucked in the spine.
I was now overcome with great excitement that I could very well be holding in my hand Lola Montezs own copy of her Autobiography—a book which she may have used for referral purposes when giving her famous lectures in the closing years of her life in New York—and a book which she may have given away to some friend before she died. (She died close to poverty and it could very well be that the book was among her last possessions and one of her widows mites.) Somehow, it was the tiny piece of black lace that clinched it for me. Lola was famous for dressing in black.
Absolutely frantic to discover the truth about this book, I quickly did a photocopy of the note and wrote to Bruce Seymour in California, a world authority on Lola Montez and the author of her most recent biography, and also an expert in her handwriting. He confirmed that it certainly looked like her writing, that she was an erratic speller and could well have used the word except instead of accept. Being an academic, he was somewhat skeptical about my romantic notion that this really was Lolas book, but I have absolutely no doubt in my own mind. The evidence is overwhelming. I believe it may have been given by her to someone who had known her during her days in California and he/she (perhaps Jas. Maple) took it back to Nevada City, where it remained forgotten and unopened on a family bookshelf or in some bookshop for almost 140 years.
So, now you can see why I believe that Fate (or whatever name you care to put on it) intended this book for me. I also hope it is a good omen that one of these days a publisher will take serious note of my manuscript of The Fatal Touch and recognize that I have managed to capture more of the true soul and spirit of Lola Montez than most of her biographers have been able to do. Lola had her fair share of bad publicity and derision during her lifetime. Sure, she was no saint, but she was also very much a victim of the hypocrisy of her time. For her individuality, her defiance, and her great courage in the face of enormous odds, she deserves to be better remembered.