Saturday, March 7, 2015

Lola Montez Starts a Revolution

Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution by Kit Brennan, is the much anticipated next installment of the Whip Smart series (if you didn’t get a chance to read the previous novels, don’t worry Revolution is easily a stand-alone story.) Readers are once again thrust into the thrilling adventures of Lola Montez, the gorgeous and audacious dancer making her way through Europe.

With a reputation as the most cosmopolitan woman of her time, (the very first modern woman I believe) Lola travels to Bavaria and seduces King Ludwig I—or, as Lola comes to know him, Luis. Her curious free-spirit and sexual confidence make her irresistible, a true rarity in a time of patriarchy and social repression. But in the midst of her brow-raising love affair, Lola finds herself the target of a witch hunt and a nefarious unfolding plot while the surrounding city descends into social upheaval.

As you may have gathered, Lola Montez was a real person: a modern woman living in Victorian times. She was an Irish girl, born Betty Gilbert, who left her quiet, average life at a young age in order to become an exotic dancer. History has her traveling throughout Europe (again, unheard of for women back then) and during her travels, actually influenced heads of state and shaped major political policy. 

Please enjoy an excerpt from Revolution below!

HOW IT BEGINS: June 1846

Die Reisende (The Traveller)

Galloping astride, its resonant power exploding within you, the headlong rush of a great horse in motion frees the head completely of human sorrows and concerns—like almost nothing else on earth. Responding eagerly to my heel, with each stride Magnifique confirmed with ever greater urgency his penchant for running, for extending his limbs: neck thrust forward, ears turned back, black mane and tail streaming. My whole body thrummed to the pounding rhythm, my brain unclenching and opening to its insistent requirements. There was room only for this: action, engagement, the elation of physical release—harder, faster! On a flying horse, you stay in the moment or court disaster. And I had had too much of that. This was my darling Henri Dujarier’s horse—my horse—and I was thankful to have him back, to be liberated at last from the bitter tragedy of Paris. My craving for speed, for flight, was heightened too by the recent and gruesome confrontation in Montmartre Cemetery. Jumpy as a cat, I trusted no one. Heading north now through France—astonished to still be alive.

A mad determination had come into my head the instant I’d turned Magnifique and cantered away forever from Henri’s grave (my dearest love). I’d clung to the morsel of hope thus roused, though following through on it entailed several hard weeks of travel. No matter how willing he seemed, it was critical that I not overtax my steed.

Spring days warmed with the passing of each, the landscape changing as we moved through it. I put up for the nights at coaching inns, hiding my youth and figure in a bulky riding cape. Occasional necessary encounters with inhabitants of towns and the Picardy countryside revealed a new fact: while I’d mourned and battled in Paris, the world hadn’t stayed still. With my own eyes I could see abject privation was everywhere. George Sand was right: working men and women had taken a beating. My artistic friends in Paris and others of the intelligentsia blamed Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King, and his faulty regime; the bleak, starved people in front of me, in the markets and hostelries, blamed more than that.

As I ate the scanty portions that the kitchens set down, I overheard workers speaking animatedly about the new railway line which was also heading north. It seemed that building track for the modern, fire-breathing mode of transportation was hazardous— level grades to be cut through bedrock, tunnels constructed straight through enormous hills—and the explosive devices used were difficult to control. Before workers got clear, a limb could be lost, or, at best, one’s hearing. Rumours proliferated of "les incendiaires" along with outraged protests: "The bastards spend a fortune on their love of les feu d’artifice? So let’s give them fireworks!"

Who were ‘the bastards’, I wondered uneasily.

Slowing Magnifique to a canter one afternoon, I was surprised to see a huge crowd in a field outside the town of Amiens, gathered around one of the mythological air ships—a Balloon! I’d read about these curiosities years ago as a boarding school girl in Bath, but had never seen one. They’d gone out of favour in England, deemed mere amusement or risky showmanship, not worthy of further scientific backing. But trust the French to keep alive a sense of awe and wonder, even in a time of discontent. Imagine, soaring through the skies, leaving your troubles behind! I reined Magnifique and we paused at the roadside. The inflated silk Balloon, maybe fifty feet high, was covered in symbols of the firmament. Sun, moon, stars and clouds in glorious shades of turquoise, pink and cream, with the basket below it secured to the ground by many restraining ropes. The crowd of raucous peasants jostled to gain proximity to the enormous inflated vessel; the airman aboard was a mere speck, agitatedly gesturing at them to stay away. Magnifique was becoming frightened by the loud sounds being periodically emitted by whatever was heating the thing, and though I longed to have taken a closer look, I didn’t dare. Crowds were unpredictable; everything could change suddenly.

We galloped onwards, and luckily, too: about two or three minutes further down the road, I heard loud bangs and flares going off into the sky along with the Balloon, which rose swiftly. Had some foolhardy promoter added feu d’artifice to the excitement, setting off rockets nearby in the field? Screaming and shouting, the dispersing crowd rushed in all directions. How appallingly dangerous, I thought, wondering anew at humanity’s apparent desire to immolate itself for the mere thrill. Above, the Balloon soared majestically away. Though I turned back to look several times, to watch the spectacular thing disappearing into the clouds, I found the whole event unsettling. In the multitude’s agitation was a ferment that I didn’t understand: like a clenched fist about to be brutally employed for an unknown reason.

My heart remained in my throat for the whole long journey. Magnifique, sensing it, was ready to spook at every turn. In the towns and on the country roads, I was stared at with undisguised wariness and, often, a flintier speculation: a woman, alone, on a mighty fine horse? So I rode with my pistols on display, the flick knife in my waistband always ready to hand.

Genuinely relieved to at last arrive in Caen—Calais—I booked a ticket for the next ship’s crossing of La Manche. Leave the provincial French, their stimulations and their woes, I thought; I need a rest from this sense of rising chaos.

The following morning I rode to the docks, and was leading Magnifique towards the enclosure where the horses were kept prior to boarding the ship. Just as I handed the reins to an attendant, there was a colossal boom off to our left which caused the ground to shake. A squall of objects, large and small, flew into the air, followed by dust and wind. Magnifique startled mightily, knocking the young man off his feet and dragging him back in the direction of the avenue. I managed to run after them and, in a few minutes, to calm my horse. Thank God. But fifty yards away, where the sound had originated, smoke was still clearing and I could hear the whistles of gendarmes, approaching at a run. An explosion, surely! But why? Men and women were snatching goods up from off the ground, where crates and boxes had smashed open, revealing food stuffs. A woman jabbed me with her elbow, crying, "Vite! Take as much as you can!" Even some of the ship hands seemed to be hastily helping themselves. As I turned to lead Magnifique back to the ship, a gnarled, muscular man raced towards us and grabbed the reins, tugging my horse away at great speed and attempting to place his foot in the stirrup, ready to swing up. "Let him go, bastardo," I shouted, lunging after him and slashing at the hand on the reins with my knife, instantly drawing blood. He darted off, drops of scarlet spattering the cobbles and the shoulders of strangers as he forced his way through them, snarling, "Tassez-vous, cochons!" Mon Dieu, I thought, calming Magnifique with a caress to his muzzle, get me out of this volatile country!

Throughout the channel crossing, while the steamship Water Witch battled a rough sea and passengers lurched to the railings to spew, I finally let my jangled mind return to its goal: to the thought of her. Shivering in my cloak, wind and spray streaming through my hair, I questioned what she would think of me. The only gift I’d ever managed to give the object of my impatient journey was a cherished pair of peridot earbobs that had gone with me to Spain. When I’d sent the earrings, I’d made myself a promise: that I would return some day to hug her and hold her and become part of her life. Four years had passed and I’d not managed to do so—until now. She was eleven years old.

Kit Brennan is a nationally produced, award-winning playwright, and teaches writing and storytelling at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. The Victorian era and its personalities have always been of major interest to Brennan. Her play Tiger’s Heart explores the life of Dr. James Barry, who was actually a woman living a double life disguised as a man in order to practice medicine, which was not an option open to women at the time. 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

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