They Supped with the King

Bee Wilson

  • Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman by Elizabeth Abbott
    Duckworth, 510 pp, £20.00, ISBN 0 7156 3946 3

‘Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress – since I can’t be your wife?’ Ellen Olenska asks of Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. By this point in the novel, it has become obvious to us that Olenska and Archer are each other’s only chance of what Newland calls ‘a real life’. Newland’s impending marriage to the terrifyingly girlish May Welland cannot be anything other than ‘a sham’; it closes round him with all the stifling force of old, status-obsessed New York society. And yet, much as he wants her, Newland does not exactly want the married Countess Olenska to be his ‘mistress’. We know that he has had a secret mistress in the past (‘poor silly Mrs Thorley Rushworth’), before his relationship with May, and he knows what clandestine squalor it entails.

‘I want somehow to get away with you into a world where … we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.’ Newland touchingly imagines that Europe might be such a world. But Ellen, who has only just escaped from there, knows better: it ‘wasn’t at all different … only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous’. And so they are condemned to a lifetime apart, he to the prison of marriage to May and she to the dingy smallness of Europe.

In modern-day New York, they could set up house together in Brooklyn, and no one would bat an eyelid. Newland could delete May’s number from his phone and unfollow her on Twitter. He and Ellen could pick up groceries together without worrying what anyone thought. They could marry or not marry. No one would call Ellen his ‘mistress’. I know it’s a pretty pointless daydream because the characters would be far duller; they would be like everyone else; they would be free.

The idea of the mistress is fundamentally embarrassing. That, in the end, is why Madame Olenska cannot bear the thought of it. It is not just the secrecy and deception, it is the playing of a preordained role, which is based on the assumption that what women want is to be adored and showered with gifts and that what men want is to have an eternally available playmate while not giving freely of themselves. It is not very flattering to either sex. A mistress is – or ought to be – different from a lover, though it can be hard to tell the difference. One way to try to escape being a mistress is simply to call yourself something else, but there is no guarantee that anyone else will follow suit. Elizabeth Abbott’s panoramic survey contains numerous examples of women who find themselves loving unavailable men but feeling disgust at the label of mistress (how happy they would have been to know that one day they would find themselves in a book subtitled ‘A History of the Other Woman’). When the New Yorker writer Lillian Ross embarked on a relationship with William Shawn, the magazine’s married editor, she couldn’t even bear to call it ‘having an affair’, never mind ‘mistressdom’. In Ross’s view, a mistress was ‘a heavily mascaraed woman in a corny movie, wearing a negligee and sitting around sulking and painting her fingernails’. She referred to her liaison with Shawn simply as ‘our life’.

Mary Wollstonecraft had mistresses in mind when she wrote of the ‘passions’ of men placing women ‘on thrones’. In Wollstonecraft’s view, such passions gave women a power of sorts, but they were adored rather than loved, and woman ‘is quickly scorn’d when not ador’d’.

Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch. It is true they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty and virtue, are given in exchange.

Being a mistress is a form of ‘mock majesty’ because women are compensated for their lack of real influence with sickly bouquets of fake compliments (or real bouquets of flowers). The very word mistress is doublespeak. She exerts no real mastery. By opting for the mercenary adoration of men rather than love on an equal footing, mistresses are effectively enslaving themselves.

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