‘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.
The mistress is not easy to define. Is she a prostitute? Not really, but she isn’t a wife either (at least not the wife of the man she is having the affair with). She is something in between. She may be a girlfriend who hopes to parlay her position into that of wife when the opportunity arises. She may be a kind of second spouse, who lives with all the trappings of domesticity and bears her man children – in secret. Or she may be someone who consciously exchanges her charms for goods. When Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre took Céline Varens, a French opera dancer, for his mistress, he ‘installed her in a hotel; gave her a complete establishment of servants, a carriage, cashmeres, diamonds, dentelles, etc’. Prostitutes know who they are. With mistresses the transaction is veiled, hypocritical, unclear: the man is supposed to feel that he is giving these gifts purely out of generosity and the woman is supposed to pretend that she has no interest in receiving them: that she sleeps with the man purely from desire; the diamonds are a bonus. Mr Rochester was ‘flattered by this preference of the Gallic sylph for her British gnome’, only to find that the cashmeres had not bought him exclusive rights. One night he surprised her, in the carriage he had paid for, with another man. Jane, when Mr Rochester finally declares his love for her, makes clear that ‘I will not be your English Céline Varens.’ For Jane, even though she loves Rochester more than Céline ever did, being Rochester’s mistress – ‘a slave in a fool’s paradise in Marseilles’ – is not a possible substitute for marriage.
Mistresses always exist in counterpoint to marriage. Mistressdom is mock marriage as well as mock majesty. Abbott argues convincingly that the condition of mistresses is a ‘bellwether’ for the changing state of marriage; it is also an index of women’s freedom. Wollstonecraft was writing about women behaving like mistresses whether or not that was what they were. When all women are expected to be mistress-like, there is something to be said for reaping the benefits of being a real mistress. When marriage is a prison, the ‘mock’ version of the institution might be preferable. Being a mistress – a glorified courtesan, a kept woman showered with money – may have been a relatively attractive option when marriage was a punitive legal state depriving women of much of their freedom along with their name. Writing in 1808, Charles Fourier argued that ‘high-class courtesans’ were among the only women in history who had enjoyed any real measure of liberty (along with shop-girls and Catherine the Great). But Fourier may have been fantasising when he said that they had their own money, their own separate identity and something which almost every woman lacked – namely, the capacity to follow their true sexual passions.
Certainly, for the mistress who aspires to be a wife, it’s not such a liberating life. You’re unlikely to get public acknowledgment; your offspring are bastards; or, like Marion Davies, the blonde movie-star mistress of William Randolph Hearst, you have ‘to settle for dachshunds instead of children’. For 32 years, Davies, a former Ziegfeld Girl and a big star in silent pictures, was Hearst’s mistress. He wooed her with Tiffany diamonds and film contracts: ‘To control her, he entered the motion picture business and signed her to an astonishing $500 weekly contract, a raise of $425,’ Abbott writes. He took her to Europe, but she didn’t like it much (no Coca-Cola). Together, they nurtured their beloved dachshunds, Helen and Gandhi; and they mourned together when Helen and Gandhi died. Yet for all the time they were united, Hearst remained officially married to his social-climbing wife, Millie, who bore him five sons. When Hearst died, the sons connived to keep Davies, by now an alcoholic, from seeing his body or attending the funeral. She fell asleep while visiting his sickbed and by the time she woke up, he had died and been taken away. ‘His body was gone, whoosh, like that,’ Davies said. ‘They stole a possession of mine.’
The example of Davies and Hearst underlines the fundamental truth about the position of mistresses: three decades cannot confer the same status as one minute in front of a priest with a ring. In imperial China, however, concubinage came with ‘clearly defined roles and duties’, Abbott writes; but these roles and duties were fundamentally unpleasant. Concubines ‘supplemented wives and had a certain status, lowly but distinct’ – like servants. Most shared the domestic residence with the husband and wife. The wife was aware of a concubine’s existence and the concubine could be called on to provide heirs ‘when a wife could not’, in which case it would be harder to turf her out of the house or sell her on to another owner. The concubine had ‘few rights but many obligations’ ranging from household chores to sleeping with her master. If she was found to be sleeping with any other man, her master could give her 77 strokes with a bamboo cane; he could even kill her with relative impunity. If this is legal recognition, it must be better to go unrecognised.
Mistresses also took on a publicly sanctioned character in the French system of ‘maîtresses en titre’, which reached its height at the court of Louis XIV. This was a highly formalised position reflecting the French ability to create bureaucratic hierarchies out of everything, even sex. Along with a palatial apartment, the maîtresse en titre – the king’s girlfriend of the moment – might have any children sired by the king officially acknowledged:
The potential maîtresse en titre needed a court lady to sponsor and present her at court. Louise de la Vallière, Louis’s first candidate for the position, was already his long-term mistress, but their two children were officially bastards. Louis, setting out for the battlefield and aware that he might not survive it, re-evaluated his life and made some changes. He named Louise Duchess of Vaujours and acknowledged his surviving daughter, Marie-Anne de Bourbon. Marie-Anne was then brought up as a royal family member, though she and two siblings born later had no succession rights to the throne.
The maîtresses en titre of the Sun King probably enjoyed more official power than any mistresses in history. They ‘supped’ with the king, ‘had access to the nation’s powerbrokers and foreign diplomats’ and in the case of Madame de Pompadour (‘Reinette’), swanned around the court, offering patronage to the arts and briefing ministers of state. This sounds like a better deal than 77 strokes with a bamboo cane. But if being a maîtresse en titre was as good as mistressdom gets, it was still an uneasy state. Reinette sacrificed her health to court life, refusing the rest recommended by her doctor. Her liberty was compromised when she did things she didn’t like purely to please the king: play cards, hunt, have sex (she wasn’t fond of sex but told a friend she would ‘sacrifice her life to please him’).
Abbott, who has also written A History of Celibacy and was for more than ten years the dean of women at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, has set herself a curious task. She seems to want to celebrate mistresses as feisty exemplars of womanhood, writing excitably: ‘So many mistresses, and concubines too, with so many stories! … what a cast of survivors, each with a story that is unique yet at the same time links her with so many other women. They come from all times and places, and from every class, caste, colour and condition.’ Mistresses as ‘survivors’ – it’s a pretty dodgy notion. What if they don’t survive? In a chapter constantly teetering between political correctness and profound bad taste, ‘Sexual Unions and the Jewish Question’, Abbott discusses the mistresses of Nazis. There is Ruth, a Jewish teenager ‘who in the winter of 1942 arrived at the snowbound Sobibor camp on a transport from Vienna’. It is known that she was forced into a sexual relationship with the SS officer Paul Groth, a man notorious for the punishments he inflicted – ritual humiliations, random shootings, urinating into inmates’ mouths. However, according to fellow prisoners, as he fell in love with Ruth his behaviour softened somewhat, and he stopped beating Jews, which didn’t please the other officers. ‘While Groth was away from Sobibor on a three-day leave, two SS men took Ruth to Camp III and shot her.’ You would have to be trying exceptionally hard to find anything to celebrate here. But Abbott manages it: ‘All we know for certain is that Ruth used Groth’s unsolicited passion for her in the best way she could, to tame his beastliness and to lessen Jewish pain.’
Abbott admits that she ‘struggled with the question of definition’. What she came up with was this: A mistress is ‘a woman voluntarily or forcibly engaged in a relatively long-term sexual relationship with a man who is usually married to another woman. This definition applies to concubines as well.’ ‘Voluntarily or forcibly’: as a set of alternatives, it’s not exactly like ‘vanilla or chocolate’. By painting her mistresses as a ‘cast of survivors’ Abbott has decided to celebrate the agency and motivation of these women. But agency is more or less irrelevant when force is involved. So why should Abbott ask:
How did the very young Ruth feel about Groth, a man who tortured and killed Jews, and who forced her to have sex with him? Quite likely he took her virginity – did she mourn this end of innocence, or was she too aware of the precariousness of her very existence to care? Did she respond to his sudden burst of love, or did she trade her tenderness for his promise to spare her people?
Given that we have no way of answering these questions, to ask them seems merely prurient.
By no means all the relationships described in Mistresses are as unpleasant as that between Ruth and Groth. The ‘cast of survivors’ ranges widely, from Ovid and Corinna to George Eliot and George Lewes, from geishas to the secret mistresses of Catholic priests, from Hannah Arendt and Heidegger to Maria Callas and Battista Meneghini. ‘What all these women have in common is that they have been either mistresses or concubines,’ Abbott writes, structuring her book as a series of vignettes: ‘the budding philosopher Héloise was a tall teenager of 16 or 17 with a superb figure, a smile illuminated by exceptionally white teeth and a reputation for erudition second to none.’ Mme du Barry ‘was heartstoppingly lovely, tall and slender with masses of blonde hair, wide blue eyes and an elegant, aquiline nose. Her beautiful breasts, often displayed by tasteful décolletage, overwhelmed even jaded observers.’ Ovid’s mistress Corinna had ‘lustrous long auburn hair as fine as a spider’s web … smooth shoulders, seductive nipples that invited fondling, a flat belly beneath magnificent breasts, a sweetly curvaceous rump and long lean thighs’.
Abbott makes periodic attempts to undercut the titillation; to show the harsher truths behind the sexiness. For example, she begins her section on harems by remarking that imperial harems may ‘conjure’ exciting images of ‘sensuous concubines’ and ‘sexually insatiable emperors and princes’ but wants to assure us that it wasn’t actually like that. ‘The harem was a complex, dangerous and closed society.’ Concubines were ‘powerless’, often bored, frustrated, and doomed to ‘collective menstrual misery’ as living in such close proximity brought their cycles into unison (this is known as the Wellesley effect, named after the women’s college). So: not all belly dancing and Arabian nights. But then Abbott can’t help herself, and slips into telling us how, in between ‘fragrant oily massages’ from other women, a concubine might seduce the sultan by ‘crawling slowly … rump upward, sidling forward propelled by soft elbows and knees’. (Don’t you dislike that word rump: like steak?)
The truth is that if we really believe that women are more than just ‘sweetly curvaceous rumps’, the focus of a history of mistresses should be different. Abbott gives us ‘Trophy Dolls’ and ‘Fallen Women’, ‘Mistresses of Men above the Law’ and ‘Mistresses as Muses’. Yet she also states, on several occasions, that mistressdom is ‘always’ founded on ‘male marital infidelity’: it ‘remains an extension of marriage, a sanctioned outlet for male sexuality’. Whether the affair proceeds ‘voluntarily or forcibly’, the men never lose their agency. If it is pointless to ask what motivation the slave has in becoming enslaved, it is entirely to the point to ask what motivates the master. Instantly, however, the subject becomes a lot less titillating. ‘Fornicators as Despots’, ‘Philanderers Who Enjoy Parading Their Girlfriends as if They Were Possessions’, ‘Love-Cheats’, ‘Adulterers and Catholic Guilt’: none of these are chapter headings to quicken the pulse. They would be more truthful, though.
In a state of free love, there would be no mistresses. This is the subject of Abbott’s final chapter – ‘The 1960s Transform Marriage and Mistressdom’ – which discusses the extent to which feminism and liberalised divorce laws have done away with traditional mistresses. We are approaching Newland Archer’s utopia, but we aren’t quite there yet. ‘Today, a woman as well as a man may indulge in a passionate attraction for its own sake, as an erotic adventure and a surrender to the senses, a delicious interval with a lover who is not, strictly speaking, available,’ Abbott writes. Yet she laments the fact that despite these ‘liberating possibilities’ many women still cast themselves in the old roles. She interviews Michaela, ‘born in 1972 in Toronto, into sexually revolutionised’ times, who nevertheless chooses to make herself a kept woman. ‘Sammy was a man who loved to shop for a woman, and I am a woman who loves to have things bought for her.’ Some people like stockings. Some like handcuffs. Some like receiving large gifts from married men. Whatever floats your boat.
There are parts of the world, however, which Abbott does not consider, where women are still mistresses in the truly bad old sense: the ‘voluntarily or forcibly’ sense. A 17-year-old girl came to lodge in my friend’s house in Leeds while studying English. She came from a very rich family in an Arab state. In her country, she would not be allowed to go out alone, day or night, in case her virtue was compromised. It was crucial that she be a virgin on her wedding night; during her brief stay in England, she was even anxious about riding a bicycle in case her hymen ruptured. It went without saying that she would have an arranged marriage. Unknown to her family, she had started a secret affair with a slightly older (unmarried) man, a thug. She told my friend that he shouted and beat her, and that he sodomised her, the reason for this being that she would still technically remain a virgin. She hated it, she told my friend, but it was the only way she could hold on to him (she was crazy about his cool leather jacket). To call this child a ‘mistress’ hardly does justice to the state she finds herself in; to call her a ‘survivor’ would be worse. Her predicament is precisely her lack of power. As Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, ‘it is not empire, – but equality that they should contend for.’