Reviewed by Danya Walker
Many times, the cover and title of a book promises a much more risque read than is actually delivered. “Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman” by Elizabeth Abbott is one such book.
The author has penned other books such as “A History of Celibacy” and “A History of Marriage,” and during her research for those books found that mistressdom was parallel and complementary to marriage.
Mistresses have been the power behind the scenes, literary characters used to serve morality lessons, an integral part of arranged marriages in the East and arm candy to the rich and famous. This book explores not only the women behind the stories but the reasons.
Covering Ancient Greece and China, those bawdy European royals, not-so-celibate priests, slavery and concentration camps, mobster molls, and the mistresses after the 1960s sexual revolution, no aspect is left uncovered.
There are many reasons behind women becoming mistresses, ranging from economic need, society-influenced reasoning (such as concubinage being an accepted role), domination from war, and a belief that being a mistress rather than a wife was less constrictive.
Hagar, from the Old Testament, is what may be the first known concubine, or mistress. Concubines could be used as, what was referred to in Japan, as “borrowed wombs”. It was a way for a man to sire heirs on someone other than his wife. Hagar’s story typifies how little protection mistresses had against bitter wives or angry relatives.
Madame de Pompadour, mistress to Louis XV, influenced government policy and wrangled an unbelievable amount of money from the king during pillow talk. Lola Montez was one famous mistress who even toppled one king, King Ludwig of Bavaria, from his throne. Even today’s royals still find themselves finding love outside marriage, with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles being one such example.
Many societies throughout history favored arranged marriages as a way to bring two families together for political and monetary gain, but it also resulted in many loveless marriages. Wives would seek fulfillment by becoming the mistress of someone they choose rather than their parents, and men would seek outside happiness in the arms of someone other than their wife.
The early church didn’t require celibacy from its monks and priests until after the fourth century. Many early popes, even after the celibacy ban, continued to have mistresses, some even acknowledging their children.
The punishment for a priest found guilty was minor, consisting of a fine, bread and water for a few days, and a penance, while the woman was usually subjected to public humiliation and exiled, if not executed. Studies today estimate that 20 to 30 percent of Roman Catholic priests are involved in a long-term relationship with, what could best be termed, a mistress.
Early settlers in America, with the high ratio of men to women, found themselves seeking “country wives” among the Native Americans. These “wives” and their mixed-blood children were often deserted, when the chance to marry a white woman arose.
This issue came up also in Korea and Vietnam, with soldiers taking native “wives” until it was time to return home. Slavery also cast its shadow over the mistress role, with Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson being one of the most famous relationships known.
Mistresses have served as muse for ages, with Heloise and Abelard being one of earliest examples. Their relationship ceased after discovery, and Abelard was “unmanned” by Heloise’s relatives. Both entered the church, with Abelard becoming a monk, and Heloise became a nun, heading up her convent as abbess before age 30.
Emilie du Chatelet was an impressive scientist in her own right, writing “Commentary on the Mathematical Principles of Newton” but is better known as the mistress of Voltaire.
One of the most famous characters in literature is Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter” and her A for adultery. She has served as an example of sexual defiance and adultery since the book’s publication in 1850. Hester isn’t allowed to end up living happily ever after with her lover, but keeps his love forever, serving as the guardian angel of other unhappy women.
The role of mistresses throughout history has changed, but this book is an intriguing and informative look at a role often despised and misunderstood. Elizabeth Abbott has done a superb job of covering a multitude of women throughout a wide range of ages and countries, making this a must read for fans of historical non-fiction.