Take My Mistress

Our interest in the “other women”


in Archive


There are mistresses, and there are homewreckers. We often believe that the only thing distinguishing one from the other is revelation. The mistress is the hidden, secret lover, but the homewrecker is the same woman splashed on every tabloid cover with her baby — his or not — suddenly labeled “love child” in alarmingly large and yellow type.

  • All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion by Lisa Appignanesi. 416 page. W.W. Norton & Company. $28.95.
  • Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman by Elizabeth Abbott. 528 pages. Overlook. $30.

Secrecy is the mistress’s goal — a removal not only from the covers of magazines but also from the way we wear our marriages in our jobs and social circles and community. But the homewrecker wants this exposed chaos and splintering. And the tabloid culture is all too happy to assist. The public loves the shock of the unveiling, loves comparing and contrasting the other woman and the wife. Is she prettier? If not, what the hell was he thinking? How could he step out on his wife with her? And while the politician/athlete/musician/actor is shamed into the obligatory press conference and follow-up, post-“treatment” television interview so that we can tsk-tsk about men’s collective inability to keep it in their pants, none of it comes as a surprise. It’s considered to be in men’s nature to whip it out and photograph it, or stick it in places that we the people have decided it should not go. But as for the other woman, there’s something parasitical, something succubus-like about our perception of her. There are rational human beings who are still angry at Angelina Jolie for stealing Brad Pitt and who need to talk about this online. The woman is supposed to tend to her own nest, that’s her nature, and so with the mistress there must be something damaged, something sick, some as-yet unknown or diagnosed personality disorder warping her feminine desires, or else why go after another woman’s husband?

Because if we believe that monogamous marriages that produce children are the strongest units of our society — and we do — then the mistress becomes the termite gnawing at the foundations. And we don’t much care if pests have feelings; we simply want them dead. Americans love marriage. By which I mean of course that Americans hate marriage. Lisa Appignanesi reports in All About Love: Anatomy of an Unruly Emotion that Americans are the marrying-est of all the countries. “Americans have the highest divorce, romantic break-up and remarriage rates in the world: 10 percent of American women — a far greater proportion than their European sisters — will have lived with three or more husbands or domestic partners by the age of 35.” Even after the shine wears off and we’re disillusioned about that “til death” stuff, we fight to find new spouses. And yet, when we are married, all we can do is complain about it. How stifling it is. How boring, how dull, how sexless and dispassionate. It’s because of these opposing feelings that we defend the institution of marriage so vigorously. Underground ambivalence often presents itself as vicious certainty.

We mistakenly equate the mistress with the homewrecker because we hear from the homewrecker all of the time, from Jolie to Rielle Hunter to Monica Lewinsky. I suspect that, for some of these women, half their motivation is the hope that Barbara Walters will ask them on national television what it was like to sleep with such an important man. Or that GQ will pose them for provocative photographs in glossy spreads, bestowing upon them the power to bring down marriages and campaigns and nations.

All of this fogs our view of the other other woman. I mean the long-term extra-marital relationship that is both emotional and sexual, but lacking the benefits of ownership. While she might sometimes long to have the man all to herself, she has stayed past the point when any illusions could be maintained. We think of her as being particularly European — even Appignanesi makes the mistake of thinking the dynamic is accepted and endured among French couples. She confuses the people’s acceptance of politicians’ philandering for a culture-wide tolerance. (After the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the usual stereotypes of French salaciousness started to be trotted out, women like Pamela Druckerman had to appear in the New York Times explaining that while a wandering eye might be OK when a man is exceptionally powerful, your standard French husband is expected not to fuck around: “French people think fidelity is terrific. According to polls, it’s the top quality women seek in a spouse.” Shocker.) But beyond vague notions of Parisian courtesans from another time, we don’t much think of the mistress at all.

In our great literature of infidelity, we frequently hear from the adulterous wife (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) and the philandering husband (Kureishi’s Intimacy, The Age of Innocence). But literature written from the perspective of the mistress is few and far between. At most, the mistress is a stock character, there to provide comic relief in the predictability of her faith that he’ll get a divorce (see: Carrie Fisher’s character in When Harry Met Sally), or there as a catalyst for the really important characters — the husband and the wife. Perhaps it’s to be expected. After all, one of the primary responsibilities of the mistress is to keep quiet and keep her secrets safe. But also, perhaps, we don’t much care. We are free to assume that she is a desperate type, miserable and alone. Not marriage material herself, she becomes a vindictive force, out to ruin what she can’t have. And it’s true, those women do exist, the homewreckers. That real life women like Coco Chanel, Katharine Hepburn, and Elizabeth I were mistresses to married men has not done much to sway the belief that maybe there is another role at play here.

Even Appignanesi — who chronicles married love, sexual love, love through history, love around the world, familial love, love between friends — is oddly quiet about the love of a mistress. In two paragraphs, she dismisses the single woman in love with a married man as a delusional twit, fooling herself into thinking that if he might leave his wife, or in the remote chance that he does, that he’ll remain faithful to her. It’s tempting to talk about the mistress only in terms that reveal hidden truths about marriage and married people. That’s how she’s been talked about for centuries. But who is she? The sad, lonely woman begging her lover to leave his wife? Or someone else entirely?

My friend and I went to see a horrid 1960s French film. I’ve already forgotten the name. There was a repulsive little man and his wife and his child. Then there was a stewardess. (Of course.) And just as the affair was losing steam, and the stewardess realized the man was a prig and a boor and a fool beneath the intellectual exterior, his wife discovered the liaison. I was only sticking around the theater because all the women had on such fantastic eyeliner and I was trying to figure out if I could recreate the look at home, but I was also so fervently wishing for someone to shoot the husband dead that I was surprised when the wife did. (With a rifle not at all cleverly hidden under her trench coat, but apparently in Paris in the ’60s no one noticed such things.)

While the husband and wife each were allowed to have interests and emotions and personalities, the stewardess remained an outline of a person. She didn’t get to do much except fawn over this horrible man, with whom she was instantly enraptured the moment she saw him. That is, until he made the mistake of assuming she wanted to marry him. In an instant, she retreats, sees who he is, breaks off the affair. It only lasts a second, a flickering of an eye across a restaurant table. She ultimately remains unknown to us, but I was intrigued.

Elizabeth Abbott’s Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman is a catalog of women who are not quite marriage material, whatever that might mean. They are too poor, too mad, too independent, too slutty, too obviously in need of medication and maybe some sort of restraints. They were philosophers, farmers’ daughters, poets, empresses, and muses. They inspired art and music and poetry — Lady Caroline Lamb even inspired “please stay the hell away from me” poems by her lover Lord Byron. (“Remember thee! Remember thee!/ Till Lethe quench life’s burning stream/ Remorse and shame shall cling to thee,/ And haunt thee like a feverish dream!/ Remember thee! Ay, doubt it not./ Thy husband too shall think of thee! By neither shalt thou be forgot,/ Thou false to him, thou fiend to me!”) And as the book progresses, from Aspasia and Ovid’s Corinna to Eva Braun and Camilla Parker Bowles, it becomes clear that just as the role of the wife has changed dramatically through the years, so has the role of the mistress.

Once the most vulnerable part of a marriage, the mistress was always in danger of being easily cast out. With no legal protection and no birth control, the pregnant mistress had little to no way of supporting herself and her children if she were suddenly abandoned. Many of these women were poor or came from fallen families. If one was especially beautiful and charming and talented, though, maybe she could surpass society’s role for them as a laborer’s wife and attach herself to a man of wealth and prestige. As women’s financial independence grew, the need to marry or to become a mistress subsided. There are (and probably always will be) women who attach themselves to men through marriage or sex to avoid earning their own keep, but there are and were also women who became mistresses by choice — either to avoid diluting her own money or power through marriage, such as Elizabeth I did, or simply because the dynamic seemed to work for her, as it did for Katharine Hepburn.

Which makes Abbott’s pity for the mistress bizarre. She tries to write them as tragic figures, when in fact their lives seemed no more pitiful than the wives’. She also focuses intently on the attractiveness of the mistress, lovingly (and weirdly) describing their “dancing” or “laughing” or “sparkling” eyes, their “shapely” or “heaving” bosoms. While Maria Callas and Dame Rebecca West certainly suffered through their love for married men, they had their own things going on. And married life is no guarantee that a woman will not suffer for her love. It seemed clear from reading Mistresses that sex and beauty could not be in the limit of the mistresses’ charms, otherwise they’d find themselves tossed out when age started to do its thing.

Abbott quotes Aspasia, a courtesan of Pericles, as she tries to make her audience rethink their beliefs about finding the perfect husband. “Each of you would like the best husband or wife: and since neither of you has achieved perfection, each of you will always regret this ideal.” Better, then, to strive to be the ideal partner yourself. That is also the lesson of Michael Drury’s Advice to a Young Wife from an Old Mistress. The mistress must strive to become the ideal partner, to keep her lover’s interest without the help of habit or routine or household. By ideal, Drury means something beyond “don’t let yourself go” or establishing some sort of regular date night away from the kids. She states it bluntly: “The only people worth loving are those who are determined to find life good whether you love them or not.” Drury — a woman, by the way — interviewed an anonymous mistress who stayed with her partner for years until his death. And in the course of these conversations, it’s revealed that this mistress is not a craven manipulator, nor a shallow sexual fantasy made flesh. She’s a woman who fell in love with a man who was not available. And in the course of their affair, she realized that the romance, the independence, and the restrictions on their possible future suited her better than her marriage, which had ended in divorce.

“A mistress has limited time, limited room, limited prerogatives, but she learns that limits are not a disadvantage,” she tells us. Lisa Appignanesi may call love an “unruly emotion,” but her book tries very hard to make it tidy, funneling it inevitably toward marriage. (Where it plops into its, as she quotes Stanley Cavell, “impotence to domesticate sexuality without discouraging it.”) Her imagination stops short of any other sort of arrangement, unless it either detracts from or brings us back around to matrimony. She gives great room to the idea of monogamy and to the lovely tedium of routine that comes with loving someone over the long term. That tedium unquestionably has its pleasures, but so too does allowing your partner and yourself to establish routines separately. The mistress in Drury’s book finds that a relationship kept removed from the “housework” — not just the washing-up but also the repetitive actions and the small moments of the daily life — can still be sustainable. It’s not simply sexual passion; it’s long-term love as adventure, creating a dynamic for each partner different from the inward-turning marriage. How you choose to fill that solitude brings out your character in a way that a crowded life cannot. “[The mistress] is thrown upon her own resources and must frequently entertain herself, and this gives her time to read and think and follow her own pursuits. She soon not only welcomes this but defends it with all the fierceness of the self-preserving instinct.” Drury’s mistress reveals herself to be the exact opposite of the public stereotype.

I lied before. There is a small and exquisite literature of the mistress. It contains Michael Drury’s (now out-of-print) book, as well as Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl, which remains obscure and wanders in and out of publication. In Silk, the young Doris starts out condemned to the life of a mistress after her lover decides to marry another. “When a man marries,” the man who took her virginity tells her, “he wants a virgin, and I hope… you’ll become a decent girl.” She discovers that she, like so many before her, is not marriage material. Adrift in Berlin, she takes up with married men for the money, for the kept apartment, for the furs. But then it subtly shifts. Instead of fervently wishing for a big love, hoping some man will see her true soul (which she tries to facilitate by leaving her diary lying about), and in contrast to her married friends who try to live vicariously through her sexual romps, she begins to stand on her own. She figures out how to be a good partner, which sometimes means knowing when to walk away. At the end she’s miles away from the Old Mistress, but you have faith in her.

Perhaps both Appignanesi and Abbott are writing from the role of the wife, preferring to see passion and adventure as the pursuits of the young, and the mistress as a sad creature worthy not of understanding but of pity. It’s a comfortable viewpoint. Drury’s mistress tells us:

Marriage is unquestionably more convenient than a love affair, and that in itself out to warn a wise woman against letting it become a mere convenience, like a car pool or membership in a good club. Being a mistress is on the whole rather inconvenient, bad for society, bad for one’s creature aspects — children, a home, security, old age — and this inconvenience is part of its attraction. The heritage of two thousand years has inclined us to want more than being effective units of the public weal.

If only we made more space for inconvenience in our lives, perhaps then we’d be more curious about what the mistress has to say. • 28 June 2011