A lively and nuanced look at gender roles as they have been revealed by the lives of concubines and mistresses over the centuries.
Abbott (A History of Marriage, 2011, etc.) a former Dean of Women at the University of Toronto and now a research associate, begins this romp through history with a quip by British multi-billionaire Sir Jimmy Goldsmith, who said, “when a man marries his mistress he creates an automatic job vacancy.” The book has the irresistible fascination of celebrity gossip—the author tells the story of Alice Keppel's affair as one of the mistresses of the famous womanizer King Edward VII, and the romance of her great-granddaughter Camilla Parker Bowles, now married to the current Prince of Wales—but it reveals far more than the foibles of the rich and famous. Abbott writes about the vulnerability of women in out-of-wedlock situations, beginning with the biblical story of Hagar, the bondwoman of Sarah, whom she calls “the first concubine to be named in recorded history.” The author relates this to the situation of Chinese concubines, who, as recently as the 20th century, were brought into families as lower-status second wives to provide male heirs. Abbott also looks at the abuse faced by female black slaves and Jewish women in Nazi death camps, and how the institution of marriage has often fostered out-of-wedlock relationships in which women were vulnerable even when they were willing partners. This was the case for the celebrated novelist Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot), who suffered social opprobrium for living in a common-law arrangement with her married lover George Lewes, whose wife had refused to divorce him. In the chapter “Mistresses as Trophy Dolls,” Abbott delves into the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe after she was discarded by JFK, as well as the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Full of fascinating details and illuminating insights.