An irreproachably researched and amusingly written history of European monarchs’ jezebels.
In this well-rounded study of royal mistresses past and present, newcomer Herman draws on a wealth of historical documents, letters, diaries, and ambassadorial reports—a treasure trove she mines with an intelligence that can discern between fools’ gold and the genuine article. (She makes equally good use of the contemporary lampoons and verses that dot the text.) First, Herman outlines the place of the queen and the mistresses in broad context: obviously there were exceptions, but the queen was often little more than “a walking uterus with a crown on top . . . chaste almost to the point of frigidity, thereby ensuring legitimate heirs,” while the maîtresse en titre could play a much more complex role. After all, “the king could lift the skirts off almost anyone in his realm,” so his chief mistress had to possess a variety of talents. She needed to be skilled in bed, of course, but she also had to calm, buoy, and encourage the king; she must have been serene, loyal, and unpretentious, with “a colorful personality, dry wit, kindness, and intelligence that attracted more than high cheekbones and full lips.” (It helped if she could charm ambassadors as well.) An official mistress “exerted political influence, the influence of a loved one persuading the monarch to look at a problem from a different angle, to consider different solutions.” Herman delves into the respective roles of mistresses in England, France, Belgium, Poland, Germany, and Spain, examining the impact of their milieu on how they were treated and the influence they yielded. She also explains the role of the cuckolded husband, who frequently got a share of the goods. Today, by contrast, “the royal mistress has no political power whatsoever—as her prince has none himself.”
Scholarly and entertaining, written with a keen eye for the politics, but never forsaking the pleasures. (16-page color insert, not seen)