Mistresses: A History of the Other Woman, the second installment in a trilogy of books that includes A History of Celibacy and A History of Marriage, is a detailed and often heartbreaking portrait of history’s most scandalous women. Here, Elizabeth Abbott shares her insights on the ladies who live and love but never seem to learn.
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You profile mistresses from different time periods all over the world. What do all these women have in common?
The whole institution of mistress-dom is parallel to marriage. Mistresses exist in many ways to institutionalize this sexual double standard so that married men could also indulge in erotic, extramarital relationships, but there were regulations and even laws governing that arrangement.
Almost always, the children of these relationships were illegitimate, so that protected the family. If bastards, as the legal concept was called, were acknowledged, then the estates would be divided up and family lines would be fragmented. Marriage was traditionally an arrangement between families, tribes or clans and so you couldn’t just have some sort of extraneous love affair coming in and messing that all up.What was the worst situation you encountered in your research?
I guess it would be [Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés’ Aztec mistress] Malinche. Cortés, knowing that he couldn’t get promoted in the colonial service if he continued on with her, found himself a Spanish wife and married Malinche off to someone who didn’t want her. He said to one of his soldiers, “You’ve got to marry her, here’s some land.”
The guy was racially prejudiced in our modern terms, and that’s what she was stuck with when she had done so much for the colonial effort and had basically sacrificed her identity. To this day she’s a bad cultural reference. Malinche is like Uncle Tom. Cortés tried to help her with giving her some land, but they had a child, too. Just the endless betrayal—if I felt it vicariously she must have suffered unbelievably over it all.
Did it depress you to read about these people?
It isn’t all depressing, but being a mistress is not, on the whole, a happy situation, even the modern ones that I’ve spoken to. It’s mostly weepy stuff.
I truly admired Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV. She was in terrible health, but she kept her position despite the fact that she couldn’t have sex. She procured women for him who weren’t a threat. They were healthy, but they were such a lower class that he couldn’t possibly dump her for them. I wouldn’t have liked to be her, but she died honored still and much beloved by the French intellectuals. She accomplished a great deal, and she had to work with her own beauty, her own brilliance and her own profound understanding of the crappy king and how to keep him happy.
Why do modern women have affairs when it seems like it’s so much easier to marry for love and get divorced?
It happens. Women who are smart, who have great jobs, who aren’t in it for the money or anything like that, they meet somebody, often at work, and it just happens. Gosh, I understand that. They wrestle with it—what should they do? This is pure love. They’re not doing it because their alternative is to sew a thousand shirts tomorrow for one dollar and almost starve to death, they just happen to fall in love with the wrong person. That’s never going to change. Everyone can’t just leap to and get divorced because that’s not always a good solution either, especially if there are children.
I had a young mistress contact me a while back. This one was quite young and her lover whom she adored had died. I looked them up online and found the obituaries, which included photographs, and this guy was really old and his wife was really old. The children whom she claimed had hated her had composed an epitaph for their mother and father about how their love was so startling. It was so wonderful and so indivisible, because this young mistress said the wife wouldn’t let him go. I mean the woman was 80-something. I just thought, “Oh my gosh, this situation captures the agony of the whole thing.”
Are women ever justified in having an affair?
Who am I to say what goes on in relationships? For me, in this particular case, an old guy with an even older wife and I see this beautiful young woman—I mean you certainly could understand it—but one could wish that the young woman had just walked away. I don’t know if people are right or wrong. I know that sometimes people don’t have the wherewithal or the emotional resources to withstand the feelings that they have.