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Other Women: The History of the Mistress

Other Women: The History of the Mistress

by Fiona McDonald

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Other Women is the vivid account of those women who belonged to a separate part of society: in some ways invisible and socially unacceptable, but at times holding positions of influence and power, living in comfort and even luxury. The stories range from the many mistresses of Charles II – including Barbara Villiers who bore the king at least five children – to the liaison between Edward VII and Alice Keppel, greatgrandmother of the Duchess of Cornwall; from the passionate loves of great artists – Edward Burne-Jones, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and H.G. Wells – to the affairs of many other men of arts and letters. This book is not confined to the lovers of famous men, however: the author also charts the history of ‘ordinary’ mistresses, those who did not necessarily acquire wealth or wield influence. There are stories here of power and politics, freedom of speech and the rise from slum to palace. But, above all, they are stories of love.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752493893
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 4 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Fiona McDonald is a writer and illustrator. She is the author of Gentleman Rogues & Wicked Ladies and illustrated The Little Book of Genius.

Read an Excerpt

Other Women

The History of the Mistress

By Fiona McDonald

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Fiona McDonald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9389-3


Part 1

The Place of a Mistress

* * *

Defining the term mistress

Prostitutes, concubines, whores, courtesans, lovers, mistresses are all terms that have been used interchangeably over the centuries to mean a woman who is having a sexual liaison with a man she is not married to, often with some kind of exchange of money or goods for services rendered. However, this does not mean that the terms used do not have very precise meanings.

Prostitute and whore: a person who has sexual intercourse for a fee. There is not necessarily any emotional bond between the couple although some prostitutes have regular clients. Some prostitutes work on the street, relying on casual passers-by for custom. Usually there is an unofficial specified area of a city or town where it is known that prostitutes ply their trade. A whore is another name for a prostitute but has a rather malicious connotation. To call someone a whore is usually an insult.

Courtesan: the word courtesan comes from courtier, a person who resides in the court of a monarch. Courtiers were not servants carrying out menial tasks but people of some social standing who would attend in various ways to the monarch. During the Italian Renaissance the word cortigiana meant the mistress of the king. A court mistress needed to have accomplishments to entertain her lover, usually a musical ability, dancing, intelligence and wit. In Italy there were two different classes of cortigiana. One had the word onesta applied to it (meaning honest), which referred to women of intellect, often from the aristocracy. The other had di lume (of light) after it and this was a lesser class of courtesan, although still considered higher than the street-walking prostitute.

The cortigiane oneste were not dissimilar to the ancient Greek hetaerae, who, although they did supply sex, were highly intelligent women who actively engaged in symposia (drinking parties) where philosophy and politics were discussed alongside art and poetry.

While many of their attributes seem similar to those of the mistress there seems to have been stricter guidelines for those working as courtesans. Traditionally, the less elevated courtesan was hired for company such as visiting dignitaries or special guests. She needed to be able to sing, dance and play the harp or harpsichord, or a similar instrument; she needed to be able to discuss a variety of subjects without being too opinionated. Courtesans could transfer or be transferred into the employ of another patron. Sometimes, when the woman's time of service was seen as coming to an end, possibly to do with age or perhaps because of a change in affection by her sponsor, she would have a husband found for her, suitable to her status: a bit like a retirement package. On the other hand, she could be flung out onto the streets to make her way as best she could, which was in many cases not very well.

In some cultures, courtesans were distinguished from other women (particularly at court) by the colours and cut of their dresses. And, as with royal mistresses, there was the opportunity for the courtesan to influence political decisions, or to spy on secrets. Also, there were rivalries and jealousies.

The male equivalent of the courtesan is known as a cicisbeo in Italian, cortejo or estrecho in Spanish, and chevalier servant in French. There is also the gigolo, a man who services women in the way that a high-class prostitute services a man.

Concubine: depending on the country in which these women lived their duties and status were quite different from one another. In China it was usual for an emperor or other high-ranking male to have a concubine, or several. Her position was lower than that of the wife but her children were all considered legitimate and could inherit their father's wealth and position (if male); the sons of the wife would, however, be considered socially superior. A concubine offered a good back-up plan for a man if his wife did not produce a male heir.

Just as with courtesans and mistresses, a concubine could rise up through the ranks until she became a formidable force and, if she was very clever, she could virtually rule the kingdom through her son.

Concubines, like their European counterparts, were often expected to be able to entertain guests as well as give their master sexual pleasure. Intellect was often highly valued, as was the usual dancing, singing and playing of music.

In ancient Rome the system was a bit different and was more in line with the idea of a mistress. A Roman male could take a woman to be his sexual partner (exclusively) if there was an impediment to the two marrying, such as the man was already married and/or the woman was of a lower social status.

A concubinus was slightly different. This was a way for a Roman male to have a male sexual partner without being considered homosexual. The concubinus was from the slave class. It was still considered necessary for the Roman to have a wife in order to beget offspring.

In America during the times of slavery, a system arose that was similar to that of ancient Rome. It was illegal for a white man or woman to marry a person of a different race (that is, from Africa or a Native American etc). To overcome this, men would sometimes take a slave to be their concubine. All children born to such unions were considered slaves by the law. This did not mean that there weren't happy relationships between masters and their slave concubines. It was up to the man to either provide comfort or love for his partner and their children or not. He was in a position to give his children an education, help them get on and later to free them.

In Louisiana yet another form of concubinage emerged that was called placage. Coloured women were given a dowry, property or something that would provide a certain status; their children with the man would get their freedom and the education that the children of a man of that standing would normally receive. It was far more a type of marriage than any of the other forms of concubinage or mistressdom.

Lover and mistress: a mistress is often thought to be a woman who is in a long-term relationship with a married man but who is faithful to him and often has children with him. She is sometimes called 'the other woman' or a 'kept woman'. The relationship is usually based on mutual attraction and is not always an agreement to have sex for money. A mistress can be a status symbol for a man; she may be highly desirable for her beauty or intelligence. Throughout history there are instances of women who are called mistresses who are not kept financially by the man they have this kind of relationship with. Sometimes the man, even though he might be a prince, for instance, is so short of money that it is the woman who keeps her own house and pays the bills. In such cases, there still can be an element in the relationship that requires the terminology of 'mistress', although 'love' can be interchangeable with this. For example, some of the stories in this book will defy the classification of the kept woman even though the women in question have been called mistresses in the history books.

* * *

Marriage, divorce and separation

When Henry VIII wanted to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (to whom he had been married for almost twenty-four years) so that he could wed his mistress Anne Boleyn, the Pope in Rome forbade him. Thus Henry cited his incestuous relationship with Catherine – she had been his brother's wife and was a widow – and expected the Pope to use this as a mere formality to dissolve the union, as it was one of the two acceptable reasons for anulling a marriage. As it turned out, Henry had the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on reasons of incest, just as he had asked the Pope to do. Henry also had his marriage to Anne Boleyn annulled on claims of incest and adultery, although she lost her head after being accused of treason.

The other acceptable reason for annullment was an inability to consummate the marriage and it is reported that Henry tried this excuse when he wanted to get rid of Anne of Cleves, claiming she was so ugly that he couldn't have sex with her. Yet why didn't Henry just divorce Anne? Because, although he had quarrelled and broken with the Roman Catholic Church and become head of the new Church of England, he had not implemented the institution of divorce. Many other Protestant countries in Europe had a divorce law in place by the mid-sixteenth century but Henry did not want his people following his lead and ditching their wives (or husbands) whenever they wished.

The fact remained that there were couples in England who no longer wanted to live together and who also wanted the freedom to remarry if the chance should come along. Other possibilities were to separate: to live in different dwellings and live independent lives. This could be an amicable arrangement but usually it involved lawyers drawing up documents of settlement on the wife by the husband, promising an allowance for her to live on. It also often meant that the father took the children with him. Custody was the right of the father, no matter how young the child. Married women at the time had no legal standing in the eyes of the law, so that when documents of separation were made it was between a husband and someone acting as trustee for his wife. This form of official declaration that a marriage was over, which throughout the eighteenth century became the most common form of marriage termination, still did not grant either party the right to remarry.

A party could just walk away from the marriage, disappear, flee back to the parental home or go into exile. A wife going to live elsewhere without her husband's consent could be ordered to return to him by the courts. Another popular way of ditching a wife was to sell her. This was not legal but that did not stop it happening. Sometimes the sale was by mutual consent, with the wife hoping to get a better deal.

Women had little say in any of the proceedings. One avenue open to her was the church courts. A woman could apply for separation from her husband if she could prove she was in danger from him physically or spiritually; she had to have two witnesses to every act she accused her husband of doing. The husband could also use these courts, although in contrast to women he did not have to prove anything. The church courts were, however, very expensive, the process was always drawn out and usually the outcome for a woman was not positive.

Things gradually improved for women. In 1839 the Infant Custody Act was brought in. This gave the courts the discretion of awarding custody of children under age 7 to their mother, unless the woman had been found guilty of adultery.

The Divorce Act was passed in 1857 and this meant that both men and women could apply for divorce, so that they could remarry. Men could ask for a divorce on the grounds of adultery but women had to prove that there had been cruelty, desertion, sodomy, bigamy or bestiality in the marriage. It was still an unfair system: men were more easily to succeed in their claims whereas women would inevitably be humiliated and blamed for the marriage breakdown – and the poor still did not have real access to divorce because it was too expensive, averaging £100 (about £4,300 in today's money).

The Matrimonial Causes Act was introduced in 1878. Yet it was nothing more than a theoretical attempt to make things more equal for women, which in practice generally did not happen. This act allowed a woman to ask for a legal separation from her husband on grounds of cruelty, such as being beaten. In practice, however, the plea was usually not granted. Several years later, in 1884, the punishment of imprisonment for a wife who refused to return to her marital home and resume 'conjugal rights' with her husband was abolished.

It was not until 1923 that men and women in England had equal rights in divorce cases, but it was more than another forty years before divorce could be granted for reasons of incompatibility.

Marriage was, until towards the last quarter of the twentieth century, a binding contract that was extremely difficult to break, particularly for women.

Inheritance and property rights

It wasn't until 1870, with the Married Women's Property Act, that women in England had a right to keep for themselves money they had earned during their marriage. Twelve years later, the act was amended to include all property. This meant that finally women had some means to look after themselves if a marriage failed.

Until the late nineteenth century any land or money that a woman brought with her into marriage automatically became the husband's property; married women, through the act of marriage, lost all legal status. It was stated that when a man and woman married they became a single unit. If this were truly thought to be the case then one could ask why the man was put solely in charge of income and property, as surely it should be handled jointly. One way around this was for the parents of the daughter to have legal documents drawn up explicitly stating that any money and inheritance that went with the daughter into marriage was to remain hers alone. This was an attempt to protect large estates from being squandered by a husband, and to give the woman an income if things didn't turn out.

When a man died his widow was granted independence. She could inherit her husband's estate and fortune, or his business or farm. Usually the estate went to the eldest legitimate son, but a substantial portion of his inheritance was settled on the widow as a pension.

Men, on the other hand, didn't have to wait for their wives to die in order to get their hands on any land or money that she brought with her into the marriage, they could have their wives put into asylums, claiming that they were mad – though in reality all it took was brute force. Women locked up in this way had little chance to defend themselves. It was extremely difficult to prove that the husband was in the wrong and it took a lot of effort by friends and family of the woman to get the King's Bench to issue a writ of habeas corpus so that the incarcerated wife could be granted her freedom.

However, as we know through the trials of Mr Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, a man of integrity was not at liberty to divorce his wife because she was truly insane. Marriage, unless under exceptional circumstances, was till death do they part, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.


Part 2

Mistresses of Royalty

* * *

For the kings of Europe from the Middle Ages right up until the late nineteenth century, it was a common custom to take at least one mistress, if not more, as a social, intellectual, romantic and sexual alternative to the legally wedded wife. Sometimes the arrangement suited both the king and his spouse: if the marriage had been made for political, economic or social reasons then the less sex she needed to have with him the better. Mostly the situation arose without any concern for the feelings of the wife, who was used as a breeding machine to bring forth the essential royal heir. This is not to say that there were no royal marriages in which the spouses didn't come to love each other. Charles I and his wife were such a pair; lovers as well as a diplomatic union.

For a woman chosen to be the mistress of a monarch or man in a high position it was an opportunity to influence decisions of state, to have a say in a normally male-dominated world. She could enjoy certain social freedoms, have stimulating intellectual conversations with men of letters and the arts, and could access all sorts of secrets of state.

Who were these women and what backgrounds did they come from?

There were those who were born with the right credentials, for instance the Boleyn sisters whose father was Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire, Earl of Ormond and Viscount Rochford. Their mother was the daughter of the 2nd Duke of Norfolk. Mary was one of Henry's mistresses, a position later filled by her sister Anne. Anne's parentage was of sufficiently high social standing as to not be an impediment to the king eventually marrying her (there were, however, plenty of other reasons that were put forth).


Excerpted from Other Women by Fiona McDonald. Copyright © 2013 Fiona McDonald. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Part 1 The Place of a Mistress,
Part 2 Mistresses of Royalty,
Part 3 Mistresses of the Aristocracy,
Part 4 The Notion of Free Love,
Part 5 Mistress as Muse,
Part 6 Mistresses in the Twentieth Century,
Part 7 Mistresses of Men of the Common Class,

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