I remember reading a review of this book when it first appeared, though I’m surprised, now that I’ve looked at the title page, to discover that it was published in 1999. I didn’t read the book itself then and, although I acquired my copy last autumn (by somewhat roundabout means – I didn’t exactly choose it), I have been in no hurry to read it. However, a couple of weeks ago, having subsisted for perhaps too long on a reading diet of mostly crime fiction, but too tired to embark on one of the ‘serious’ history books I have in reserve, I decided to give it a go.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is both witty and extremely erudite. Mea culpa, but, either because I misremembered the review or the review misrepresented the book, I had assumed that it would be lighter and frothier than it actually is. Beginning with the stories of the mistresses of the Greek gods and continuing with that of Heloise and Abelard (in which I have a particular interest, because George Moore offers a version of it in one of his novels), it traces the story of the mistress through history, sorting her into types: the royal mistress, the political mistress, the artist’s mistress etc. Griffin announces at the very start of the book that she is a mistress herself. She says this with some defiance, indicating that she has chosen the role in preference to that of wife, and that ‘mistress-types’, particularly if they are writers, like herself, or pursuers of some other creative career, value the freedom that being a mistress gives them. Wise mistresses know not to stray into the territory of the wife and they certainly don’t seek to replace her: those who attempt the latter usually find that they lose their lovers in the process.
Griffin is both knowledgeable and entertaining, but there is something about this basic premise that I just can’t swallow. Given that she concedes that mistresses not only have to endure the privations associated with being forced to keep their liaisons secret, but also spend many hours waiting in vain for their lovers to arrive, I cannot understand how this makes them ‘free’ to pursue their own interests. For example, only a very special type of writer can shut out all specific annoyances and worries from the external world to get on with her/his work. Most writers are super-sensitive to any kind of external niggle or worry and find that thinking about it impairs or completely destroys their concentration. Not knowing when, or even if, their lovers were going to turn up would certainly not help mistresses who were also writers to fill in the intervening hours with productive work.
Then there’s that burden of secrecy. The brunt of it is shouldered by the mistress, who sometimes cannot confide in or complain to even her closest friends if her lover neglects, forgets or completely abandons her. It is a condition insisted upon by the lover in order to protect his ‘real’ life, to ensure that it is comfortable and free from a wife’s chidings, tears or worse. In other words, engaging in an ‘affair’ or illicit liaison carries very unequal benefits for the two participants. I’ve known only a few mistresses during the course of my life (though there may have been others among my friends and acquaintances who were discreet enough to conceal their affairs completely) and, without exception, they’ve been worn down by the deceit, the waiting, the uncertainty and often, ultimately, tragic abandonment after many years of ‘service’. Griffin herself acknowledges that she and her lover have discussed whether, if his wife were to die or divorce him, they would marry, and concludes that they probably would. ‘But’, says the lover, ‘I really want you to be my mistress.’ Griffin presents this conversation as mature, sophisticated and loving. To me it reveals a childish man with a huge ego, a man who succeeds in getting away with ruthlessly having his cake and eating it by cloaking his real outlook with a flimsy veneer of wistfulness. He is doubly fortunate in that Griffin, who is proud of her financial independence, also refuses to let him pay for her, whereas a mistress from an earlier era would undoubtedly have expected substantial monetary assistance from her lover.
Something else that I find difficult about this book is that all the ‘mistresses’ are women – ‘the other woman’; all the lovers (i.e., duplicitous two-timers) are men. The book would have had more credibility had Griffin also included some accounts of two-timing women being unfaithful to their husbands. History offers some famous examples: Emma, Lady Hamilton; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; even some of the mediaeval queens, such as Isabella of France, who cuckolded Edward II when she embarked upon her liaison with Roger Mortimer. Although she devotes a chapter to George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, Griffin says little about the equally interesting affair that precipitated Eliot into Lewes’ arms: that between Agnes, Lewes’ wife and Thornton Hunt, which, very unusually for the mid-Victorian period, had resulted in Agnes’ giving birth to several of Thornton’s children whom Lewes then acknowledged as his own.
I’d like to suggest that today this is no longer an unusual phenomenon and that women are just as capable as men of being the double-dealer in a love triangle. I offer a very commonplace example, my second cousin Ruby, some years my senior, a pale and fairly insipid girl who aspired neither to obtaining a good education nor to building a career and had only limited interest in becoming a ‘home-maker’ – I realise that this is a very catty description, but Ruby, who certainly won’t be reading it, would as certainly agree that it is accurate if she were to. She bore one man’s child very shortly after her marriage to another man who was not the child’s father and caused both men to come to blows as they competed for her favours.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that women can give as good as they get and that mistresses who accept martyrdom sugared over with ‘free spiritedness’ have only themselves to blame, particularly today, when the kind of double standard that allowed Lewes to mix with the Victorian literati while George Eliot was obliged to sit at home, completely ostracised, no longer prevails. Psychologists say that in every relationship there is always one partner who cares more than the other. I think that perhaps this is the truth that I am trying to explore and I’d suggest that in probably 90% of cases it is the ‘secret’ mistress who cares more for her lover than he for her and that she is deluding herself if she believes otherwise, however noble and ‘pure’ (in the sense of independent of material consideration) she may paint their love.
Nevertheless, The Mistress is a book of many delights because of the histories that it recounts and the ideas it expresses, all captured in Victoria Griffin’s very fine prose. I am sure that it will become a classic, if it is not regarded as one already (hence the reprint). I recommend it to anyone who is looking for some unusual and gripping non-fiction to read this weekend. Let me know what you think!