By Elizabeth Abbott. The Overlook Press, 2011. 528 pp. $30.00. ISBN: 978-1-590-20443-6.
To trace the history of relationships between lovers and their mistresses is to observe the protean ontology of bondage and freedom. Writing in the decade before the birth of Christ, the polyamorous Ovid casts himself in the Amores as a “Prisoner” to Cupid and “yours to command” to Venus. Corinna, an analogue for Roman Emperor Augustus’s licentious daughter, Julia, is an entirely emancipated woman with an adamantine hold over the adoring yet beguiled Ovid.
Centuries later, John Donne faces the same tension, eliding carnal ties with cartographical liberties in “To His Mistress Going to Bed”: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go/Before, behind, between, above, below./ O, my America, my Newfoundland,/My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d,/My mine of precious stones, my empery;/ How am I blest in thus discovering thee !/To enter in these bonds, is to be free.” The speaker’s freedom is paradoxically enshrined in the bondage of love and the reification of the mistress into treasure, complicated though it is by fear of loss and rivalry.
Like her metaphysical poet forebears, Elizabeth Abbott finds mistressdom an intriguing lens through which to refract male-female architectonics. Mistresses, her prosopography of other women from Biblical times to the present, is refreshingly liberated from moral probity or censoriousness. Abbott’s perspective, that of a seasoned, unbiased cultural historian, shines through this informed genealogy based on her work as a Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto and, previously, as a doctoral student in Victorian history at McGill.
Abbott is at her liveliest when covering history’s endearing mistresses, like Nell Gwynne, that most spirited and sybaritic of strumpets to Charles II of England. Nell’s mordant wit in the face of public pillorying, cogent arguments in favor of dukedoms for her children (the legacy of which, Abbott notes, is that five of today’s twenty-six English dukes are descended from Charles and Nell) won her the fondness of an England bookended by Cromwell’s Protectorate and the Glorious Revolution, and fractured by political strife. Yet in the private calculus of male-female relations, Nell’s mistressdom left her at the mercy of the Queen’s noblesse oblige: Charles’s parting injunction to her, from his deathbed, was merely “don’t let poor Nell starve.”
Like Nell, women of letters who became mistresses elicited society’s reproving glance, but their learnedness and autotelic drive imbued their affairs with greater mutual respect and creative productivity. To wit, Voltaire’s relationship with his mistress, Émilie du Châtelet, fully sanctioned by her husband, evinced parity. There were comic interludes, such as when he became enamored of his niece: Abbott quips, “now that Émilie’s breasts and bottom no longer obscured his vision, Voltaire could see her more objectively.” But ever grateful for her dedication and encouragement during his formative Cirey Period of 1733-49, when he wrote Siècle de Louis XIV (Century of Louis XIV) and Essai sur les moeurs (Essay on Morals), he revered her as “a great man and as a most solid and respectable friend.” Similarly, George Eliot’s craft blossomed most fervently when she met and became the mistress or common law wife of George Henry Lewes, who could not divorce his incumbent wife without a decree from the British Parliament. The “all-enveloping maw of [Eliot’s] devotion” was reciprocal; at about the time of Adam Bede’s composition, Eliot wrote to a friend, “Under the influence of the intense happiness I have enjoyed in my married life from thorough moral and intellectual sympathy, I have at last found my true vocation.” In London, controversies between the prude and the prurient informed their former friends’ decision to exclude the “Leweses,” as the couple called themselves, from their homes. In their own, however, the connubial bliss and creative fervor they experienced was akin to that of Donne’s impassioned “sea-discoverers” in “The Good Morrow.” If the Eliot-Émilie dyad is a didactic one, the lesson is that achieving grand-old-man status rather than archetypal femininity in one’s lover’s eyes bespeaks equity and respect.
Conversely, the mistress as muse or companion to a great artist often experienced abject suffering. Several of Abbott’s mistresses are categorized as “shadow artists,” “fervent devotees [with] an erotic passion and a desire to simultaneously nurture the genius and live vicariously through [their lover] as his muse…[They] willingly suppress their personal desires and even their rights; of their own volition, they sacrifice themselves on the altar of their lovers’ creative genius.” For Lady Caroline Lamb, mistress and shadow artist to George Gordon, Lord Byron, editorial advice on “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” sought by a mutual friend, gave way to a torrid, internecine love affair, complicated all the more by the memorable, anguished portrait of the Romantics’ bipolarity and schizoid personality disorder wrought by Kay Redfield Jamison in Touched With Fire. One cannot help but wonder if, deeply aggrieved by Byron’s emotional gamesmanship and volatile letters, Lady Caroline might have been “touched with [the] fire” of his tempestuousness. Out of sheer grief, she took to self-mutilation, torched Byron in effigy, and wrote a roman à clef, Glenvarvon, about it. “Poets’ mistresses are judged leniently, because their passion stems from the imagination rather than depravity,” Abbott offers. But what of Byron’s own culpability? When Abbott recounts his refusal of financial support to Claire Clairmont, his amanuensis and the mother of his daughter, Allegra, in the wake of the child’s death, one cannot help but empathize with the mistresses.
The salient paradox in Abbott’s sketches is the ahistoricism of the mistresses’ condition. Absent a linear path through the ages from bondage to freedom, from lesser to greater property rights, from moral probity to liberation, mistresses’ positions with respect to their Lotharios and Casanovas and what purchase they have had on these men has been individual and circumstantial. For this reason, the historiography of this otherwise magisterial and synoptic book raises questions in this reader’s mind. The roughly chronological, roughly thematic organization obscures the sinuous transhistorical links one might draw between, for example, Lady Caroline and Simone de Beauvoir, or between Émilie du Châtelet and George Eliot. By way of a historiographical explanation, Abbott writes: “it was difficult to see what connection these modern mistresses had with their historic forebears, but before long parallels and similarities emerged,” yet one wonders what those might be for her. Developments in law and science (property rights, the advent of birth control, paternity tests) notwithstanding, these stories speak to each other across centuries and socioeconomic backdrops. Yet the reader must grace the text with dialogic ties between Abbott’s diegetic case studies to trace the anxieties and antinomies of influence.
Even then, mistresses of especially multivalent stripes come to mind, excluded or excised here perhaps for lack of space. Who was the mistress behind poems like the apparently chaste Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights,” and what might her social status have been? What about mistresses like Coco Chanel, whose biographers celebrate her sartorial innovations, yet carefully skirt her sexual exploits with Nazi sympathizers, whose patronage may well have subtended her life and craft alike during and after wartime? Where might mistresses like Dorothy Norman fall within the wider arc of infrangible marriages, as her lover Alfred Stieglitz’s was to Georgia O’Keefe?
Historiography aside, Abbott offers a poignant, humanizing corrective to the mistress’s marginalization. Once a peripheral Jezebel, she is recast as the cynosure of readers’ eyes in a vivid historical analysis that gains currency when we consider the place of mistresses in today’s Age of Scandal, and the persisting lacunae in women’s rights. Abbott does justice to the many lexicographical variants of the term “mistress,” which according to the Oxford American Dictionary, connotes domination, learnedness, authority, and, of course, being beloved. She probes the antic recklessness and wanton secrecy endemic to love affairs, breathing life into mistresses who evince the agency, autonomy, self-direction, and order of this definition—attributes far removed from the type of lasciviousness once meriting containment by legal statute and exile in imperial Rome—as well as to those who, by choice or circumstance, fell prey to their lovers’ manipulation.
This piece was published in Bookslut here.