On Mistresses and Loving VoluntarilyMarch 31, 2019
This article appeared in Diego Segura Magazine, Issue 003 .
The word mistress prompts all sorts of judgments. Faithful men believe having a mistress is disgusting, a sign of infidelity and disrespect. Some women, looking down upon a mistress's promiscuity, reduce her down to the sexual nature of her act.
Both men and women easily make the mistake of thinking that a mistress is nothing more than a prostitute and an extortioner who exchanges her body for feigned affection.
Merriam-Webster keeps the definition simple:
a woman other than his wife with whom a married man has a continuing sexual relationship
Notice that the relationship between a man and his mistress has been reduced to a sexual component only. There seems to be no affection between the two parties; therefore, it seems to be a relationship that exists only to serve their animal desires.
The synonyms that Merriam-Webster gives for mistress echo the same tune: concubine ("one having a recognized social status in a household below that of a wife") and doxy (or doxie). Synonyms of doxy include floozy ("a usually young woman of loose morals") and prostitute. Mistress, used in a sentence, is more telling: "he lavished gifts upon his mistressbut completely ignored his wife."
And our current cultural view of mistresses is hostile. The top definition for the word on Urban Dictionary, though that's far from a scholarly source, states seven derisive variations of the same theme:
- a lonely female with no self-respect who willingly subjects herself to the marginal attention of married men
- enemy to the institution of marriage
- an example of female energy used for evil
- a married man's co-conspirator
- the puppet a married man keeps in his closet and pulls out only at night and only when no one else is around to witness its existence
- one who will never experience real romantic love, and seemingly has no desire for it
- a woman with no value other than that of sexual gratification
These seven declarations of disgust sure do sound bitter, and perhaps the writer was right to feel that way. Scheming men and women can ruin lives, especially those who are co-conspirators in an affair that will tear apart a marriage or erase the little affection left between two former lovers.
But these definitions do not accurately describe mistresses, for none give a mistress her proper credit.
Madame de Pompadour
When a fortune teller told nine-year-old Jeanne Antoinette Poisson that she would become the mistress of Louis XV, it must have sounded like an implausible prediction. Jeanne's mother was a courtesan; her father, who may or may not have been her real father, was out of the picture. But it would be a swift fifteen years before Jeanne became the king's mistress and cemented herself in history as Madame de Pompadour, one of the most powerful women in France.
Jeanne was a pretty and charming young woman, which earned her the generosity of men early in her life. Charles Le Normant de Tournehem, a tax collector of her mother's acquaintance, paid for her education. (It's possible that he was her real father, which would explain his motive.) Jeanne was educated in many areas, including horseback riding, music, acting, dance, literature, history, and even conversation, with the playwright Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon as her instructor.
Beauty and charm persisted, and in 1741, Jeanne entered her first marriage with a man of the lower nobility in France. His position enabled her to open a literary salon frequented by writers and philosophers the likes of Voltaire. (It's probable that many of her salon's guests were regulars precisely because of her charm.) Despite her unlikely roots, the events of her young and early adult life had now put her in position to rub shoulders with the height of society. Ever since her fortune was told to her at nine years old, she knew whose shoulders mattered.
As early as 1744, Pompadour, then known as Madame d'Etiolles (taking the name of her husband) had crossed paths with the king. Her husband's estate bordered on one of the king's favored hunting grounds, and she made an effort to show up at the right times, in the right places, with the right outfits on and a charming smile on her face. She intended to become his mistress, but the position was not vacant—Madame de Châteauroux, the king's current maîtresse-en-titre, warned Pompadour to stay away.
Madame de Châteauroux, however, died in late 1744, leaving a vacancy in the court. King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour encountered each other again at a ball in 1745, and, evidently, there was a spark between the two. Her carriage was seen outside his apartments that same night, and within weeks she was living in a suite at the palace of Versailles. This defied the talk of the town: surely, this young woman would be a fleeting interest? She could not possibly capture the heart of the king for more than a night, let alone for weeks at a time.
Louis spent more and more time with Pompadour. In her suite at Versailles. He would venture up the stairs to find a private, warmly decorated room, always with a delightful aroma. Her love for luxury was visible throughout her room by way of golden pots, porcelain, and exotic items that she continually added to her collection. Her costumes—like the one she wore the night they met at the ball—also kept him on his toes, and he came back time and time again. She could match him in wits and carry a conversation on the most sophisticated subjects, unlike any other woman he'd met. If their banter died down, she would move to her piano and sing for him, never allowing him a moment of boredom or sadness in her presence. Their relationship grew in intensity, and in the years following, she amassed more influence and love from the king.
Though sex was clearly a part of their relationship, Pompadour's health started suffering around 1750. After a few miscarriages, her sexual relationship with the king appeared to have ceased, and she became more of a companion to Louis than a sexual partner—but it was still an extramarital relationship nonetheless.
She relinquished no power when the sex disappeared. Rather, she amassed more power within the court and with the king. Louis, of course, still needed an outlet for his promiscuity (his sexual relationship with his wife was over at early as 1737). He established, possibly with the help of Madame de Pompadour, a house in Versailles called Parc-aux-Cerfs, or Stag Park. Parc-aux-Cerfs only housed one young mistress at a time (contrary to popular belief) with which Louis had...relations.
Pompadour didn't feel threatened by these young women, which would explain why she was willing to help him establish such a house. She knew she'd captured the king with far more than sex: "It is his heart I want! All these little girls with no education will not take it from me. I would not be so calm if I saw some pretty woman of the court or the capital trying to conquer it."
Indeed, she had conquered not only his heart but his kingdom. By 1756, Louis granted her the title of duchess and the lady-in-waiting to the queen, and she functioned as his prime minister, going so far as to dabble in foreign affairs. (Indirectly, she was part of the cause of the Seven Years' War, which left France devastated and nearly bankrupt, which hurt her popularity in France.)
Most look at Pompadour and her rise to power within France and easily dismiss her as a conniving bitch, which is somewhat fair. She always got her way, captured the king's heart and mind, and practically made herself his prime minister. She had clear intentions of rising to power and refused to let that power diminish, despite the fact she was no longer a young, beautiful coquette. Even if she was out for her own interests, she was educated, intelligent, talented, self-aware, and powerful, by all measures a woman who could fend for herself in any world.
That doesn't match the idea of a mistress as a useless whore.
The Origin of a Mistress
Why would a man seek out a mistress at all? An easy answer: for sex.There's a strong belief that men have higher sex drives than women, and by most accounts and studies, that seems to be true. It's also true that the insecure Louis XV was fond of having many women around him, and as a king, many made themselves available to him. But Madame de Pompadour's relationship with the king was more than a one-night rendezvous. It was a companionship that lasted until her death, and one that Louis would not give up, even when he had plenty of other sex from younger, more beautiful women.
A more complicated, but also more accurate answer: for love.
King Louis XV became king at five years old, and a short ten years later was married to his wife, Marie Leszczynska. He did not have much of a choice in their marriage. She was the daughter of a former king in Poland, well-mannered, and eligible.Though at first it didn't seem like she would meet the criteria—Louis did not seem to have much of a say, if any—she ended up the Queen since she was Catholic, a European princess (suitable background), and healthy enough to make little royal children. Their marriage was a decision, not a relationship.
(The people of France's reaction to the selection of Marie as Louis XV's wife is telling: many were unhappy that France didn't gain anything from the marriage, and they feared she would be too awkward and incapable of demanding respect in politics.)
The marriage became official in 1725, with King Louis XV aged fifteen, Marie aged twenty-one.
Though I've read that Louis did love her, any strong affection didn't last long. It seems her most crucial role was to bear the king children, specifically a son who would succeed him. That effort was only somewhat successful. In the years following their marriage, she gave birth to ten children, only two of whom were boys. One of those was the Dauphin Louis, who was the father to the next three kings of France. (He did not become king because of his death in 1765, nearly ten years before his father.) After a pregnancy during which Marie almost died in 1737, she was advised not to have any more kids and she no longer allowed Louis to sleep with her.
Louis already had at least one mistress in the years before 1737—Marie was far too timid to keep much of the king's attention. A Marquise once recalled that, while visiting Marie and the king, she "could suggest no better amusement for the King than that of killing flies on the window panes."* It's no wonder that the title of maîtresse-en-titrewas so coveted. Not only was the practice of having royal mistresses common, but the nature of the relationship between king and queen seemed bound for failure. The king would not remain faithful to a woman he married at fifteen years old, as a result of political forces.
The pattern is not foreign: Louis XVI married—at fifteen—a young woman of fourteen years who would come to be known as Marie Antoinette. Louis XIV was a more mature twenty-two years old at the time of his marriage to Maria-Theresa of Austria (daughter of King Philip IV of Spain), but their marriage was a political agreement, meant to ratify a peace treaty. So much for love, or for that matter, choice.
The mistress, in light of the "relationships" so many kings feigned, no longer seems like such a home wrecker. She's inevitable. In relationships that didn't start with love, nor with intentions of it, your best bet is that there will be some extracurricular activity. Can we blame Madame de Pompadour for seducing the king as she did? Were there not countless other women on the same mission who, lacking a real connection with Louis, failed to capture him?
King Louis XV loved Madame de Pompadour. Whether she loved him back or not is irrelevant—he was captivated and never got rid of her. If she were just a pretty girl prostituting herself out to a powerful married man, it wouldn't have lasted more than a few weeks, as most thought it would.
The Role of Mistress
"When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy." — Sir James Goldsmith
Sir James Goldsmith was a well-known billionaire who lived from 1933 to 1997. He embodied those words and died with both his wife and mistress at his side. The woman who would come to be his wife started as an affair in 1964. Fourteen years later, they became Sir James Goldsmith and Lady Annabel Goldsmith. She was the mistress he married.
By the time she made the jump from mistress to wife, he had filled the vacant position. Annabel was aware that he kept a previous wife in Paris and a mistress in New York—in fact, all three knew of each other. Annabel claims in her 2004 book, Annabel: An Unconventional Lifethat none of them were 100% pleased with the arrangement, but she felt "quite unjustified in complaining." She was his wife, the secrets were never secrets at all, and Annabel was used to living an unconventional life indeed. The arrangement, though not perfect, was not a deal-breaker for any of the three.
Sir James Goldsmith was born as close as most could come to royalty, to a prominent family of multimillionaires, but there was no negotiation as to who would give birth to his children. Unlike Louis XV, Goldsmith was free to seek any woman he pleased, and that's what he did, with many women and mistresses throughout his life. If the first justification for mistresses is that—in the case of kings—marriage was not a marriage at all, then there appears to be no justification for a man like Goldsmith. Did he not, in 1978, make a commitment to be faithful to Annabel? Didn't you choose each other? Why now do you need someone else in the picture?
Those are all valid questions, though they don't lead to insightful answers. Goldsmith was acutely aware of something, a question that he obviously had a hard time answering: What changes when you marry your mistress, and she becomes your wife?
I found an answer in a 1997 article by Maureen Freely for The Independent, titled "Till Marriage Do Us Part." (I would love to know the full context of this article: I read it as funny, though I'm not sure the story is entirely true.)
The female narrator becomes a mistress to a married man shortly after her divorce. She felt all sorts of sympathy for him: his marriage seemed like a nightmare. "How hard it must be, [she] thought, for a man to be held to a schedule as strict as the one this wife of his insisted on. Where was it written that a man had to be home every evening at six on the dot? That he couldn't go out with his friend for an innocent afternoon at the pub after Sunday tennis? [...] You see, she had trapped him into staying married by getting pregnant accidentally not once, but twice. Granted, he now loved the children more than he would ever love her, but why did that mean she couldn't allow him any pleasures?"
Every time the husband wanted to listen to his favorite jazz music on his expensive stereo system, the wife made a big fuss. Talk about miserable.
Soon, the man divorced his wife and decided to set up a house with the narrator, his mistress. But once they were in the same household, she found herself acting as the same woman that he was married to previously. She took on the responsibilities of the household and allowed him his time to himself, with reluctance. "I did try to make allowances for his true feelings about dishes, late risings, naps, six o'clock tea times, four o'clock feeds, pubs and weekends off, but every time I did, it meant more dishes and broken nights for me, and no pubs or hairdressers. As for that dissonant jazz, well talk about headaches. My compassion failed utterly when he came home with a new transformer that did justice to those new speakers—without even asking if the money would have been better spent on the carrycots and pushchairs that we so desperately needed."
The cherry on top is that, by this time, the narrator had surprised them both with two accidental pregnancies. "He never said it, but he must have asked himself if I was turning into his wife."
Therein lies the difference between a mistress and a wife. Somewhere, sometime during the transition from lovers to committed partners, the fun disappears. The entertainment, the conversation, and yes, the intimacy that brought both parties together succumbs to a barrage of responsibilities, distractions, and sometimes children that put the relationship second. There's no doubt in my mind that Maureen and her man were lovers at first, and that she was much more than a sexual object, but whatever she was, it changed when they found themselves in the same household. This is why a position becomes vacant: this shift that shouldn't happen but does.
It doesn't have to.
One of the most public and successful marriages in all of history was between Nancy and Ronald Reagan. By every account, outsiders say they were best friends. Their interests matched, they enjoyed much of the same entertainment, they loved being next to each other, kissed in public without any qualms, and Nancy was an intelligent, beautiful woman to compliment a powerful man. It's no wonder they felt such a connection that lasted up to, and even beyond, the death of Ronald.
Now, if I were to describe Madame de Pompadour in relation to King Louis XV, I could say much of the same:
They were best friends. Their interests matched, they enjoyed much of the same entertainment, they loved being next to each other, didn't kiss in public but sure did in private, and Pompadour was an intelligent, beautiful woman who had the ear and heart of a powerful man. It's no wonder they felt such a connection that lasted up to, and possibly beyond, the death of Pompadour.
The difference, of course, is that Ronald Reagan was a faithful man for every decade of his marriage to Nancy. Louis XV, not so much—his relationship with Pompadour was itself infidelity. But why didn't Ronald feel the need to fill the vacancy of mistress? You might say, because he's a mature man who knows how to handle his business like he's supposed to.I'd agree with that, but that would take all the credit away from Nancy: she was the love of his life, and through fifty years of marriage, that neverchanged. Ronald and Nancy loved each other like they were illicit lovers, even though they were legally bound!
That's a testament both to her—for managing the burden of being a wife, mother, and even a first lady with perfect poise—and to him—for managing the weight of an entire country, two children from a previous marriage, and being a loving husband all the same. Both of them were responsible, along with some simple twists of fate, for their successful relationship. Which of course means that the parties involved in a failed relationship are equally responsible.
Mistress as Mindset
What a mistress stands for is essential. Plenty of miserable men and women are in marriages and relationships with people they can't stand. What about in extramarital relationships? If I ask a man or woman about their mistress or lover (and if they could get over the embarrassment), I'm sure they'd be plenty happy. They're satisfied, the mistress is satisfied, and all is well. If it wasn't, the two parties would break off as quickly as they came together. There's no obligation to love—two parties who are knowingly cheating are coming together in the most honest and straightforward way any two people could come together: voluntarily.
There are thousands of married couples who are not together for love or commitment, but because they had children when they didn't mean to. Bitter enemies live in the same household but sleep in separate beds because they'd rather feign a healthy marriage than go through the trouble of a divorce. I'm not a cynic who would label every marriage as such, but they're far too common. Is it so surprising, in the severe cases, that one or both parties find themselves cheating, or at least contemplating it? It would be best for both of them, of course, to come back together and make the damn arrangement work, but if I could tell you in a few sentences how to do that, I'd be writing more than a magazine article.
In the beginning, all marriages (except for arranged ones) start with some platonic encounter or a date. Either there's a connection or no connection. If there is, the two spend more time with each other, enjoying what each has to offer, whether that's conversation, time in a mansion, expensive dinners, sex, or all of the above. In this sense, they start out as lovers. Not husband and wife, not boyfriend and girlfriend, not bound by a contract to love each other, but loving each other voluntarily. In essence, every man starts as a mere lover, and every woman starts as a mistress.
I love you (voluntarily.)
I have named you queen.
There are taller than you, taller.
There are purer than you, purer.
There are lovelier than you, lovelier. But you are the queen.
When you go through the streets
No one recognizes you.
No one sees your crystal crown, no one looks
At the carpet of red gold
That you tread as you pass,
The nonexistent carpet.
And when you appear
All the rivers sound
In my body, bells
Shake the sky,
And a hymn fills the world.
Only you and I,
Only you and I,
my love, hear it.
The Queen by Pablo Neruda. Written to his wife, Matilde Urrutia.
No rational man (or woman) can say their partner is, with all objectivity, the purest, most lovely, beautiful creature on the planet. But no faithful man would say his woman is not the queen. She has not only the advantage of a title but also the bulk of his love and attention, despite every one of her inevitable downfalls.
You might hear a tone of degradation in Neruda's words. You're not as tall as I'd like you to be, nor as lovely as the woman up the street. You're not enough for me. But to read the poem that way would miss the connection between Neruda and his lover, the one that nobody else can recognize, but is incredibly potent for both of them. Neruda didn't need those vain qualities to make him love his wife. After all, if being beautiful is the support upon which love rests, Neruda was in no position to have a wife. Neither was Louis XV, nor most of the plump kings of centuries past. Alas, there is more to love than beauty.
Upon first glance at the timeline of Pablo Neruda's love life, it looks a bit turbulent. His first marriage, with a woman named María Antonieta Hagenaar, lasted from 1930 to 1936. Before that relationship was completely over, though, he'd met his next wife, Delia del Carril. They married in 1943 and were together until their divorce in 1955. The most important love of his life, Matilde Urrutia, was the recipient of his famous love sonnets that many people know him for today. Their 22-year relationship began while he was still married to del Carril, and they stayed together iuntil his death in 1973. (They married years after they met in 1966—after a divorce from del Carril that Neruda obtained due to a legal technicality.)
All of those relationships had significant overlap. One might guess that Neruda was a womanizer, and judging by his skill with words, I wouldn't be surprised by that one bit. But he did end up in an incredibly dedicated relationship with Matilde Urrutia, one that lasted nearly as long as his first two marriages combined, and likely would have continued if not for his death. Their love had some unique characteristics: notably, Matilde and Pablo seem to have treated each other like mistresses and lovers for as long as they were together. In this way, they loved each other voluntarily.
To add that caveat—I love you, voluntarily—sounds reluctant, yes, but it's also a given. What other way could you love someone? The closest anyone can get to unconditional love is through parenthood, and even then, it'd be a challenge to love a kid who turned out to be a serial killer. All love is voluntary because it's an action and a choice. But more than that, voluntary love is an attitude.
Just an educated guess, but most married couples aren't writing each other love sonnets. Some are forgetting about their anniversary. Flowers aren't being exchanged like they were in the first year of the relationship. And maybe that's okay: I'm not here to say that flowers are the sign of marital happiness: in fact, if your man hasn't bought you flowers in ten years, and now he hands you a bouquet after being gone all weekend, there might be a reason for suspicion.
But when a relationship has been reduced to responsibilities and obligations, there's one glaring responsibility that will hurt both parties: the obligation to love. It removes all thoughts of love sonnets, flowers, or even an admiring glance. It's a job and a tough one. As the late Patrice O'Neal once joked: Can I just call in sick to love you today?
Why does it have to be that way?
As I started research for this issue of the magazine, I dove into a treasure trove of art and literature about illicit lovers of kings and queens. I figured if nothing else, I can deliver a magazine this month that has awesome pictures and art and provides information about the fascinating history of royal mistresses.
That felt so devoid of purpose. As I went further into the rabbit hole, I couldn't help but notice that my view of the word mistress continued to change drastically. I wasn't as surprised at the stories themselves as I was by my lack of a reaction. I didn't read with disgust that many of these illicit relationships were open secrets. When I discovered the real-life character that was the late Sir James Goldsmith, I should have been horrified that he died next to his wife and mistress—the height of scandal! But again, I couldn't.
One of my favorite comedians, the great Dave Chappelle, once said in an interview:
The worst thing to call somebody is crazy; it's dismissive. 'I don't understand this person, so they're crazy.' That's bullshit.
He was referring to the media's treatment of 'crazy' celebrities in Hollywood, but ever since I heard that, it's been a reminder to look deeper into the motivations of other people. Maybe that means I'm a devil's advocate, perhaps I'm an apologizer to the crazy people of the world, but maybe I've found some things that surprised me. Here, I found that mistresses and their co-conspirators are way off the mark on how to run relationships: but not in the way you'd think.
My biggest takeaway was simple. I want to bring back the word mistress. Not in the sense that I have multiple women at my disposal, not that I advocate everyone to be in open relationships. The sexual connotation of the word fell away after my first few minutes of research—clearly, it was much more than sex. Rather, bring back the word mistress to all the shitty relationships. To bring back the original infatuation, or at least some spark of it, to two people who were once mere lovers. That might be the most idealistic bullshit I've ever said; it might even be crazy. But maybe, just maybe, we all need our mistresses and lovers.
Postscript: Variations on a Mistress
Cicisbeo (plural: cicisbei)
Used in Italy in the 17–1800s, cicisbeo is a variation of the word cavalier servente or chevalier servant in French. A cicisbeowas the lover of a married woman. He would tag along with her to public spectacles, though stayed strictly in the background to maintain a front of fidelity, and sometimes the two were sexual partners.
The woman and her cicisbeo usually did not show affection for each other in public, despite being seen together. The man would even stand behind the mistress rather than sit next to her at entertainments, often whispering in her ear to hold a conversation. (I've read that some believe that the origin of the word is connected to the sound of a whisper, but I've found no evidence to back that up. Some sources suggest a translation to a 'beautiful chickpea,' but there's no definitive answer on where this word came from.)
The relationship between the man and married woman was called a cicisbeatura and was typical for nobility in 18th and 19th century Italy. Cicisbei were dedicated to the woman, despite not being married. They were not allowed to pursue other relationships while acting as a woman's cicisbeo, yet the relationship could end at any time. Cast off cicisbei were referred to as spiantati, which translates to uprooted, or penniless.
It's notable that the husbands knew about the cicisbeo, and in that sense gave consent to the relationship. (The cicisbeo posed no threat if he was homosexual, which might have been common.) For these reasons, I'm not sure that every cicisbeatura can be classified as sexual in nature, but I don't doubt that most of them were. Even still, there seemed to be no hint of jealousy. Just as the wives knew of and spoke to their husband's mistresses, the husbands were expected to tolerate and embrace the cicisbeo as well.
Paramour can refer to both a male and female mistress or any sort of illicit lover. The word comes from Old French, as par amour, but it was written in English as one word. Par amour translates to by love. I like this term because it's evident that the illicit partnership was loving, not just sexual.
A kept man. This would be the most similar to a mistress in the old sense of the word, as a kept woman used for sex. A gigolo is always expected to be around ready to provide pleasure, it seems, in just about any sense of the word. He often receives housing from the wealthy woman, gifts, and other support throughout the relationship. This definitely comes close to prostitution, and no doubt is similar to what many mistresses were and are for men.