by: Elizabeth Abbott
I was really excited when I found this book. A history of mistresses – what’s not to love? It’s a carefully curated collection of mistresses’ stories; generally famous ones, whose stories tend to be between 3-7 pages long. There are 400 pages in the book, so there a quite a few stories covered. It is the perfect book for any stop and start readers, as it’s really easy to fit in a page or three here and there.
I was even more excited when I started reading it and found it was actually pretty darn good. Abbott focuses mostly on British and American mistresses from the 19th and 20th centuries, though she does touch on East Asia, the Middle East, Ancient Greek, women indigenous to the Americas, and a little bit of non-UK Europe. She does cover quite a few people, and none in much depth. I actually really enjoyed that aspect; it was like a survey course in mistressdom and it definitely piqued my interest in a few women in particular.
Abbott is a good but not great writer and there are a few parts, especially the conclusions of individual stories, where it feels a little stilted. There’s a few minor organization issues that detract from a smooth reading experience but nothing that should keep you from enjoying the book.
One of the best things about the book was how explicit she was in discussing and analyzing the situations these women were placed in, merely by being born a woman. She looks with a sympathetic eye towards the times they were born into, while also being honest about their flaws and mistakes as people. The amount of context she manages to add, in such very short spaces, is amazing and very well-done.
I felt a little uncomfortable sometimes with the wording she used about sex when talking about women who were unfaithful. But, halfway through the book, it became clear she was treating the men in her story the same way she was treating the women. I couldn’t tell if it was my own bias influencing how I read it or if Abbott had a slight bias that was peeking through. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. For the most part, Abbott’s book is well-balanced and fair, dealing with both the moral implications and the realities of the world people were living in.
I was really intrigued by the women she chose – everyone from the desperate and loved-crazed to the practical and money-driven. There were rich and famous women, middle class women, poor women, women who wanted fame by association, women who wanted marriage, and women who wanted freedom. It was truly eye-opening. It painted a picture of what being a mistress was like while showcasing such a wide variety of women who chose to become mistresses.
Sometimes there was a little more focus on the man the mistress was sleeping with than the woman herself, but I think this was more a result of what information was available – often the man’s life was more thoroughly chronicled than the woman’s. All in all, it was a really excellent book looking at a position that has been so important but so under-discussed throughout history. I would highly recommend it.
If you’re into women’s history, alternative looks at history, or the lives of famous figures, you should definitely give this book a chance! If you’re not into tales of moral ambiguity or if clunky conclusions are a pet peeve of yours, than you might want to give it pass.