Mistresses: a History of the Other Woman

Elizabeth Abbott’s “history of the other woman” spans 500 years and is an Aladdin’s cave of tales of

Christmas brings out the best and worst in publishers. The virtuous and the venal, the meritorious and the meretricious are heaped together - often inside the same dust jacket - and hurled with desperate force at an increasingly indif­ferent public. Yet, in these sad times of short money and high stupidity, who can blame publishers for resorting to every trick in the book, as it were, to shift sales?

So what was Duckworth's game plan with Elizabeth Abbott's Mistresses? When Marketing met with Editorial, did anyone ask what was the target audience for this particular Christmas book? It seems an unlikely gift for a husband to give to his wife, unless there is something he wishes to get off his chest. And would a wife give it to her husband unless she was either making a suggestion or, more likely, enclosing the book with a copy of her private investigator's report?

Mistresses is the perfect cross between an encyclopaedia and CliffsNotes. There are more than 80 potted histories of adulterous women, starting with Hagar in the Old Testament, zipping through Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, glancing at Lara, and ending with someone called Michaela (a friend of the author's?) who lives in Toronto. Presumably, however, a husband would be taking an awful risk by giving this book to his own mistress. She might get ideas. Abbott's list includes the Ukrainian-born Roxelana (c.1500-58), principal concubine of Suleiman the Magnificent, who turned a
dud hand - kidnap, slavery, imprisonment in a harem - into the ultimate success for a mistress: marriage, wealth, political power and the death of all rivals, including her stepsons. Worse still, not only did Suleiman give Roxelana everything she could possibly desire, but he wrote some of the most beautiful love poetry in the Turkish language for her, addressing his wife thus:

. . . my wealth, my love, my moonlight . . .
My springtime, my merry-faced love, my
daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf . . .
My woman of the beautiful hair, my
love of the slanted brow, my love of
eyes full of mischief . . .
I'll sing your praises always,
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of
the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

This is surely a bad example to show to one's mistress, and likely only to produce much discontent and carping in the months to follow.

On the other hand, Mistresses is hardly the sort of book that a real-life mistress with a brain, in addition to other attributes, would seriously consider giving to her secret consort. The catalogue of selfish, cruel behaviour meted out to women by their lovers gives the impression that 'twas ever thus. Virginia Hill comes to mind. Virginia was immortalised in the 1991 film Bugsy as the vain gangster's moll who seals the doom of Bugsy Siegel, the mobster who invented Las Vegas, by stealing $2m from the construction budget. In fact, she was simply a greedy, self-destructive plaything of the Mob. More than once she was beaten unconscious by Bugsy and then raped by him. Her role in his downfall lay not in stealing the money, but in keeping notes of what he stole from the budget.

After Bugsy's murder, Virginia passed from man to man, growing ever more drug-addled and pathetic. The IRS pursued her for unpaid taxes from her "job" as a mistress. She ended up in Naples in 1966, hoping to pressure one of her former lovers into giving her money, or else she would go to the authorities and spill the beans. Not surprisingly, she was soon found dead by walkers following a trail through the woods near Salzburg. Austrian police assumed that she had chosen to take her own life by swallowing a cocktail of pills and lying down in the snow. Far more likely, she was frogmarched to the remote location, had the pills forced down her throat and was left to freeze to death.

I would not recommend giving this book to mistresses-in-training, either. A man seeking to groom a woman for the role would almost certainly scare her away. Like writers, it seems, mistresses are born, not made. The successful ones know from the start how to get their man, how to please him, what the score is and where it's all going to lead. Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman, who died in 1997, was (literally) to the manor born. As the eldest daughter of the 11th Baron Digby, she enjoyed an upbringing of privilege and wealth. Why she became, in the words of the Times, "one of the greatest courtesans of her age" remains somewhat mysterious, as she lived in an era when class, looks and intelligence were means enough for a woman to get ahead. Was she molested as a child? Was her father cold and distant, leaving her with the feeling that she had been abandoned? Did she have a personality disorder which, in another woman, would have expressed itself as a shoe fetish, but in her
took the form of a powerful man fetish? Who knows? Certainly, there was something abnormal about the way Pamela committed herself to the man du jour. "She just unconsciously assumed his identity, as if she were putting on a glove," a friend reminisced.

Indeed, she was so good at the job that quite a few men thought she was far too valuable to be wasted as a wife. With Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat heir, Pamela became so attuned to his world that she adopted an Italian accent, wore floaty scarves and dark glasses and converted to Catholicism. With Baron Élie de Rothschild, she abruptly switched to Hermès and started saying things like "Ici Pam" on the telephone. Fortunately for Pam, American men proved to be a little more demanding than their European counterparts in their expectations of their wives. After almost a quarter-century of out-geishaing the geishas, Pam settled down to being an ordinary wife, marrying first the Broadway and Hollywood producer Leland Hayward and then the Democratic Party grandee and diplomat Averell Harriman. She allegedly didn't care about sex and he was an old flame anyway, so apparently it was no hardship servicing the octogenarian Harriman, who died a happy man in 1986. Pam was made US ambassador to France and died in situ after suffering a seizure in the pool at the Hôtel Ritz. Her example is so daunting that it is likely either to put off any would-be mistresses for good, or to give them unrealistic expectations.

Now that I've read the book, I am still not sure who it's aimed at. Abbott's writing is a cross between the Daily Mail and Mills and Boon: Nell Gwynn had "an uptilted nose, lustrous chestnut hair, hazel eyes that regarded you with all the directness and honesty she was famous for, and firm and full breasts". Abbott's musings at the end of each example are homely and sympathetic, and wouldn't offend anybody unless he or she had religious or moral qualms about that sort of thing. Actually, that does sound like the average Daily Mail reader.

Anyway, this reader found Mistresses a harmless pleasure - rather like a deep-fried Mars bar on a snowy night. The book will go next to Schott's Miscellany in the guest loo rather than under the tree, and no doubt will be enjoyed for years to come.

Mistresses: a History of the Other Woman
Elizabeth Abbott
Duckworth, 512pp, £20

Amanda Foreman's latest book is "A World on Fire: an Epic History of Two Nations Divided" (Allen Lane, £30)

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

Show Hide image

Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.