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