In praise of mistresses

I know it’s an unfashionable cause, but I invite you to consider the plight of the mistress – always the bedfellow, (almost) never the bride. I know “the other woman” is generally viewed as a ruthless seductress with no regard for family, and often that’s true; but sometimes she’s simply a woman who has loved not wisely, but too well. Who has maybe been naïve, or self-deluding, in swallowing the story that “my wife doesn’t understand me”. Or who simply had the misfortune of bad timing – that the person most suited to her in all the world had made a rash romantic commitment early in life (or even a good decision that had worked well for many years before hearts altered course). There’s also the stark fact that one person in a marriage can cease to feel physically passionate, leaving the more sexual person in the partnership desperate for intimacy. Whatever the reason, life and literature tell us human relationships are a complex business and people don’t always behave as well as they intend.

I hail our Queen Consort, Camilla, for surviving the long, dark years of being denounced as a scarlet woman.

So I hail our Queen Consort, Camilla, for surviving the long, dark years of being denounced as a scarlet woman. Rarely has any public figure been snarked at so cruelly for staying loyal to one man. It wasn’t her fault, or Diana’s, that the callous old-style royal “firm” decreed Charles had to marry a virgin, a decision that proved calamitous for both parties. I’ve never understood the line of reasoning that says you have to pick sides – Team Di or Team Camilla, Team Jennifer or Team Angelina – when you can have sympathy for each woman’s predicament, while also wondering why the bloke gets let off the hook. I’m glad Camilla has got to be Queen Consort (insiders believe the “Consort” may be quietly dropped with time) as compensation for decades spent soothing the brow of a querulous male. She gives hope to downtrodden paramours, who spend Christmases and birthdays alone with a bottle of gin, that a fairy-tale ending may one day be theirs. Although the wise inamorata will also consider James Goldsmith’s famous remark that “when a man marries his mistress he creates a job opportunity.”

I was once a proper mistress and, just to clarify the job description, I mean the single-status, pining lover of a man who was married. I was very bad at the job. Aged 23, all I wanted was a one-on-one boyfriend but I’d somehow managed to fall in love with someone who was thoroughly taken (if suffering marital doldrums) but had made me laugh so much I’d been knocked off balance. He was far too poor to afford hotels, so had to come back to my squalid bedsit when my flatmate was out, where the only sustenance was Batchelors Cup a Soup. Our fleeting trysts were almost impossible to arrange in the prehistoric days before mobile phones and email. And because my love was basically a goodhearted chap he felt hugely guilty, as did I, so the whole affair was over within a few months. The only things I got out of it were a paperback copy of the script of Brief Encounter, a broken heart and winter flu.

I realised how inept my amorous scenario had been six years later when I became editor of the Erotic Review magazine. One of my key contributors was a flame-haired classicist and author, who’d become the mistress of her husband’s boss in her 30s. She told me the love affair had started with the gift of a first-edition Thomas Hardy novel, then diamond earrings, next a grand piano and eventually a small cottage in Gloucestershire, which allowed her to leave her spouse but keep her children. After a decade or so, she fell in love with an impoverished journalist and this grand affair ended. Nevertheless, her old lover continued to act as a benefactor and whenever I saw her wearing something particularly chic it would be a gift from him. “He likes me to look good,” she would say, showing off an expensive, butter-soft suede coat. It turned out a different lover had also given her free dentistry, including porcelain crowns, to maintain her dazzling smile.

I was reminded of my friend while reading The Secret Heart: John Le Carré, An Intimate Memoir by Suleika Dawson (a pseudonym). The book details how the world’s best-known espionage novelist – real name, David Cornwell – lavished his young lover with Krug, caviar and costly vintage jewellery. The author flew her to Switzerland, Munich and Greece, booking luxurious hotels and making love with prodigious stamina. Dawson recounts one postcoital car journey where Cornwell said “how amazed he was by the amount of seminal fluid he produced with me.” On another occasion, she writes, he “threw us both onto the living room couch and drove himself into me like a ploughshare.”

Despite the torrid furrows and superabundance of jism, Dawson’s bliss was short-lived. It was clear that, despite protestations to the contrary, Cornwell was never going to leave his second wife, Jane; what’s more, he thrived on the myriad deceptions underpinning a double life. He could be tetchy and manipulative, undermining Dawson’s intellectual accomplishments, even though she’d won a top scholarship to Oxford – which was more than he had. Everything about the relationship was on his terms. By the end of the book you see their relationship not as one of star-crossed lovers, but of a vain control freak who needed a beautiful, younger woman to console his inner schoolboy.

The truth is that being the lover of a demanding, egotistical, wealthy man is a full-time job, which is why, in previous centuries, women demanded money for the task. And why Queen Camilla deserves her ring, her crown and our respect for staying the course.

Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review

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