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A History of Mistresses

by Elizabeth Abbott

If motherhood is the second-oldest profession, mistressdom followed soon after. It is an evocative word, “mistress,” suggesting sensual sophistication and luxury. Elizabeth Abbott’s A History of Mistresses sets out to determine whether the reality matches the mystique.

Abbott’s previous work, A History of Celibacy, was remarkable for its wealth of detail, explaining the different reasons for abstinence among members of various organizations. A History of Mistresses digs deeper into the specifics of its individual subjects, recounting the stories of dozens of mistresses. Everyone from Héloise to mobster moll Virginia Hill to Camilla Parker-Bowles gets her moment in the spotlight. The chapter subjects range from mistressdom in ancient times to Asian concubines to the mistresses of “celibate” priests.

The wealth of detail and Abbott’s sincere interest in these women bring the brief biographies to life. However, since the individuals and their circumstances are so different from each other, Abbott’s conclusions tend to be overgeneralized, and her insinuation that these women were all either pre-feminist warriors or the victims of societal constraints seems imposed. The concluding chapter, in which Abbott brings her findings together, does not make a convincing case for linking the women – they are much more interesting left as individuals.

This overgeneralization also leads the reader to question the accuracy of Abbott’s mini biographies. Abbott repeatedly uses the phrase “the truth is” to dismiss rival opinions on her subjects, but it’s farfetched to believe that these summaries tell a more definite truth than the full-length biographies that constitute Abbott’s sources.

In the end, A History of Mistresses feels more like a series of one-night stands than a committed mistress relationship. No matter how different the subjects in question or how fun the individual experiences, the brevity of each encounter leaves a hollow sum total.


Reviewer: Karin Marley

Publisher: HarperFlamingo Canada


Price: $38.95

Page Count: 448 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-00-200046-6

Issue Date: 2003-4

Categories: History