Culture Magazine

Mistress of None

By Kirsty Stonell Walker @boccabaciata
Hello again and apologies for the brief break in service.  I have been busy at work on my book about Pre-Raphaelite women, due out at in the Autumn (and available for pre-order here (UK) and (USA), but whilst doing research and the suchlike, I started wondering about a word that kept being bandied about.  That word is 'Mistress'...

Mistress of None

Fazio's Mistress (1863-73) Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Language has power and it is up to us to see when more is being said than the mere words spoken or written.  This is definitely the case with the word 'Fat' (see this post) and 'Old' (see this post) which carry with them value judgments, but how about the word 'Mistress'?  What do we mean when we call a woman someone's mistress?

Mistress of None

Mistress of the Moat (1898) Herbert Alfred Bone

On the one hand, in a very basic way, 'mistress' is just the female version of 'master'.  This posh lady on a horse is married to the man who owns the house, I'm guessing, but just her very regal presence on her equally regal horse makes her the boss of the moat.  Look how the various birds look at her with birdy respect.  She is in charge of everything, well, until her husband gets home.

Mistress of None

'O Mistress Mine, Where are you Roaming?'  (1899) Edwin Austin Abbey

Moving on, the word 'mistress' is often said in a possessive sense, as in 'my mistress' (or in the case above 'mistress mine'). It's difficult sometimes to define exactly how this is meant - a servant might refer to his mistress but then it means something different to when a man says it.  When the man in the above painting asks the question 'o mistress mine, where are you roaming?' is he asking as he equal or her inferior?  Is the inference one of respect or possession?  Also, being called a man's mistress is a very loaded term...

Mistress of None

Lillie Langtry, mistress

So, I'm writing my mini-biographies of 50 Pre-Raphaelite women and one word that comes up quite a bit is 'mistress'.  For women like Lillie Langtry, it refers to her relationships with married men, although half the time she too is married, so what is the equivalent term for chaps who have affairs with married women?  Also, with women like Lillie, many of the men she was having affairs with weren't married so they definitely count as the male equivalent of 'mistress' - 'masters'?  no, that has the connotation of being the superior partner in a relationship that definitely isn't one of equality.

Mistress of None

The Awakening Conscience (1853) William Holman Hunt

This is probably what most people think of when they think of Victorian mistresses.  This young lady is a 'kept woman', in her own luxurious little house in St John's Wood, where her rich gentleman acquaintance can pop in for a tickle on her ivories.  He is married, she is not, least of all to him.  He is wealthy, she is not, and everything she now possesses is courtesy of her chap with the implication that he can remove it as swiftly as he bestowed it. If she is his mistress, he very definitely is her master.

Mistress of None

The Reluctant Mistress (no date) Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta

Look at this woman: he's given her a bunch of flowers, what more does she want? There is a definite sense that women, when provided with nice furniture and a very pleasant tea-service should be available for naughtiness.  There is an unspoken (but very loudly hinted at) commercial transaction going on.  She is what we think of as a mistress, a sort of luxury item that rich men have.  Do poor men not have mistresses?  Is that a word that also then has socio-economic implications (get me with the big words)? Therefore, is 'mistress' the sort of word you use for a rich man's poppet, when if she was involved with a poor man, you'd call her a rude name?  A bit like 'mad' and 'eccentric', it's what people say when they'd like to insult you but you're too rich, so they can't.

Mistress of None

Portrait of Emma Hill (1852) Ford Madox Brown

The reason I started my meandering through all this was because of Emma Hill.  Reading the many different accounts of her and Ford Madox Brown's relationship, she is repeatedly described as his 'mistress'.  Admittedly, a couple of months ago, I didn't know very much about Emma and Brown so assumed, because of the 'mistress' tag, that Brown was still married when he started shacking up with Emma.  However, he had been widowed and Emma was his model who declared her love for him.  They were both free and single so why is she is his 'mistress'?

Mistress of None

Jane Morris, apparently also a mistress

Type in 'mistress' in Bridgeman Art Library and lo and behold you get Jane Morris.  Undoubtedly, she did have an extra-marital affair but the 'marital' was on her side, so why is she 'mistress'?  Such is the link between sex and inspiration in the narrative of Pre-Raphaelite art, that we seem to use the words 'muse' and 'mistress' interchangeably.  The women are seen as the lesser-partners in all this, what they bring to the party is sex and nothing more.  It's not just about being married/unmarried, but also the status of men both in and out of wedlock.  'Mistress', once a term simply denoting the woman in charge of something, has now become irreversibly linked to sex, and not only that but relationships, like that of Emma and Brown, are made implicitly about sex and with the understanding that it isn't a partnership.

Mistress of None

And then, the lover sighing like furnace... (1883) Charles Seton

Is it too loaded a word for us to use now?  Leaving aside the rights and wrongs with messing about with married men, what does it say about our use of language that we have changed the meaning of a word to say something derogatory about women?  Even if we seem to be able to apply the term, without prejudice, to a woman in the past, once into the 19th century it becomes synonymous with sexually-available, bought woman, and not the coy-romance of the gentleman in the picture above who is sighing like a furnace 'with a woeful ballad made to his mistress' eyebrow'. In those terms, she is mistress of his heart, and possibly that window seat. It seems we have become quick to downplay not only women's role in relationships but the strength and meaning of those relationships.  It could be argued that there is a moral implication against the man who has a mistress that is not present in, for example, 'boyfriend and girlfriend'. Mind you, once you get past a certain age, it's hard to describe your partner as your 'boyfriend' if he has gray hair.  We need better words.
Now, what is the word for a single man having an affair with a married woman?  Okay, we all need to behave ourselves until we have this sorted out...

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