Is this your first self-interview?

Yes and no. It’s the first time I’ve ever been asked to create an entire interview but it’s been my experience that most interviewers (who aren’t me) end by asking: “Is there anything else you’d like to add? Have I missed anything important?” So I’ve actually contributed at least one question to zillions of interviews.

And that’s not all. I’m also in the habit of asking myself questions as I cycle or swim; remind me to buy a fake earpiece so onlookers assume I’m speaking on a cellphone and don’t call the men in white uniforms (with straitjackets and handcuffs in their pockets) to take me away.


Are you enjoying this self-interview?

I am! It seems to be going much better than I’d anticipated. I was really nervous about whether or not I could answer my questions.


Is there any question people frequently ask you about your Mistresses book?

Yes! Why wasn’t so-and-so wasn’t included in my book?


For example?

For example, Lou Andreas-Salome, identified by one writer as “the most notorious woman in the intellectual world of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Europe. Rilke and Neitzsche had both courted Lou, and Nietzsche who did not generally think much of women, went so far as to ask Lou to marry him…”


Okay, and why wasn’t Lou Andreas-Salome included?

For the same and very good reason that hundreds – make that thousands – were not. Space! Mistresses is very long and I had to make brutal decisions about whom to include. I wanted each of my stories to have some depth, so that each woman’s story – and her lover’s – would resonate with readers. In the end, I had to scrap as much research as I used; my book shelves were full of notes and stories about scores of mistresses who didn’t make it into my book. I used to say that if anybody wanted to write another book about mistresses, I could give them all the research they could possibly need.

Here is my lament about this very issue, found in the Introduction: “So many mistresses, and concubines too, with so many stories! Slowly, I chose the women in each category who would best illustrate the various themes and subtexts I had begun to discern in the mass of research material. The triage was difficult as I excised woman after woman, at first gingerly and then more ruthlessly. Slowly, an entire bookcase filled up with my often fascinating rejects—Lady Emma Hamilton! Diane de Poitiers! George Sand! Coco Chanel!—victims of redundancy and space, and of my decision to focus on individuals. But what a cast of survivors, each with a story that is unique yet at the same time links her with so many other women. They come from all times and places, and from every class, caste, color and condition. They are aristocrats and slaves, wives, mothers and spinsters, and they are lodged in huts and harems, houses and mansions. Some are famous, usually because of their relationships, while others can only be coaxed back to life through the reminiscences of their lovers and others or from official documents. What all these women have in common is that they have been either mistresses or concubines. This book is about their experiences and their special stories. What makes each woman important in this book is the unique way in which her life story reflects and sheds light on the multifaceted institution of mistressdom.”


Who is your favourite mistress? (You’re allowed to have more than one.)

Probably Emilie de Chatelet and Phibbah. Both are 18th century women but their circumstances couldn’t be more different. Emilie (permit me to use her first name; I spent weeks reading and writing about her intimate life, and feel that this familiarity is appropriate) was both brilliant and generous, with a scholarly passion and physical lusts that shaped her life in extraordinary ways. I’ve included a short excerpt about her life as Voltaire’s mistress below. Some readers will be satisfied with it, others will want to read the much longer section in the book.

I’ve done the same with Phibbah’s story and provided a brief excerpt from the book. Phibbah was an enslaved cook on a Jamaican sugar estate and became the mistress of her overseer, expatriate Briton Thomas Thistlewood. Their relationship endured for thirty-four years, until his death, and produced a son they raised together. Because Thistlewood kept a comprehensive journal that included details of his sexual encounters, we know a great deal about their intimate life. I’ll quote myself here: “The relationship was deeply erotic and volatile. They had sex several times a week, including when Phibbah was menstruating. They quarreled, often because Phibbah was jealous about Thomas’s infidelities with other slave women.”


What draws you to these women’s stories?

They were intelligent, ambitious and passionate women who sought to circumvent the constraints of their era and circumstances, and to a large extent they succeeded.


Are there any mistresses who have anomalous stories?

There are, indeed. Lola Montez, as she called herself (her real name was Eliza Gilbert), seduced the aging King Ludwig of Bavaria though she only allowed him to suck her toes. Despite this restriction, Ludwig fell obsessively in love with Lola and in the end abdicated the throne because of their relationship. Showing not the slightest remorse or concern, Lola dumped him and ended up in the United States, where she earned her living lecturing about her career as a mistress. She also justified her stranger-than-fiction behaviour as “one woman going forth in independence and power of self-reliant strength to assert her own individuality, and to defend, with whatever means God has given her, her right to a just portion of the earth’s privileges”—including, evidently, Ludwig’s.


Is there a common denominator among mistresses?

Yes. Despite vast differences of era, culture, circumstances and personalities, there are a few common denominators that could also be described as occupational hazards. Mistresses faced tremendous personal insecurity and could lose their privileged positions whenever their lover tired or them or found a prettier, sexier or more appealing woman. Mistresses faced social opprobrium and were scorned as whores; few of them could overcome the stigma of their status. The institution of mistressdom pitted woman against woman, and the mistress usually faced-off against her lover’s wife and children. Her own children with her lover were considered bastards, and like her, had no legal claim on their father.


Wow! That’s quite a contrast with the stereotype of mistresses that most people seem to have, of glamorous woman in silk negligees, smoking cigarettes or nibbling chocolates in the comfort of luxurious suites as they wait for their lover to arrive and take them to bed. On that note, what do you think about the choice of international covers? How do they reflect different cultural values about mistresses?

What a fascinating question! I’m so glad I asked it. Well, I haven’t seen them all, but here are my impressions of those I have. The American, Canadian and U.K. covers portray naked women barely covered by their bedclothes, their faces soft with sleep. They are young and lovely, and alone, perhaps lonely; their absent lovers are nowhere to be seen. The French cover is a backside view of a sweetly coy young strawberry blonde nude leaning against a sofa. The Greeks chose a dramatic image of a glowering beauty whose posture suggests intense emotion and perhaps a dagger in her hand. The Italian hardcover offers a quartet of mistresses: Maria Callas, Camilla Parker Bowles, Jeanne Hébuterne and Madame de Pompadour; the Best Seller sticker decorates Callas’ chest. In the paperback version, a majestic single mistress graces the cover. She gazes over her bare shoulder, her expression enigmatic. Despite her nudity she is beautifully groomed with rouged lips and an intricately-designed headdress. The Serbian cover is a clever riff on the theme of the A History of Celibacy cover, which features a single pair of shoes carelessly shucked off at a bedside.  Mistresses suggests illicit sex with the simple photograph of a seated couple pressed closely together, her high heels dangling next to his bare feet.


Which do you like best?

That changes all the time. I’m always astonished at how cover designers go about their work. And if you ever ask me about the covers of A History of Celibacy, I’ll go wild! They’re even more spectacular and imaginative!


I’d like to ask ….

Enough! I’m longing for a cup of tea and then I need to get back to work writing another book. Thank you so much for this interview.


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ELIZABETH ABBOTT is a senior research associate at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and, from 1991 to 2004, was the dean of women. She is the author of several books, including Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Haiti: A Shattered Nation, A History of Marriage and A History of Celibacy. She lives in Toronto.

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