It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a mistress. Oh, and if he lives in the UK, he can then get a super-injunction to keep her quiet. That's because in Britain, where sexual hypocrisy reigns supreme and infidelity is still nominally 'forbidden', the mistress remains a figure of fear, a threat to the status quo. Hard to believe that elsewhere mistresses are often viewed more as a perk than a threat.
“The chain of wedlock is so heavy that it takes two people to carry it – and sometimes three,” wrote Alexandre Dumas, acknowledging that mistresses carry out a valuable social service, often shoring up a marriage rather than undermining it. What the French understand is that a mistress has power only when she can subvert the existing order. As soon as she is given a status of her own, the potential for subversion disappears and she is no longer a danger. The key, it seems, is discretion. As long-married President Chirac put it: “There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible.”
Taking a mistress used to be considered an integral part of a boy's well-rounded education, like learning to read music, or conversational Latin. Tolstoy, who penned the original mistress memoir, Anna Karenina, claimed to have been encouraged to take a mistress by a beloved aunt who told him: “Nothing educates a young man better than an affair with a woman established in society.”
While this emancipated attitude only extends to the male of the species, it's a step up from prevailing attitudes here and in the US, where the Madonna/whore classification is still alive and well and living in the Daily Mail. When the Tiger Woods scandal broke, wife Elin Nordegren was usually photographed looking dignified and long-suffering, often with her arms full of small cherubic children, while the mistresses (count 'em) were all either bursting out of bikinis or looking hatchet-faced and crazed.
Because of this rigid dichotomy, there can be no middle ground wherein wife and mistress might nod a stiff acknowledgement. The mistress remains an outsider, a threat to home and hearth. That's why our favourite mistress of all time is Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, that cautionary tale for the Aids generation, with its clear message – stay faithful or you endanger yourself, your family and even poor Flopsy.
Nowhere is our national talent for the double standard more accurately reflected than in our attitude to mistresses. We all found it hysterical when Chilean miner Yonni Barrios requested that both his wife and his mistress be present at his rescue – oh those passionate Latin types! But homegrown mistresses are given far shorter shrift. After the outing of her affair with Prince Charles, it was open season on Camilla Parker Bowles, despite the fact that Britain has a rich history of royal mistresses, from Nell Gwynne to Lillie Langtry.
The problem was that Camilla, and more recently MP Chris Huhne's new love, belong to that select group of mistresses for whom we reserve the most scorn – those who don't even have the grace to be more attractive than the wife. While we disapprove of mistresses, we nevertheless expect them to conform to stereotype – clad in satin and stilettos and forever painting their nails while waiting for the phone to ring. A mistress clearly not chosen for her looks is the most threatening of all, implying a genuine bond, not one based on sex or money.
Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, in which a shrewd mistress immerses herself in her lover's boring business affairs, thus freeing up the wife to go spectacularly and luxuriously off the rails. Surely a win-win situation?
The Mistress's Revenge by Tamar Cohen ( Doubleday) is out now