Monday, July 21, 2008

Royal Mistresses: Defining Their Own Destinies

Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine

A couple of months ago I wrote an article for a web site that focuses on women's empowerment issues. The site's creator, Barrie-Louise Switzen, was interested to know how royal mistresses' lives tied in with her theme. I maintain that in many cases royal mistresses had more options open to them than the queens whose connubial prerogatives they usurped . . .

One thing that struck me as I researched the lives of the royal mistresses who are profiled in ROYAL AFFAIRS was that for the most part, these women were not “victims” who were thrust into compromising relationships with men they didn’t love. On the contrary, they were clever women who, given the legal and social constraints on females during their day, had the rare opportunity to shape their own destiny—and grabbed it with both hands.

Now, I can’t say that many of the mistresses I “met” during my research were “nice girls.” Many of them were greedy and grasping, with their hands in the treasury, the privy purse, and the pockets of those who sought to gain patronage from their royal lovers. King George I had two German mistresses who exemplify this type. Lady Castlemaine, one of Charles II’s favorite mistresses and the mother of several of his children was renowned for her relentless greed. But that’s not to say that these women didn’t passionately—and occasionally too passionately—adore their men. And, no matter whether you’d want to have lunch with them, these women—all of them—were significantly more empowered in their day than just about any other women of their era, including the queen-consorts, their “rivals” for the monarch’s affection. In general, a queen-consort was little more than a well-dressed womb whose job was to produce the requisite “heir and a spare” and remain otherwise chaste, maintaining a stainless reputation in order to avoid all suspicion that her children might not have been spawned by her husband, the sovereign.

Nell Gwyn

Some of the women profiled in ROYAL AFFAIRS had careers of their own before they met their royal lovers. Nell Gwyn, Mary Robinson, and Dorothy Jordan were the most celebrated actresses of their day. However, they lived during a time when being an “actress” (even if you performed the works of Shakespeare and other “serious” dramatists) was tantamount to being a prostitute. Actresses displayed their bodies on the public stage—for money! They were notoriously considered loose-moraled, supplementing their salaries on the gifts (monetary and otherwise) that came from their various “admirers.” But my research into royal affairs led me to a great hypocrisy, which should not have surprised me, I suppose, yet as an actress myself, it made me shiver with anger.

The double-standard I discovered was that acting was considered a disgraceful profession for the reasons I cited above, yet the royals thought nothing of (even if they were married—or if the actress was married), consummating a passionate and frequently adulterous affair with them. However, if they wished to become the prince’s or king’s mistress—before such extra-connubial canoodling could take place, the actresses were requested by their royal lovers to put aside their “disgraceful” and “shameful” profession—the career that had gained these women recognition and renown (as well as an independent income—a rare thing for a woman before the 20th century).

Mary Robinson

My Forward to ROYAL AFFAIRS includes a paragraph about royal mistresses and how many of them they were able to parlay their unusual opportunity into a life-changing event:
And what of the mistresses? During the earlier, and more brutal, eras of British history, a woman didn’t have much (if any) choice if the king exercised his droit de seigneur and decided to take her to bed. Often, girls were little more than adolescents when their ambitious parents shoved them under the monarch’s nose. However, most of the mistresses in Royal Affairs were not innocent victims of a parent’s political agenda or a monarch’s rampaging lust. They were clever, accomplished, often ambitious women, not always in the first bloom of youth and not always baseborn, who cannily parlayed the only thing they had—their bodies—into extravagant wealth and notoriety, if not outright fame. In many cases, their royal bastards were ennobled by the king, making excellent marriages and living far better than their mothers could have otherwise provided. Eventually taking their place in the House of Lords, the mistresses’ illegitimate sons went on to become the decision makers who shaped an empire and spawned the richest and most powerful families in Britain.

Having talked about other women’s stories, I’d like to share my own with you. I spent many years in “pink collar” jobs making other people money before becoming a full-time writer and my own boss. I worked in several fields, including journalism, marketing, and law. When I toiled for lawyers, I was usually employed by solo practitioners. More often than not I was their legal secretary, legal assistant, receptionist, bookkeeper, and office manager. I ate lunch over my keyboard. I took home barely enough money to make ends meet. Scratch that—I dipped deep into my savings to support myself, even as a single woman in NYC living in a rent-stabilized apartment. I got my assignments done as quickly, thoroughly, and efficiently as possible, so I could leave myself time in the workday to write. Thank God for Windows programs where one can quickly switch screens! My employers never had cause to complain about my work ethic or my output—though of course when I left the jobs they would cite my writing during business hours as an issue! Naturally, I challenged them on this point: if they knew what I was doing and had a problem with it, why, during the entire course of my employment, had they never raised the subject?

In June, 2003, I was downsized from a secretarial position I’d held for half a year, By that date I had had two novels published and another one in the editorial pipeline. In fact book #3, TEMPORARY INSANITY, was about my experiences in day-job hell. But rather than jump back into the survival-job pool and seek a new position working for yet another boss who undervalued my skills or company that had made me feel miserable, and had systematically sapped my soul, I chose to become the mistress of my own destiny. I decided that come hell or high water, from then on I would make my living as a writer. I would enrich myself, literally and spiritually for the first time in my life. Serendipity had offered me the chance to choose to follow my bliss.

And I did. This year, 2008, my 10th and 11th novels were published. I have written 7 works of contemporary women’s fiction under my own name, and 4 works of historical fiction under the pen name Amanda Elyot—all of which have been published since 2002. ROYAL AFFAIRS marks my nonfiction debut and I have just entered an agreement with my publisher for another nonfiction book, currently titled NOTORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES. This volume will spotlight many of Europe’s most famous royal couples (including Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Ferdinand and Isabella, and Napoleon and Josephine—up through the centuries all the way to the marriage of Charles and Camilla—seen through the prism of the wife’s point of view).

I’m my own boss now. I make my own hours, and you have no idea how fabulous it feels to be finally enjoying a fulfilling career (instead of a frustrating job). And sometimes I like to joke that instead of all my hard work making some jerky boss rich, now I’m the “jerk” who gets to enjoy the fruits of my labors.

I can’t emphasize enough that any woman at any stage in her life can take charge of her destiny and pursue her passion, no matter how long she has neglected it, or her own needs. Impractical? Imprudent? Unrealistic? Unattainable? Somehow, once a woman sets her mind and focuses her energies on empowering and enriching herself, the economics seem to take care of themselves.


Eliza Knight said...

Great post! I'm so happy for you that you are finally your own "jerk." lol

I just finished reading your book ROYAL AFFAIRS! It was awesome! I learned so many interesting things in there, like people alive today who are related to royals, and I was just as appalled at the excerpt about Dora Jordan from THE LIFE AND TIMES OF WILLIAM IV. How sad!

I also found it fascinating that the law about adultery and treason was still on the books and could result in beheading.

Absolutely fascinating! I recommended it to my class that I'm teaching right now about the Tudors.

Congrats! I can't wait to read the one on royal marriages!

Leslie Carroll said...

Eliza, I want to thank YOU so much for the fantastic review you gave the book on the Romantic Inks blog. (And by the way, you have the most gorgeous website I have ever seen).

There were a couple of entries that made me cry as I wrote them. The one on Dora Jordan and the future William IV was in fact one of them. I had a line at the end of that entry that my editor made me cut because she thought it was too much "editorial comment" on my part and I should just relate the story and leave out my personal feelings. The original last line of that entry did reflect my anger at how poorly Dora was treated by William, but even more so by how the Victorian-era biography of William IV had just that one sentence reference to the "distasteful" relationship he had "with an actress" -- hey no matter that they were more or less a married couple for 2 decades (!!) I'd written something along the lines of "It almost makes you want to throw the potted fern against the flocked wallpaper."

The other entry that made me cry as I wrote it was the one on Nell Gwyn and Charles II.

I think that because I'm also an actress I really feel for what those women went through. Same with Mary Robinson.

Anonymous said...

Whores are whores, these were not "clever" women.

They were malicious, grasping, greedy, and downright cruel at times.
Note: Louise de Keroualle worked to get James, Duke of York sent into exile in which time his baby daughter died. Nice....

Nell Gwynne was also just a low-class, scheming whore who wasn't as kind and witty as popular opinion wouldn't suggest. She was also having a lesbian love affair with her own pimp!

Misty Atutumn said...

Anonymous - No whores are not whores, when these women were around there were rarely any options for a women to make her way in the world besides marrying the right man, if you were lucky enough to afford that. Marriage was usually a contract, not love. Being a mistress to a wealthy man was one way a woman could secure a decent life for not only herself but her children. It is by no means what it is today, today women have the right to a education and employment and don't have to result to the measures they once were.

Leslie Carroll said...

Thanks for that post, Misty! And thanks again for visiting the blog!

You definitely understand the very different way the world worked for women during the eras I explored in ROYAL AFFAIRS. And I would venture a guess that in some corners of the world today, where educational opportunities are not quite the same, a clever and pretty woman might still find a form of courtesanry to be her best option.

The comment before yours contained so many assertions for which I have never seen any proof (in addition to what you so eloquently contradicted) that all I could think was "??"

As the late great NY senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan loved to say, "You're entitled to your own opinion [first paragraph of Anonymous's comment, though I disagree with it], but not to your own facts [the balance of the comment]"