Book review: Siren voices on the side

The Mistress by Victoria Griffin Bloomsbury, pounds 18.99, 320pp
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The Independent Culture
VICTORIA GRIFFIN is, she says, a "committed mistress". She has put together a volume of "histories, myths and interpretations of the other woman". Her primary reason, she explains, was "self-examination". Using Jung, Freud, Greek myths and social science, and with enough delicacy and prevarication to make clear that she knows she is on dodgy ground, she defines a "mistress-type", and says the successful mistress knows the difference between loving and possessing. So far, so good.

Griffin offers an array of mistresses from history, myth and fiction: Rebecca West, Camille Claudel, Gwen John, Heloise, George Eliot, "O" from The Story of..., Lara from Doctor Zhivago, and nymphs and minor goddesses (including Callisto, who was raped, which I don't think qualifies her as her rapist's mistress, even if he is Zeus). The stories are interesting - it's nice to learn that a French queen drilled a hole in the floor to spy on her husband's mistress's sexual techniques - but a postmodern whimsy in the telling is not always successful.

A fictional conversation between Lara, "O" and Dinah from Rosamund Lehmann's The Echoing Grove also lays bare a recurrent problem: the tendency throughout for wives to be bossy, harassed, envious, resentful and conventional, whereas mistresses are free, brave, open to suffering and passion, "free to deny the imperatives that others obey". Lara says: "I don't know whether our kind of intensity can be translated to normal family life." "Madeleine [the wife] was... somehow limited," says "O". "Whereas you, Dinah, are mysterious, difficult, not quite respectable, and you exert a fascination, both sexual and emotional." Dinah says: "Their parting... keeps their love at that high level, there is no chance of it descending into the ordinary, of growing stale."

And so on, and so on. For all her careful observations, for all her wide reading and determination not to be dogmatic, Griffin obviously shares their views. I suspect that, as a "committed mistress", Griffin actually knows very little about marriage and its possibilities.

For all her talk about wives, children and family hardly get a look in. Children are assumed to be a burden, something to make wives boring, something men need to escape. A wife who insists on a career clearly has no time for "the tales of her husband's day... the glass of wine, the soothing music, the sympathetic ear. So who steps in to the breach? The mistress, of course." No consideration that the husband hitting the Chardonnay round at the mistress's house after work is not engaging in family life, when family life might be hugely rewarding to him, his wife and the children that they have produced.

Much is made of living and loving "unconventionally" (as if the mistress were not a conventional figure). Griffin argues convincingly against marriage, particularly against a creative woman marrying a creative man. But this assumes again that there is only one kind of marriage - a boring, stifling one - and that mistressdom or celibacy is the only alternative. "The truth the lover tells his mistress," we are told, "bears the same relation to the truth he tells his wife as the truth of poetry to the truth of prose." Really? Always?

To pretend that mistresses are criticised for individualism avoids the major criticism - of deception. Deception is the moral problem that modern life has with mistresses. In an age and culture where very few people "have" to get married, where nobody is forced to promise to cleave them only unto the other, it is even more important that those vows when made should mean something. We all know that telling lies and breaking promises to those you love wrecks relationships, homes and self-respect. Mistresses know this too, which explains their strong tendency to self-examination and its evil twin, self-justification.

Three statements stand out in this book, wide-ranging and articulate as it is. "Human beings are infinitely gifted in self-deception and... I am no exception"; and "I do not expect to be congratulated for what I have revealed of myself in this book... because people like me frighten those who live by conventional codes of behaviour" (yeah, yeah). Then there is the confession that, were her lover to ask her, she would marry him. She said it, and she gave it away.