That bit of fluff has her place in family life, says Angela Lambert
First, the hoo-ha over Camilla Parker Bowles hots up, then a ghoulish squabble about who has territorial rights over the body of Ken Dunn. You might not think so, but this has been a good week for mistresses.

It is a week in which, paradoxically, the figure of the mistress has emerged as that of a strong woman, not invariably a wronged one. The Edwardian stereotype of the mistress as a little bit of fluff (usually former fluff gone distinctly mangy), kept by her lover in clandestine obscurity, awaiting his visits, alone at weekends, Christmas and holidays - that figure is almost a thing of the past. Occasionally one will surface, wailing that after decades of keeping his guilty secret, her MP or judge or captain of industry has died and, despite all his promises, she has been left nothing.

But most mistresses nowadays keep their wits about them and revel in their position as the loved one. Who would you rather be: Princess Diana or Camilla Parker Bowles? The heir-bearer or the inspiration, the comforter, the refuge from the world's buffeting?

I have a friend who, after having waited years for her lover to divorce his wife, suddenly came to her senses and stopped issuing futile ultimatums. "She is his duty and I'm his passion," this woman said, "and I know now which of us is the lucky one."

Take Ken Dunn, a 51-year-old roofing contractor (mistresses are not confined to the rich) who died in the arms of his mistress, Jean Cooper, after an 18-year affair. There are all sorts of unexpected elements to this case.

The mistress was older than Mr Dunn by five years, and older than his wife as well. So much for the firm-limbed, peach-skinned bimbo of popular imagination. The wife and mistress looked remarkably similar, with square-boned faces and heavy spectacles. Finally, his wife had known about and tolerated the mistress for 16 years. No secrets, no mystery, no potential for blackmail here.

Although his wife got the estate (worth £65,000, less the cost of the legal battle over his grave: roughly £12,000 each so far), the mistress's rights were upheld in court. No longer is a marriage certificate proof of possession.

Once that is acknowledged, the phenomenon of serial marriages may begin to decline. This would be all to the good, for every failed marriage and new spouse brings the inevitable, sad train of one-parent children and a web of complicated, painful step-relationships.

Certainly no one should be condemned to the misery and loneliness of a loveless marriage; but equally, children should not have to suffer the consequences of their parents' inability to live together. It is better for the man to keep a constant mistress but at the same time to retain a place as head of his own household.

It is a sign of maturity that women are learning that this three-sided relationship can be made to work. The wife has stability and legal status: the joint appearances at family occasions. The mistress has the company and love of the man whom she no longer hopes to marry. And the children have an upbringing presided over by both parents.

One side effect of this will be that a mistress will also need two strings to her bow. She can no longer take it for granted that her lover will pay for his guilty secret by keeping her financially. She must have her own life, friends, job and source of support. And if the outcome is that a new man supplants the lover, a man who is prepared to go the whole hog and give her marriage and motherhood ... well, that would be a good thing for mistresses, too.