It was for obvious romantic reasons that mistresses got the name. In its general sense, as the feminine of master, it had meant the woman in charge. A poetically inclined husband could then declare that though his wife was mistress of his house, there was another who was mistress of his heart. This did not imply actual sex. The point about Marvell's Coy Mistress was that she was still unbedded, and the lover in Jaques's monologue would surely not have been making a woeful ballad to his mistress's eyebrow if he'd managed to see the rest of her.
Only in the 19th century did the mistress-as-ruler idea lose its glamour, when she became, however well housed in her St John's Wood love-nest, a mere dependant. Later, she was to become a bit of a joke. In 1970 or thereabouts the Association of Assistant Mistresses was seriously considering changing its name, the giggling having got too much for some of them. (They eventually got their wish, and are now part of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.) In a further story, the Mail wrote of Charles's desire to have Camilla "accepted as his lifelong companion rather than his mistress", and no doubt she feels the same. Some of Charles II's mistresses had a degree of political power, but those days are over.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content