words: Mistress

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The Independent Online
"Injured mistress phones Charles", said the Daily Mail's strapline over its story about Camilla Parker Bowles's car crash, while the Sun, at its third mention of her, called her "the royal mistress". This has an archaic ring. Only the likes of kings, princes and governors have mistresses nowadays. The common male populace make do with girlfriends or lovers, or with what their wives call Someone Else and vulgar friends a Bit on the Side. There is something demeaning about being described as a mistress (it used to be "kept woman"). It carries the danger of having to admit that you're mostly free at weekends.

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 Bagnall