Once upon a time, great men’s mistresses were formidable figures in their own right. Bathsheba, who first caught King David’s eye while bathing outside his palace, led him into adultery, murder, and—for flouting the Ten Commandments—God’s disfavor. It was Helen’s decision to ditch her husband, the king of Sparta, for a prince from Troy that “launched a thousand ships” and triggered the Trojan War. To protect Egypt from the rising tide of Roman expansionism, Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Louis XV’s favored subjects shaped French foreign policy: In 1744, the Duchesse de Châteauroux persuaded her royal lover to contract an alliance with Prussia against Austria; just over a decade later, the Marquise de Pompadour lobbied effectively for the reverse. Daisy Greville, an aristocratic mistress of Britain’s Edward VII, supported the Russian Revolution, spent her fortune on programs for the underprivileged, and ran—unsuccessfully—for Parliament. These women didn’t just win hearts; they moved mountains.
By comparison, our culture’s latest crop of famous gal pals are an underwhelming bunch who seem to confirm Karl Marx’s wry adage about history repeating itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” (Compare, if you will, Cleopatra’s asp with Monica Lewinsky’s stained Gap dress. Questions?) Even when they involve such high-placed honchos as Bill Clinton, John Edwards, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, these entanglements are long on tawdriness, short on statecraft. Apart from illicit sex acts and illegitimate children, the likes of Lewinsky, Rielle Hunter (Edwards’s former campaign videographer), and Mildred Baena (Schwarzenegger’s former housekeeper) have accomplished little of consequence. To the extent that they’ve played any public role at all, it’s been that of the cheap tabloid heroine.
This sorry state of affairs applies to the mistresses not just of politicians but also of entertainment and sports stars. What has Michelle McGee, Jesse James’s home-wrecking stripper of choice, ever achieved besides posing in Nazi regalia and getting a lot of tattoos? Does the fact that one of Charlie Sheen’s porn-star “goddesses,” Bree Olson, won an industry award for Best Anal Sex Scene make her worthy of mainstream-media coverage? Or Sara Leal—what is she known for, other than being Ashton Kutcher’s alleged fling? How about Rachel Uchitel, Tiger Woods’s secret squeeze? After a stint on Celebrity Rehab, she is set to appear in a reality show about her new life as a private investigator. Will this be her cultural legacy?
By such measures, female lovers undercover haven’t come a long way, baby; they’ve done just the opposite. Perhaps the degradation of their position is a victory for feminism: Nowadays, bedding a prominent man no longer, thankfully, counts among an ambitious woman’s surefire steps to success. At least in theory, women have educational and professional opportunities that obviate the need for such indirect and atavistic paths to power. The machinations of the boudoir look pointless, if not downright pathetic, when weighed against a Harvard MBA.
But even in our equal-opportunity era, mistresses can and do have an earth-shattering impact on one notable, if far less visible, domain: marriage. Though infidelity is a spectrum rather than a fixed notion, with one-night stands at one end and sustained, clandestine relationships at the other, the latter are particularly crushing because they mimic the very bond they betray. Like a wife, a mistress develops erotic and emotional intimacy with her lover; like a wife, she participates with him in scheduling, making vacation plans, even real estate decisions; like a wife, she may also receive money from him and have babies with him. (Prime examples here are the Schwarzenegger and Edwards love children, as well as the secret longtime mistress and the adult daughter of the late French President François Mitterrand, who caused a stir when they appeared at his funeral alongside his wife and “legitimate” children.)
The discovery of a mistress, then, shatters the wife’s conviction that the privileges and commitments of conjugal life belong to her alone. Unbeknownst to her, her husband has spent months, maybe even years, ducking into and out of a parallel universe of love and support. What’s more, to sustain his shadowy pseudo-marriage, he has had to lie to his wife so often, so consistently, and so inventively that once his charade is exposed, everything he has ever said or done becomes retroactively suspect. This is why a mistress doesn’t have to be Helen of Troy to bring a whole world to ruin. With her lover’s complicity, she lays waste to that microcosmic but precious world in which spouses can rely on each other’s integrity, truthfulness, and mutual devotion.
In this sense, the physical destruction that Western literature’s betrayed wives so often resort to can be understood as not just a stand-in for, but an actual consequence of, their psychological devastation. This certainly applies to the women who, in classical mythology, made the mistake of marrying itinerant lady-killers, like Jason (of Golden Fleece fame) and Aeneas (the Trojan Prince Paris’s brother), for whom fidelity was as inconceivable as a day without armed combat. In his Heroides, the Roman poet Ovid, by adopting their spouses’ point of view, highlights the damage these serial philanderers wreak. Here, Hypsipyle, Queen of Lemnos and the mother of two of Jason’s children, hints at her own imminent demise when she asks him: “Where is your promised fidelity? Where are the marriage oath, the torches that might better be used now to light my funeral pyre?” Her death, she stresses, would merely be the logical extension of the emotional loss she has been forced to sustain. Referencing Jason’s new girlfriend, his distraught consort pursues this line of thinking: “Is it she for whom you left Hypsipyle and your wedding bed? While the bond that made me yours and made you mine was given chastely, she is yours in shame…But if sin means more to you than piety, and if she won you with a dowry of crime, then I ask, does anything matter?”
Does anything matter? The void a cheating husband creates is above all an existential one: It strips his wife of everything that did matter to her in their union—the pledges, the plans, the promise of bonding as a pair—and leaves behind nothing but heartbreak. And although this may sound retrograde—in theory, of course, women should always define their lives by more than mere conjugal commitment—at the level of raw emotion, it holds true.
How do I know? Well, as I’m presently going through a divorce, I cannot legally disclose any of my personal thoughts on the matter. As a professor of French literature and history, though, I can point out that even in a culture as consistently associated with mistresses as it is with baguettes, berets, and Birkin bags, a man’s faithlessness can be a shattering setback for his wife. Exhibit A: Maria Leczinska, Louis XV’s unhappy Polish-born queen. Less than a year after their marriage in 1725, the king took up with the first of his extracurricular favorites. In response, his once vivacious companion, according to a 19th-century historical account of Louis XV’s women, “hid herself away and gave herself over to sadness…she made a kind of virtue of starting to look old and indeed willingly let herself grow old; she eliminated from her wardrobe all the gay, flirty touches of the young woman she was…[she] trembled and stammered in her role as queen, like a frigid old nun who had fled from her convent to Versailles.”
For Exhibit B, I give you no less an enlightened figure than the French feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, who had the good sense to never marry her own famously skirt-chasing lover Jean-Paul Sartre. Like Sartre, de Beauvoir was interested in the question of how people create meaning for themselves in a universe that, from an existentialist perspective, is fundamentally absurd. For the eponymous heroine of de Beauvoir’s 1967 novella La Femme Rompue (The Broken Wife), the news that her husband has a mistress erases all the constructs and reference points that had previously enabled her to make sense of the world and her place in it: “I used to think I knew who I was, who he was, and suddenly I don’t recognize us, neither him nor me…My entire life, as I’ve led it up to this moment, has crumbled, like in those earthquakes where the very ground devours itself and vanishes beneath your feet while you’re making your escape. There is no turning back. The house has disappeared, along with the village and the valley in which it stood. Even if you survive, nothing is left. Not even the place on the planet you used to call your own.”
When we speak, then, of a home wrecker, this is what the woman in question is wrecking: a physical, emotional, and existential safe house that a wife inhabits with the man she believes she can trust, who indeed has sworn to honor that trust. Whether high-minded, like the Marquise de Pompadour, or lowbrow, like McGee, she takes the wife’s proprietary, connubial pronoun—“our” love, “our” future, “our” relationship—and makes it her own. Trust me: It packs a devastating punch. It feels, just as de Beauvoir writes, like utter defeat, like irreparable ruin.
That said, to dwell solely on the mistress’s triumph is to forget that she has achieved it with the straying husband’s full complicity—and that it is he, and not his girlfriend, who made mincemeat of a sacred truth. It is his integrity more than anyone else’s that has been weighed and found wanting. In this crucial respect, as awful as it is, the other woman’s victory over the wife is ultimately a Pyrrhic one, for the prize she has won is of questionable value. As I learned from one of the more popular examples in the ever expanding genre of mistress jokes: “When a woman steals your husband, there is no better revenge than to let her keep him.”
Agnes Sorel: The Bridgeman Art Library International