Mistress (lover)

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Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV of France, circa 1750 Francois Boucher 019.jpg
Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV of France, circa 1750

A mistress is a woman who is in a relatively long-term sexual and romantic relationship with a man who is married to a different woman. [1] [2]



A mistress is in a long-term relationship with her attached lover, and is often referred to as "the other woman". Generally, the relationship is stable and at least semi-permanent, but the couple does not live together openly and the relationship is usually, but not always, secret. There is often also the implication that the mistress is sometimes "kept" i.e. her lover is contributing to her living expenses. [3] [4]

A mistress is usually not considered a prostitute: while a mistress, if "kept", may, in some sense, be exchanging sex for money, the principal difference is that a mistress has sex with fewer men and there is not so much of a direct quid pro quo between the money and the sex act. There is usually an emotional and possibly social relationship between a man and his mistress, whereas the relationship between a prostitute and their client is predominantly monetary. It is also important that the "kept" status follows the establishment of a relationship of indefinite term as opposed to the agreement on price and terms established prior to any activity with a prostitute. [5]

Historically the term has denoted a "kept woman", who was maintained in a comfortable (or even lavish) lifestyle by a wealthy man so that she would be available for his sexual pleasure (like a "sugar baby"). Such a woman could move between the roles of a mistress and a courtesan depending on her situation and environment.

In modern times, the word "mistress" is used primarily to refer to the female lover of a man who is married to another woman; in the case of an unmarried man, it is usual to speak of a "girlfriend" or "partner".

The term "mistress" was originally used as a neutral feminine counterpart to "mister" or "master". [3]


Eugene Delacroix's c. 1825 painting Louis d'Orleans Showing His Mistress Delacroix, Eugene Ferdinand Victor - Louis d'Orleans Showing his Mistress - 1825-26.jpg
Eugène Delacroix's c.1825 painting Louis d'Orléans Showing His Mistress
Domitila de Castro, long-term mistress of Emperor Pedro I of Brazil Amaral-domitila-MHN.jpg
Domitila de Castro, long-term mistress of Emperor Pedro I of Brazil

The historically best known and most-researched mistresses are the royal mistresses of European monarchs, for example, Agnès Sorel, Diane de Poitiers, Barbara Villiers, Nell Gwyn and Madame de Pompadour. [6] The keeping of a mistress in Europe was not confined to royalty and nobility, but permeated down through the social ranks, essentially to any man who could afford to do so. Any man who could afford a mistress could have one (or more), regardless of social position. A wealthy merchant or a young noble might have had a kept woman. Being a mistress was typically an occupation for a younger woman who, if she were fortunate, might go on to marry her lover or another man of rank. [7]

The ballad "The Three Ravens" (published in 1611, but possibly older) extolls the loyal mistress of a slain knight, who buries her dead lover and then dies of the exertion, as she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. The ballad-maker assigned this role to the knight's mistress ("leman" was the term common at the time) rather than to his wife. [8] [9]

In the courts of Europe, particularly Versailles and Whitehall in the 17th and 18th centuries, a mistress often wielded great power and influence. A king might have numerous mistresses, but have a single "favourite mistress" or "official mistress" (in French, maîtresse en titre ), as with Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. The mistresses of both Louis XV (especially Madame de Pompadour) and Charles II were often considered to exert great influence over their lovers, the relationships being open secrets. [10] Other than wealthy merchants and kings, Alexander VI is but one example of a Pope who kept mistresses. [11] While the extremely wealthy might keep a mistress for life (as George II of Great Britain did with "Mrs Howard", even after they were no longer romantically linked), such was not the case for most kept women. [12]

In 1736, when George II was newly ascendant, Henry Fielding (in Pasquin ) has his Lord Place say, "[...] but, miss, every one now keeps and is kept; there are no such things as marriages now-a-days, unless merely Smithfield contracts, and that for the support of families; but then the husband and wife both take into keeping within a fortnight". [13]

Occasionally the mistress is in a superior position both financially and socially to her lover. As a widow, Catherine the Great was known to have been involved with several successive men during her reign; but, like many powerful women of her era, in spite of being a widow free to marry, she chose not to share her power with a husband, preferring to maintain absolute power alone. [14]

In literature, D. H. Lawrence's 1928 novel Lady Chatterley's Lover portrays a situation where a woman becomes the mistress of her husband's gamekeeper. [15] Until recently, a woman's taking a socially inferior lover was considered much more shocking than the reverse situation.

20th century

As divorce became more socially acceptable, it was easier for men to divorce their wives and marry the women who, in earlier years, might have been their mistresses. The practice of having a mistress continued among some married men, especially the wealthy. Occasionally, men married their mistresses. The late Sir James Goldsmith, on marrying his mistress, Lady Annabel Birley, declared, "When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy". [16]

Male equivalent

For a male mistress, the term "mister" can be used.[ citation needed ] "Paramour" is sometimes used, but this term can apply to either partner in an illicit relationship, so it is not exclusively male. If the man is being financially supported, especially by a wealthy older woman, he is a "kept man". The term mister-ess has been suggested. [17] [ better source needed ]

In 18th and 19th-century Italy, the terms cicisbeo and cavalier servente were used to describe a man who was the professed gallant and lover of a married woman. Another word that has been used for a male mistress is gigolo , though this carries connotations of brief duration and expectation of payment, i.e. prostitution.[ citation needed ]

In literature

William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress, plate 2, from 1731 showing Moll Hackabout as a mistress Hogarth-Harlot-2.png
William Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress, plate 2, from 1731 showing Moll Hackabout as a mistress

In both John Cleland's 1748 novel Fanny Hill and Daniel Defoe's 1722 Moll Flanders , as well as in countless novels of feminine peril, the distinction between a "kept woman" and a prostitute is all-important. [18] [19]

Apologists for the practice of mistresses referred to the practice in the ancient Near East of keeping a concubine; they frequently quoted verses from the Old Testament to show that mistress-keeping was an ancient practice that was, if not acceptable, at least understandable. [20] John Dryden, in Annus Mirabilis , suggested that the king's keeping of mistresses and production of bastards was a result of his abundance of generosity and spirit. [21] In its more sinister form, the theme of being "kept" is never far from the surface in novels about women as victims in the 18th century in England, whether in the novels of Eliza Haywood or Samuel Richardson (whose heroines in Pamela and Clarissa are both put in a position of being threatened with sexual degradation and being reduced to the status of a kept object). [22]

With the Romantics of the early 19th century, the subject of "keeping" becomes more problematic, in that a non-marital sexual union can occasionally be celebrated as a woman's free choice and a noble alternative. Mary Ann Evans (better known as George Eliot) defiantly lived "in sin" with a married man, partially as a sign of her independence of middle-class morality. Her independence required that she not be "kept". [23] [24]

See also

Related Research Articles

Concubinage Sexual relationship in which the couple are not or cannot be married

Concubinage is an interpersonal and sexual relationship between a man and a woman in which the couple does not want to or cannot enter into a full marriage. When there is an inability or social discouragement for the couple to marry, it may be due to multiple factors such as differences in social rank status, an existing marriage, religious or professional prohibitions, or a lack of recognition by appropriate authorities.

Courtesan, in modern usage, is a euphemism for a "kept" mistress or prostitute, particularly one with wealthy, powerful, or influential clients. The term historically referred to a courtier, a person who attended the court of a monarch or other powerful person.

Madame de Pompadour Chief mistress of Louis XV of France

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, commonly known as Madame de Pompadour, was a member of the French court. She was the official chief mistress of Louis XV from 1745 to 1751, and remained influential as court favourite until her death.

<i>Forever Amber</i> 1944 novel by Kathleen Winsor

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Lady Title of address for a noble woman

The word lady is a term of respect for a girl or woman, the equivalent of gentleman. Once used to describe only women of a high social class or status, the female equivalent of lord, now it may refer to any adult woman. Informal use of this word is sometimes euphemistic or, in American slang, condescending.

Mrs. or Mrs is a commonly used English honorific for women, usually for those who are married and who do not instead use another title, such as Dr, ProfessorPresident, Dame, etc. In most Commonwealth countries, a full stop (period) is usually not used with the title. In the United States and Canada a period is usually used.

Spinster Unmarried woman, often older

Spinster is a term referring to an unmarried woman who is older than what is perceived as the prime age range during which women usually marry. It can also indicate that a woman is considered unlikely to ever marry. The term originally denoted a woman whose occupation was to spin. Reasons for a single woman becoming a spinster or spinner (of wool for instance) varied, often being the result of a young child or adolescent who was orphaned being indentured to an adult; who would then have certain legally defined responsibilities toward the child "in sickness and in health" such as feeding and clothing them, providing living quarters, teaching them to read and write, and apprenticing them in a trade such as "the art and calling of being a spinster". A synonymous but more pejorative term is old maid. The closest equivalent term for males is "bachelor" or "confirmed bachelor", but this generally does not carry the same pejorative connotations in reference to age and perceived desirability in marriage.

Demi-monde is French for "half-world". The term derives from a play called Le Demi-Monde, by Alexandre Dumas fils, published in 1855. The play dealt with the way that prostitution at that time threatened the institution of marriage. The demi-monde was the world occupied by elite men and the women who entertained them and whom they kept, the pleasure-loving and dangerous world Dumas immortalized in the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias and its many adaptations. Demimondaine became a synonym for a courtesan or a prostitute who moved in these circles—or for a woman of social standing with the power to thumb her nose at convention and throw herself into the hedonistic nightlife. A woman who made that choice would soon find her social status lost, as she became "déclassée". The 1958 film Gigi, based on a 1944 novella by Colette, vividly portrays the world of the demimonde near the end of its existence. Gigi's Aunt Alicia, a legendary courtesan now enjoying a wealthy retirement, trains her teenage niece in elegant manners and deportment and the value of jewels and tries to stir her interest in fashion, in order to prepare her for life in the demimonde, pleasing the gentlemen who will provide her with the means to live beautifully—or miserably.


In 18th- and 19th-century Italy, the cicisbeo or cavalier servente was the man who was the professed gallant or lover of a woman married to someone else. With the knowledge and consent of the husband, the cicisbeo attended his mistress at public entertainments, to church and other occasions, and had privileged access to this woman. The arrangement is comparable to the Spanish cortejo or estrecho and, to a lesser degree, to the French petit-maître. The exact etymology of the word is unknown; some evidence suggests it originally meant "in a whisper". Other accounts suggest it is an inversion of bel cece, which means "beautiful chick (pea)". According to OED, the first recorded usage of the term in English was found in a letter by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu dated 1718. The term appears in Italian in Giovanni Maria Muti's Quaresimale Del Padre Maestro Fra Giovanni Maria Muti De Predicatori of 1708.

Marriage in ancient Rome

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Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in French and Spanish slave colonies of North America by which ethnic European men entered into civil unions with non-Europeans of African, Native American and mixed-race descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning "to place with". The women were not legally recognized as wives but were known as placées; their relationships were recognized among the free people of color as mariages de la main gauche or left-handed marriages. They became institutionalized with contracts or negotiations that settled property on the woman and her children and, in some cases, gave them freedom if they were enslaved. The system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods, reaching its zenith during the latter, between 1769 and 1803.

Alexandrine Le Normant dÉtiolles

Alexandrine-Jeanne Le Normant d'Étiolles was the only daughter of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV's celebrated maîtresse-en-titre. She was born during the "Scenes of Metz", in which the public was scandalised to learn of the adultery of her stepfather-to-be, Louis XV of France.

<i>Indiana</i> (novel)

Indiana is a novel about love and marriage written by Amantine Aurore Dupin; it was the first work she published under her pseudonym George Sand. Published in April 1832, the novel blends the conventions of romanticism, realism and idealism. As the novel is set partly in France and partly in the French colony of Réunion, Sand had to base her descriptions of the colony, where she had never been, on the travel writing of her friend Jules Néraud.

Pauline Félicité de Mailly-Nesle

Pauline Félicité de Mailly-Nesle (1712–1741), marquise de Vintimille, was the second of the five famous de Nesle sisters, four of whom would become mistresses of King Louis XV of France. She was his mistress between 1739 and 1741.

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Man and Wife was Wilkie Collins's ninth published novel. It is the second of his novels in which social questions provide the main impetus of the plot. Collins increasingly used his novels to explore social abuses, which according to critics tends to detract from their qualities as fiction. The social issue which drives the plot is the state of Scots marriage law; at the time the novel was written, any couple who were legally entitled to marry and who asserted that they were married, either before witnesses or in writing, were regarded in Scotland as being legally married.

<i>Mr. Limberham; or, the Kind Keeper</i>

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Béatrix de Choiseul-Stainville

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Charlotte Rosalie de Choiseul-Beaupré née de Romanet (1733–1753), was a French courtier, mistress to Louis XV of France in 1752.



  1. "Mistress definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary". www.collinsdictionary.com. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
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  16. Rees, Nigel (ed.) Cassell Companion to Quotations (1997) ISBN   0-304-34848-1. There is some dispute about the exact wording. man is not allowed to marry his mistress_5100 Quotesmith [ dead link ] has it as: "When a man marries his mistress it creates a job opportunity". John Simon's obituary of Goldsmith in the National Review (1 September 1997) says this:
    Women adored him and he adored women. He married three times and had numerous mistresses. (Yet another Jimmyism: 'When you marry your mistress you create a job vacancy.') He was loyal, in his own way, to all of them, and all of them were loyal to him. He had eight children by four different women, and never have I seen a more closely knit family.
  17. "The Petraeus Affair: Why Is There No Male Equivalent for 'Mistress'?". Huffington Post.
  18. Cleland, John (1986). Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Penguin Classics. ISBN   0-14-043249-3.
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  20. Baker, D.L. (2009). Tight Fists Or Open Hands?: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 151–160. ISBN   9780802862839.
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Further reading