Newspaper article International New York Times

Why We're Coy about 'Mistress'

Newspaper article International New York Times

Why We're Coy about 'Mistress'

Article excerpt

Our admirable move to equality and respect has removed an entire incorrect vocabulary but hasn't replaced it.

Among the many pressing questions provoked by President Francois Hollande's local difficulties, there is one that has not received the attention it might: To describe, as much of the international media has done, a woman partaking in a long-term sexual affair as a "mistress" is now a little passe, n'est-ce pas?

The French, of course, do these things differently, although some amusement and irritation appear to have joined the famous native shrug, expertly calibrated as ever between indifference, disdain and resignation. I blame that helmet in which Mr. Hollande was photographed by Closer magazine arriving for his alleged assignations with the actress Julie Gayet: No one has ever managed to look cool in a motorcycle helmet, especially riding pillion. Not even Jack Nicholson in "Easy Rider."

But outside France, followers of the Anglo-Saxon tradition have tended to regard the institution of the mistress with more suspicion, considering its louche defiance of convention as principally the preserve of the monarchy and the nobility, most of whom came from across the Channel in the first place, anyway. And that was before the appalling cost of the thing was taken into account.

To demonstrate this different approach, even where royalty was involved, you should look to the practice introduced by the French kings, neatly mirrored by Mr. Hollande's arrangements, of designating a mistress among mistresses, who was grandly named "maitresse en titre" (official mistress). Here, Nell Gwyn, mistress of England's Charles II, settled the distinction thus, when her carriage was mistaken for that of her unpopular French rival, Louise de Kerouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth: "Good people, you are mistaken; I am the Protestant whore."

So much for the historical detail. The coup de grace for the institution of mistress is far more contemporary: the 1960s, blowing away all the dependence and seediness with a welcome blast of reality and equality. …

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