To Be a Mistress or Not to Be a Mistress in the 18th Century

The 7th installment of Mr. B Speaks! refers to Mr. B's proposal that Pamela become his mistress.

The outspoken and clever Catherine Sedley,
mistress to James II, survived Queenly jealousy
& courtly intrigues with her wits and spirit intact.
If a woman could get a good deal (namely a wealthy and generous patron), becoming a mistress in the 17th and 18th centuries offered almost as much (temporary) financial security as becoming a wife and, in the case of royal mistresses, a rise in status.

The children would be illegitimate (although some noble personages had their bastards declared legitimate--or their legitimate children declared illegitimate if you count Henry VIII). Plus the mistress would not have the support of reputable society.* A mistress who incurred the wrath of court officials would have no protection from their maneuverings.

As Mr. B's mistress, Pamela would have suffered far more than a royal mistress. Her status would have risen, but she would never have been accepted by Mr. B's peers, and he would never have acknowledged their children as legitimate. Moreover, his "contract" with her would have no legal status; unless she could establish  a group of (male) followers who might act on her behalf, she would not be able to pressure Mr. B to honor his agreement.

However, if she were shrewd and saved her pennies, she could enjoy a lifestyle unencumbered by want until she died--even if (when) Mr. B left her. Unfortunately, many mistresses spent money commensurate with their patrons' lifestyles; when discarded, they had to move on to another patron or settle into destitution.

Nevertheless, survival and even success were possible for a mistress as Catherine Sedley's life indicates (keeping in mind that she was already an aristocrat and an heiress when she took on the job).

It all still makes one grateful for Women's Rights.

*Modern society truly doesn't understand the stigma here. In Sayers' detective novels, Harriet Vane agrees to live with a man who claims to believe that marriage is just a piece of paper, yadda yadda yadda. She accepts that she will no longer be received in certain parts of society and even cuts her ties with certain people. She deliberately limits her social life.

Consequently, when the jerk decides he wants to marry her after all, she feels utterly betrayed--she sacrificed her reputation and her opportunities for a "test" rather than a true belief. 

And yet I've spoken to modern readers who don't understand Harriet's reaction at all; they fail to appreciate that a woman living with a man without benefit of marriage in the 1920s was participating in her own self-destruction. Pamela is no idiot; she knows that agreeing to be Mr. B's mistress would cripple her social standing forever.

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