In an ambitious project, Dawn B. Sova put together The Encyclopedia of Mistresses in 1993, which as you might expect is a collection of encyclopaedic-esque entries for women who have gone down in history as ‘the other woman,’ covering an impressive time period; from the early Greek age to the 20th century. Although I bought this book for my first thesis (a look at the position of the ‘mistress’ in Medieval England up to Anne Boleyn) it is in no way academic and very accessible to any reader.
The Good Points
- It is comprehensive
The women included in this book range from Cleopatra to Camilla Parker-Bowles, considering their influence on the men with whom they were involved.
- It is easy to negotiate
As an “Encyclopedia” the entries are alphabetical (by surname). If you aren’t sure of the name of the woman in question, you can also look up the name of the man to be directed to the appropriate entry.
And that’s all I’ve got…
The Bad Points
- It is unbelievably dull
Considering the blurb begins: “The Encyclopedia of Mistresses is an absorbing record of the many famous and colourful women throughout history who have been branded mistresses,” it is incredibly boring. The women are given brief, albeit concise, summaries of their lives but without any humour, wit or even personality. The facts are presented as plainly as possible and while you can expect a lack of depth from an ‘encyclopedia’ the bare facts are not enough to give you an idea of just why these women were so attractive to their lovers.
- There are a lot of women missing
One of the major issues is that there seems to be no correlation between the women included. Yes they all have one thing in common; that they are indeed mistresses, but there are a great deal of famous mistresses missing from these pages. When looking for Elizabeth Blount, Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn (I could go on) I found that Henry VIII is entirely absent from the book. Henry I is also missing, despite being renowned for his infidelity, however Henry II is present (represented by Rosamund Clifford). Equally confusing is the inclusion of only one or two mistresses in the case of men who were known to have multiple affairs. Adolf Hitler is linked to Eva Braun and Geli Raubal while his other suspected lovers are absent.
- The author’s bias
There are moments when the author comes across as highly moralistic, referring to the women featured with distaste or condemnation for their extra marital activities, but rarely is this counterbalanced with a positive view of other women.
- Anecdotes and theories are presented as fact
Numerous times the author will present something known to be a theory at best, anecdotal at worst, as fact. The legend of Henry II building a maze at Woodstock to protect his young lover, Rosamund from his jealous and murderous queen Eleanor is given as fact. Likewise Hitler is said to be engaged in a relationship with his niece Geli Raubel. At no point is it mentioned that this is a theory or that it is speculated; instead it presents a fully sexual relationship between the two which forced Raubel’s suicide when she lost her uncle’s affections. In the same vein, Elizabeth I’s supposed affairs with Thomas Seymour, Robert Dudley and Robert Devereux are given as fact, complete with the notion that she bore Seymour’s child.
- It is historically dubious
As if the presentation of theories or legends as factually correct was not bad enough, the biggest problem is by far the sheer number of outright historical inaccuracies. I have by no means an extensive knowledge of individual mistresses throughout history, but those that I do know are presented often with blatantly incorrect information. This raises doubts then on the accuracy of those that I do not know. The most glaring error is that Catherine of Aragon was apparently married to Charles II. This is far more than an issue of mixing up ‘of Aragon’ with ‘of Braganza’, she actually mistakes the two women. Reference is made to her several miscarriages, stillborn children and children who died young (Catherine of Braganza only had three miscarriages) though interestingly, Catherine of Aragon’s surviving daughter Mary is not mentioned. Kudos to Sova for not only getting her history mixed up but for not even getting her inaccuracies accurate.
For the historical inaccuracies I cannot recommend this book, especially given that this is the second edition so you would think somebody would have proofread it at some point. I would say it’s an interesting read if you don’t intend to take it literally, but it is not even that interesting as the women are given brief, sterile summaries which leave you wondering why anyone would be interested in somebody so boring. If you need a list of women who were mistresses then by all means get the book so you can look them up elsewhere, but considering how many women are missing it even fails in this regard.