Reviewing Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress

Diane Haeger, a famed historical novelist, achieved a masterful historical picture in The Perfect Royal Mistress, recounting a scandalous love affair that thrived endearingly between King Charles II and his mistress, actress Nell Gwynne, during the English Restoration period. Despite the voluminous amount of details she has incorporated in the story, Diane manages to paint real historical figures in her characters with an accurate sense of time and culture, dominant at that time. This novel is among the very best Diane Haeger has ever written, more so because of its storyline’s believability, plot and characterization.

In a nutshell, Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress relishes on a true-life heroin, raised in the seedy, pathetic public houses of a London already destroyed by fire and plague. Neil, the main character, exploits her extremely capricious wit and charm to gradually catapult herself from desperation as a hawker outside King’s Theater to leading roles on stage. It is this alluring combination of wit, charm and skill, and also her availability and or vulnerability that attracts King Charles II, the insatiable womanizer.

Diane Haeger The Perfect Royal Mistress

The story of The Perfect Royal Mistress begins with a recounting of the tale of Nell Gwynne, who was born in abject poverty and then raised in a London brothel. She ends up selling oranges outside the King’s Theater, London, to make ends meet. The theatre had just been reopened following double tragedies of the Great Fire and the plague, both of which had totally devastated the world’s glorious city. These were hard times and it was rare to find a gay person, laughing and joking casually.

This actually acted as the selling line for Nell, having a canny sense of humor and a natural charm. She was easily noticed and liked by thespians and patrons, some of whom were nobles and men of wealth. The unique thing about her is that she is too street-smart to become a prostitute like most women of her time, in her state, did. She instead perfected her talent, her addictive charm, her wary intelligence and her sheer determination to survive, to learn and entertain prospects. Within no time, she understood how the world operated in the high echelons of the society.

This eventually helped her to cross over from the theater’s pit and over to the very stage of the King’s Theatre. Even before she became the singular most beloved leading actress of comedy, she had crossed over the barrier of class and her determination was still as fierce. Diane Haeger paints Nell as a skilled thespian, with a rare complimenting beauty. She therefore won the unanimous attention of the entire London populace, from the rugged to the top of the tier. And when she caught King Charles II’s eye, a true attraction was engineered. The notoriously lascivious King Charles, a sire of dozens of illegitimate children made the move, just as it would have been expected.

The scrappy, merry girl, with an amusing friendly but very pretty face had digressed from her class even further. Her quick wit was however to meet the greatest challenge when she was finally plunged into the confusing and perceptibly dangerous world of a mistress in a king’s court. Yet again, the mistress and soon to become The Perfect Royal Mistress, rose aptly to the challenge and quickly learnt who she could trust and the many to be wary of. Coteries of noble competitors to the king sought the hand of the beautiful Nell in marriage but she opted for a share in the single most powerful man in England at the time. Thus became the tale of a mistress, an icon of achievement, Nell Gwynne, as crafted from history by Diane Haeger.

Perfect Royal Mistress

Perfect Royal Mistress

Capturing the heroin from the gritty streets of a gradually restoring London of the 17th century London, Diane takes the reader into the backstage of glamorous theaters and then to the glittering and awe inspiring court of King Charles II, as The Perfect Royal Mistress lives a legendary love story. At the heart of the novel is a story edible to and for all ages, following the transformation process of a truly remarkable mistress, a heroine who makes any rags-to-riches account pale in comparison.

Published by Three Rivers Press in English, Diane Haeger’s The Perfect Royal Mistress spans an exciting and deeply thrilling 405 pages of English Restoration Romance. This 2007 book is a must read for those in love with love stories and especially historical romance. It also doubles up as a motivational book, chronicling a rare breed of a female achiever.

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Untamed Royal Mistresses in History

The common definition of a mistress is as a man’s permanent female sexual companion and one with whom marriage has not been solemnized. A man-mistress relationship commonly occurs when the man happens to be married officially or at least legally, to another woman. A relationship between a man and his mistress is generally stable and to an extent permanent, going by accounts of historical royal mistresses. Another ideological perception about mistresses, whether royal, noble or common mistress, was that they were kept women. This inferred that they had their expenses paid by the man in form of allowances.

The history of modern civilization is full of examples of royal mistresses who lived richly satisfying lives, by providing entertainment and pleasure for kings and nobles, to whom they were not married. Yet even in these times, mistresses were not like concubines, their difference being that mistresses had no legal attachment with the man. Historical royal mistresses were beautiful women, maintained in lavish standards by Kings and royals, whom they entertained with sexual pleasure and companionship. In historical accounts, these mistresses were not thought of as prostitutes and debased as such, but respected and accepted in the royal family setup though with resentment from the legal wives and their supporters. A trend in such ladies was that most doubled up as a courtesan and a royal mistress.

Royal Mistresses

Royal Mistresses

In the European 17th and 18th Century courts, particularly in Versailles and Whitehall, royal mistresses wielded great power and domineering influence over a king. Kings were also allowed, or rather known, to keep numerous mistresses with one of the royal mistress being the favorite. The French referred to such a lady as the Maitresse en titre. Louis XV of France had one such favorite mistress, the legendary Madame de Pompadour. One thing about Madame de Pompadour and her counterpart Agnes Sorel, the mistress to Charles VII, is that in their respective times, they exerted great influence to the government and in governance. Their relationship was known and accepted by all, and yet remaining an open secret. It is for these reasons why the names of these ladies have gained a place in the annals of history and posterity.

The only Pope to have kept a Mistress in complete violation of the Catholic Church’s celibacy vows was Alexander VI.  George II, King of England, kept Mrs. Howard for his entire life.

19th Century Europe’s tightened morals became liberally puritanical, especially in the keeping of royal mistresses. With the church and the law forbidding such arrangements, royal mistresses became far more circumspect and men tried outsmarting morality by keeping a secretive mistress. Historical mistresses mostly exploited the norm of royals marrying from upper class statuses as a rule, making the marriage purely for procreation and not for love. The royals therefore had to find romantic relationships outside marriage to fulfill this gap.

There is a long list of famous historical royal mistresses. In England, royal mistresses of repute included Alice Perrers, the mistress to Edward III, Jane Shore the mistress to Edward IV, Elizabeth Blount the mistress to Henry VII, and Anne Boleyn the mistress to Henry VIII. The Scottish royalty also had its share of mistresses, with the most famous Scottish historical royal mistress being Margaret Erskine, the mistress to James V.

In British history, royal mistresses were as many as can fill a book. However, some of the most reputed ones included Lucy Walter the mistress to Charles I, and Nell Gwynne the mistress to Charles II.

Royal mistresses in history

Later on, other British royal mistresses included Catherine Sedley, the Countess of Dorchester and the mistress to James II, Elizabeth Villiers the mistress of William III, Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg, the Duchess of Kendal and Munster and the mistress to George I, Henrietta Howard, the Countess of Suffolk and mistress of George II, Maria Anne Fitzherbert the mistress to George IV, among many other historical mistresses.

Even at the time that the church was very stringent, like in the 19th Century, royal mistresses were still common among the royalty. Over the years such affairs among the royalty, nobles and leaders became more and more secretive, to avoid miscommunication by the Catholic Church. Yet the mistresses withstood. Today also, though more discrete than ever before, royalty and political leaders still keep mistresses in secluded places under allowances. It seems mistress have learnt how to keep out of the public forum. Mistresses have always found a way to beat the day’s moral norms and remain vibrant as through the centuries, totally untamed despite the public prejudice.

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Reviewing The Last Mistress from Ideology

Catherine Breillat has largely been viewed by film critics as a controversial French Director, after a series of lascivious experiments with mostly audience-bludgeoning, totally anti-romance films like Romance and Fat Girl. But in The Last Mistress, she unexpectedly stepped out of this tradition and produced a lurid exploration into the passionate and lustful side of male-female relationships. Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress has helped the female director to preserve her singular feminist roots, merge her psychosexual explorations in the imbalances of men and women, and still assemble her most reputable art house film. Directed and written by Catherine Breillat, the Jean-François Lepetit film, intones ideologies of sex, of lust, of domination, and of the French Aristocracy.

The engrossing film is based on Jules-Amedee Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel ‘Un Vieille Maitresse’ written in the 19th-century. The storyline of the film is basically about a tale of love, lust and deceit. A 30 year-old French libertine attempts to cheat on his betrothed, every inch a chaste aristocrat, so that he can marry the beautiful daughter of a famed Italian cum Spanish nobility. This helps introduce the Andalusian courtesan, a ferocious lustful character, and a venomous Madame, in the name of Vellini (Asia Argento). Vellini is a flamboyant young blood, with hair to match her fiery spirit and an attitude that scorches the very earth she walks on.

The Last Mistress

The young playboy by the name Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) dismisses the married woman at first calling her an ‘ugly mutt’ only to change after a moments stare. He resolves to domesticate the daughter and wife of nobility despite her hatred against him. Through flashbacks, we learn how Ryno’s initial loathing for the perfect mistress to be, Vellini, turned into arousal, then pursuance and finally conquest. Indeed, eventually, he manages to pull her into exile in Argentina where they sire a daughter. The daughter however dies soon after, following a scorpion sting. The loss throws the couple, especially Vellini, into a grief abyss, with desperate bellowing growls. After the loss, the couple realizes they are not in love, and resolve to live as a man and mistress thereafter.

This could have been a costume drama but Catherine Breillat spins an erotic in-depth account of romance powered by pure desire and lust. The large part of the film is played in flash backs, based on Ryno’s confession to La Marquise de Flers, about the ten years affair with Vellini. La Marquise coincidentally happens to be a grandmother of Hermangarde, Ryno’s wife to be. This helps cast a lurid picture of a passive cruelty that becomes after a relationship is left passionless. As Ryno narrates about the affair with Vellini, it is clear to all that he is sold to her for good. Vellini is a carnal beast, terrifying and dominating, but also alluring and sensual.

Breillat chose not to critic love traditions and ideologies, but rather the natural addiction to lust, or what Ryno calls, insatiable wanting. As Vellini follows Hermangarde and Ryno to a seaside recluse, it is only to confirm that if Ryno still wanted her instead of Hermangarde. The perfect mistress, Vellini, has a piecing sexy voice that thrills any man. As Vellini and Ryno become enemies, then unknown attractions, then lovers, then parents and then back again to the circle, the film exposes the sinister cat-and-mouse games men and women play for lust. Vellini easily tempts and lures Ryno from his virtuous wife, Hermangarde, with her knowing gaze and ardent sexuality. This is pretty much what happens in modern society’s affairs.

She knows how to look at a man and weaken his defense to the core. Her whispered taunting and chest thrusting movements that are most graceful awaken the groins of Ryno, as they do for those in the audience. Again, Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress indulges in some mussing sexual identities such as Vellini smoking a cigar, as Ryno daydreams in love, while Hermangarde elicits no sexual feelings in Ryno. Vellini easily dominates a milquetoast Ryno, in both intellectual and sexual prowess, despite Ryno’s attempt to be faithful to his plain-featured yet comely bride. Breillat would have been expected to cast an image to the opposite.

The Last Mistress is slightly perverse and bearing several soft-core porn shooting and lighting. It features a masterpiece theatre style laden with subtexts. Ideologically, the motive is to offer insights to the female sexuality in a comparative relation to contemporally religious constructs and practices of male supremacy. Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress scores hugely for successfully transferring Jules’ male-centric novel into a philosophical account of male-female relationships, spiced with a sly feminist critique.

Last Mistress from Ideology

Last Mistress from Ideology

Controversial sexual explorations are toned down, but still Breillat’s preoccupation is apparent especially with profane chicken slaughter, kooky sexual positions, wound licking and then the erotic asphyxia just next to a burning, charred corpse of a 3-year-old. Perversion is actually mostly used in art to symbolize a demonized female domination and sexuality. But Catherine Breillat may as well be intimating about the virulent cannibalistic nature of the 19th Century French socialites, which is the setting of the film. On the bottom line, the 114 running minutes of Catherine Breillat’s The Last Mistress, makes a clear implication that the male species is a simplistic creature that’s driven by sexual entitlement and impulse, while women usually employ manipulative biological drives and hard-earned wit to obtain denied power.

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The Mistress versus Wife Rivalry is Natural

A relationship that has a husband, wife and mistress combination is rarely good for any one of them. The wife considers it a betrayal by the husband, the husband feels guilty for being on the wrong and therefore guilty before the wife and the children. The mistress on the other hand feels cheap and used. She knows that she is wrong to welcome a straying married man to her lap, no matter the justification. But we all know about human failings. We know about matters of the flesh, especially where there is lust. And so the incidences of men keeping mistresses are going to be with us for as long as there are men and women on the planet.

When it becomes a fact that the man is keeping a mistress, and both the man and the mistress are okay with, for rarely will the wife concede, one of life’s greatest ironies emerges. Clearly it is the man who is on the wrong at most times. But instead of the wife hating him for it, she transfers that hatred and blame on the mistress, for leading her man astray. On her part, the mistress hates the wife for staying put with a cheating man. It would be better, the mistress thinks, for the wife to divorce the man who does not love her. If that were to happen, the mistress would not hesitate to fill her gap.

Mistress versus Wife

Mistress versus Wife

The relationship between a wife and a mistress is therefore based on these selfish considerations where each woman is basically guided by animalistic instincts of survival, concerned only with her own welfare and those of the kids if there are some. The women are competing for one man, or at least for his undivided attention and devotion. In most cases, the wife has the support of the society, the family and her own children, which actually isolates the man even more. Consequently, he seeks attention, solace and comfort from the mistress who is only too willing to go to any length to make the man happy. While playing these opposing roles, the mistress and the wife are yoked in a killer rivalry, one that has seen many a murder in history.

The man is at this point usually confused and spellbound to make any solid decisions. He cannot stick with the wife, who at this time is all negative and condemning. At the family level also, there are a lot of responsibilities that stress the man, like the children and their upkeep. But on the other side, the mistress has no requirement, except for basic provisions, if any are needed. It therefore emerges that the man is more at home with the less demanding mistress than with the wife and family.

This in turn becomes more fuel for the rivalry. When a wife learns about the mistress, which she does soon or later, she gets all fired up. If she is the confrontational type, she will even seek for an opportunity to meet the mistress and teach her a lesson, or make a public spectacle with the ‘home wrecker. If indeed that opportunity occurs, the public and spectators to the incident will have all support for the wife. It is this fact, that the mistress is condemned by every quarter, that makes the man pity the mistress and be more understanding and susceptible to her lures than the wife’s.

The relationship between a wife and a mistress is bound to be negative except in very rare cases when the wife lets her anger on the man rather than the mistress. The fact is that there are very few cases if any, where the two can see eye to eye. The fact that they are competing for one man, the wife having the better claim and the mistress one that is not so valid from the perspective of the society, only serves to intensify the rivalry. It is only natural that the wife hates the mistress who stole her man away and the mistress also hates the woman who keeps on hanging to a man who would rather be let free to go where his heart is.

In instances where the man dies and leaves a wife and a mistress, it is the mistress who suffers most often. It is at this point that the fiercely negative relationship between a wife and a mistress comes out in clearer terms. They have held their emotions in for a long time without letting their tempers and hatred emerge publicly, but when the man dies, the wife moves in to squash the mistress and repay her ‘evil’. The mistress is denied any of the man’s estate if especially there was no will testament to support her claim. The wife ensures that the mistress hits the cold with her children if there are some. At this point, they are not competing for one man any more but fighting to benefit from his absence.

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