For the last week or so I’ve been up to my armpits in mistresses and been taken on most enjoyable rides. They were spread over three books, I hasten to add. Please excuse the excruciating puns – I should be ashamed of myself!
In two of the tomes the authors have dumbed down history to give rollicking accounts of various notorious tumblerers in the hay and the havoc they caused. These ranged from some very savvy gold-diggers to others as ditzy and thick as the proverbial. Some even found love with the objects of their attention. Some were secret – only exposed in later decades, others became infamous within their own lifespans. With some, it ran in the family. Some even changed the course of history. With the third listed title, the impact of a mistress on an everyday family is fictionally examined.
The lurid enticements, promised on the cover blurb for ‘Royal Affairs (Leslie Carroll), are not exactly forthcoming between the covers. Perhaps readers influenced into purchase by them would be disappointed at the lack of interior titillation. But what may be discerned instead are fine accounts of history-shaking trysts written in modern colloquialese that sets a fast pace, interspersed with brief first hand accounts in the language of the perpetrators’ times. The reader is never bored. Initially I thought I’d skip those connections that have been done to death by various forms of modern media – the dalliances of Henry VIII, Mrs Simpson and Edward VIII, Charlie and Di – but so well does Ms Carroll explore their machinations they also were not to be missed. From Henry II’s bedding of Rosamund de Clifford to our future (presumably) king’s Camilla, I discovered so much history I was completely unaware of. In this offering are the mistresses synonymous with temptation – Anne Boleyn, Nell Gwyn, Lillie Langtry and Mrs Keppel – but there are also a host more creating waves, from ripples to tidal, in their own times – many largely forgotten. We are informed of the randiness of Charles II – who had one mistress installed in the chamber immediately above his bedding room – and one immediately below. Then there was the weird sex life of George 1 with his much lampooned (during his reign) twin grotesques, a decidedly gay king (or two) and an obese lesbian monarch who only craved up close and personal affection. And, well, was she really the Virgin Queen? There are any number of (bodice) ripping yarns that would make for terrific television series along the lines of ‘The Tudors’ and ‘The White Queen.’ Full credit to Carroll for presenting them in such a lively, entertaining manner.
With ‘Mistress’ we come to home soil. In a series of vignettes authors Benn and Smyth take the reader through the history of Oz and the impact mistresses have had, not so much on the nation’s ‘affairs’ – although there are those, but more those that have intrigued the general populace of our big land. Sometimes these lay ‘uncovered’ for decades, only being exposed to light once the protagonists had passed on. Others screamed at us from the tabloids virtually the day after the next affront occurred. Again, with this tome, there are the usual suspects – Juni and Blanche, for example, from our own times. As well, though, there many others whose amorous deeds were largely unknown to me. I discovered that the execrably wretched and now definitely unmissed Liberal pollie Sophie Mirabella, was/is just as repulsively grasping in her personal life as she was in her public. Surely, though, the most fantastical sheila of all in these revelatory stories of sexual abandonment was one Mrs DL Gadfrey who cut a swathe of wantonness through expat Sumatra during the staid 1950s. She was on a quest to find an unfortunate lover, who had jilted her, by getting uproariously drunk and dispensing with her clothes at the drop of a hat. In the end her quarry was forced to take to the jungle to escape. He’d rather brave tigers than this furiously bonkers force of nature. It’s in this book that you’ll hit pay-dirt by discovering how a flirtatious Filipino maid initially tempted, then snagged, our richest man and discern exactly who was that legendary ‘girl in the mink bikini’.
For a couple of their yarns the duo of authors drew a long bow, such as with Lola Montez and the adventures of Mick Jagger in his Ned Kelly heyday. But this is a fluffy summer read and who cares if we’re a little lax with the definition of what it takes to be a mistress in Ozland. This title doesn’t enthrall to the same degree as the previous, but it still is of interest and certainly brings back some scandalous memories.
And the two publications do overlap. Firstly there’s good time Aussie antipodean Kanga Tyrone who almost entrapped our Charles. And then there was the remarkable lass who knocked the future George VI for six – Sheila Chisholm. She was introduced to Bertie (as young Georgie was originally known) by one Freda Dudley Ward, an early paramour of elder brother David, destined to be, briefly, Edward VIII. When ‘The Firm’ discovered what was going on – well it either had to be the luscious colonial woman or his duty to his country? Poor Bertie was in a bind. He chose the latter, the ‘Queen Mum’ was hastily found for him to wed and the type of scandal that later enveloped serial-offender David was averted. Our thwarted Oz game-changer then moved on to Rudolph Valentino, putting him in a tailspin as well.
The story that I’ve always found the most interesting, in matters involving out of wedlock shenanigans, is that of the two sisters and PM Chifley. It must have been a very cosy arrangement in that little Canberra motel he preferred to the Lodge – and which one was by his bedside when he left this mortal coil? ‘Mistresses’ throws no new light on that, though. Billy Snedden’s death in the saddle, so to speak, is referenced, as is that of the highly sexed INXS front-man who led our Kylie astray, as well as assorted others. There are ‘Underbelly’ gangster molls and bushranger ladies as well within its riches when the book branches into the nation’s plentiful pantheon of crime figures.
As opposed to the above, we discover little about the mistress at the core of the delightful ‘Loving Richard Feynman’, a YA novel from a few years back by Penny Tangey. It’s known that the culprit is a work colleague of Catherine’s father’s and a professor of German. Her dad conducted his flings with her when he was out of town at conferences – the town being Victoria’s Kyneton. Catherine keeps a journal of her inner most thoughts that only we and the eponymous dead physicist are privy to. You see, the young lady in question is a science nerd who has taken one of the participants in the Alamo Project as her hero, despite his flaws- discovered whilst reading about his deeds and views. Tangey’s tome is brim full, as we might expect, of teenage angst, but the writer handles it in such a light, gossipy way that it never becomes dire in the slightest. I ripped through it on a day of reflection about atrocious deeds done in a Sydney cafe and a Pakistani school. On completing it, I felt much better about the world – it lifted my spirits no end.
Following one’s romantic heart or, conversely, lustful inclinations, can often get one knee deep in the proverbial – whether one is famous, rich or just plain ‘normal’ as with Catherine’s dad. It’s often espoused that humankind isn’t designed for monogamy, but I wouldn’t necessarily adhere to that premise. However, whether one engages in the extramarital or keeps squeaky clean – certainly reading about the pickles others entangle themselves in following those two aforementioned impulses certainly adds to the spice of life.
Leslie Carroll’s Web-site = http://lesliecarroll.com/
Penny Tangey’s Web-site = http://pennytangey.com.au/