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Elizabeth Abbott

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If He Has a Mistress, Why Can't She Have... A Mister?

Posted: 09/19/11 01:15 PM ET

In the 21st century, egalitarianism reigns -- or does it? Why, if a husband can have a mistress, can his wife not have a mister? Not just a "piece on the side," certainly not a gigolo, but a man with whom she shares a long-term, extramarital romantic and sexual relationship -- a mister, the male equivalent to husband's mistress. (Except that, in these modern times, she should not have to support him.)

This is by no means a new notion. In 1778, Lady Julia Stanley -- the protagonist of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire's novel "The Sylph" -- muses that her husband has had a mistress since their wedding day and asks plaintively, "What law excludes a woman from doing the same?"

The simple answer was the law of the double standard that tolerated adultery in husbands but condemned it in wives -- the law of England, indeed, the law of most lands. In an era of marriages contracted as either commercial or family alliances, when (in Lady Julia's words) "the heart [was] not consulted," this law was particularly onerous.

Let's look at how patrician society in England and Italy attempted to assuage the wifely dissatisfaction and unhappiness that marked so many unloving marriages. Julia's creator, Georgiana, knew the rules. The wife must produce an heir and until then, remain faithful. Afterward, as long as she was discreet, she could become another privileged man's lover (no mating with the coachman or gardener!) but without conceiving his child. Her husband, who protected and provided for her, could only be clandestinely cuckolded.

Georgiana played by these rules. Whenever she seemed likely to stray, her controlling mother reined her in. It didn't matter that her husband's new mistress, Bess Foster, was her closest friend. Only after Georgiana had produced an heir could she decently look outside her marriage for the personal fulfillment so egregiously lacking inside it.

That happy day came when Georgiana delivered William Hartington "Hart" Spencer, her third child and first son, the longed-for heir who (she rejoiced) freed her from marital bondage. She began a passionate love affair with the much younger politician, Charles Grey. But Grey was not her mister. Rather, she had become his mistress.

Then Georgiana broke a cardinal rule -- she became pregnant by Grey -- and her furious husband forced her to choose. If she did not break off with Grey, she would never again see her children. Georgiana's capitulation was immediate. Terrified and contrite, she renounced mistressdom and resumed her life as an unloved, cuckolded wife.

In Italy, the talented and beautiful Teresa Guiccioli, teenage wife of the very wealthy sixty-year-old Count Alessandro Guiccioli, had a similarly difficult marriage. But before she provided the Count with an heir, Teresa fell profoundly in love with the charismatic and equally smitten expatriate English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron.

They had sex almost immediately. Teresa's maid helped cover their tracks. A priest acted as their go-between. Their affair invoked the unreality of Italian opera -- assignations in gliding gondolas and charming, out-of-the-way villas, and long, long hours in bed. Soon, Byron proposed that they run away together.

Teresa was shocked. Did Byron not know that in Italy, a wife could have both a husband and a cavalier servente, an eternally faithful, devoted (though chaste) lover? Teresa could have Byron and Guiccioli together -- as long as they pretended that she and Byron were not sexual partners.

The institution of cavalier servente did not challenge the husband's dominance in marriage. As in England, a wife was supposed to produce her husband's heir. Afterward, she was free to cavort with an amico -- a "friend" or soulmate who would accompany her to plays, churches and elsewhere. But unlike his English counterpart, the amico was forbidden to have sex with her.

The supposedly sex-starved amico also had to swear eternal fidelity to his mistress and promise never to marry or to leave Italy. (Priests were a favorite choice, for their vows of celibacy precluded marriage with anyone.) This arrangement also protected the husband; should he die, his merry widow could never marry her amico. Murder, or suspicious accidents aka "Divorce, Italian Style" could not change the amico's status. A husband's demise was no reason -- or excuse -- for his wife's platonic relationship to become a sexual one.

The wife's conduct was carefully regulated. She could see her amico in her home but not in his. She could invite him to theatrical productions in her family's box but not join him in his. She was bound forever to her husband, and she and her amico had to display admiration and affection for him, and never shame or dishonor him or his family's name or, for that matter, her father's.

So how did cavalier servente work for Teresa? First, Guiccioli "borrowed" a large sum of money from Byron, then invited him to move into their palace where eighteen servants spied on the lovers and made sexual trysts nearly impossible. Guiccioli also noisily exercised his husbandly right to sex with Teresa, making Byron intensely jealous.

As the affair deteriorated, Byron complained that a man should not be hobbled to a woman, and that his "existence [as a cavalier servente] is to be condemned." Weary of the conflict and rancor, and no longer "furiously in love," Byron left Italy -- and Teresa -- forever. Teresa grieved. In breaking the rules that forbid a cavalier servente from abandoning his mistress, Byron had broken her heart and humiliated her. Soon after, her unhappy marriage failed.

Georgiana and Teresa were exceptional women in unexceptional marriages, and their experiences were typical of those of legions of dissatisfied and unhappy wives who struggled for a modicum of relief from the constraints of their arranged marriages. The English assumed sex would occur but penalized its consequences; the Italians permitted socializing and companionship couched in terms of medieval courtly love, but forbid sex. Both imposed strict standards of decorum that upheld husbandly authority. Both systems were, in other words, based on hypocritical premises and for most women, could only work when practiced in the breach.

Our egalitarian society has yet to improve on these 18th century pioneering models by devising a way to respond to today's realities. More than two centuries later the challenge still resonates: If a husband can have a mistress, why can't his wife have a mister?