Book 35: Sex With Kings
Thursday, July 28, 2016
"Royal mistresses maneuvered adeptly in an environment rife with intrigue, where the fundamental human matters of life and death and love meant little compared to the crumbs of success or specks of failure at court. To courtiers a little nod from the king in passing spelled exultant victory, the lack of a nod humiliating defeat. The court was a world of twisted values, strange honor, and disgraces incomprehensible to later generations."
Dates read: March 25-27, 2016
One of the things I find myself wishing I'd done more in college is take more gender studies classes. I took a class about gender and sexual identity in cinema as an undergrad that was a psychology course, and I was intrigued by the new-to-me concept of gender performance, the idea that at least part of our gender presentation is acting out the parts of "man" or "woman" as we've been taught they look like according to our surrounding culture. I think I like wearing dresses because I just do, but there are a variety of social forces acting on me, most of which I am completely oblivious to (including the pressure to perform my gender), combined with my own preference that all add up to "I wear dresses most of the time and I think it's because I personally have decided to do so".
What this has to do with anything is that in Sex With Kings, a companion volume to Sex With The Queen, Eleanor Herman sheds light on royal men and the mistresses they took. At least in part, the implication is that royal men took mistresses not only because they wanted to, but to demonstrate to their courts that they were virile and vigorous. An overactive sex drive was (and to a certain extent, continues to be) an expected trait in men, and the king was supposed to be the manliest man of all. But the services that a royal mistress was to provide went far beyond sex (look no further than Madame de Pompadour, whose sexual relationship with King Louis XV ended long before her reign as royal mistress ended): she was to provide pleasant companionship to the King whenever he wanted it. That meant being available at all times, never being snappy or rude (although some mistresses were famous for quick tempers, most were not), never complaining of any inconvenience. They were rewarded with fancy rooms in the palace, titles, and estates, but those could be stripped when a new favorite was installed, so the smart ones got jewels and cash.
This book was actually published prior to Sex With The Queen, and I think Herman learned from her issues with Sex With Kings in writing the second book. While the structure is fairly similar (a topic, like the children of mistresses, is the focus of each chapter and various examples are highlighted to illustrate it), Sex With The Queen also took a deeper dive into a few stories, like Catherine the Great, and told them straight through. I think that approach was ultimately more successful than the one used in this book, which has a few women to whom it constantly returns (Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Barry, Louise de Keroualle, Lady Castlemaine, and Lola Montez are particular favorites). You don't really get a sense of the full scope of these women's lives as their stories get told piecemeal, and it can get confusing to try to keep them and all their details straight. I found myself having to flip back, try to remember which king they were attached to, who their rivals and predecessors were, what country and era they lived in.
Along with the issues with the way in which the stories were told, Herman's fondness for cheesy physical description gets a little eye-roll-y at times. The women seem to uniformly have "cascading hair", "sparkling eyes", and a "dazzling complexion". I like that she's trying to make the mistresses and their lives and struggles feel contemporary and real instead of something out of a stuffy history book, but I think their stories are compelling enough without the gushy language. That all being said, these are interesting stories and ones which we don't usually come across. Herman does a good job of shedding light on details we might not usually think about when it comes to how these women's lives actually played out behind the scenes, and this would be a great starter book if you're interested in this kind of thing, like I am, and want to get ideas about biographies you'd like to explore. I'd heard of Madame de Pompadour before, and the information in this book was definitely enough to make me interested in reading more about her!
Tell me, blog friends: do you have any favorite historical scandals to read about?
Note: Review cross-posted at Cannonball Read
Posted by Gabby at 9:00 AM