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Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 29, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
When kings marry foreign strangers for dynastic or financial reasons and queens are trained in piety over sensuality, royal mistresses seem an inevitability. Kings had flings and extramarital relationships through much of European history, and in her first book, Herman offers, with relish and dry wit, a delightful overview of their sexual escapades. Her subjects are international, though France dominates and England gets a strong showing. It's a lively account, organized by topic e.g., "The Fruits of Sin—Royal Bastards." Herman weaves into a larger pattern the tales of recurrent figures, such as Louis XIV's mistress Athénaïs de Montespan and Madame de Pompadour, who is perhaps more famous than her royal lover, Louis XV. Fashions, love potions and cheerful conversation kept kings enthralled while mistresses made themselves wealthy, husbands acquiesced or simmered, courtiers wooed the mistresses and the public admired or ridiculed. A striking number of these relationships continued despite arguments and even the lack of sex. George II even felt it necessary to keep a mistress for his reputation despite actually loving his wife. Herman ends on a modern note, recounting how Camilla Parker-Bowles famously introduced herself to Prince Charles by noting that her great-grandmother had been his great-great-grandfather's mistress. Herman ends on a serious note, but her wit and perceptiveness will carry readers through this royally pleasurable romp.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Certainly a catchy title. And Herman's spirited history of royal "mistresshood" is certainly a catchy read. Her book is not a collective biography of mistresses of European kings through the ages, although she does pay relatively brief but nevertheless trenchant visits to famous ones and some not so famous. No, her book is more an accounting of the "art and science" of being a royal mistress, ranging in time from the "departing mists" of medieval Europe (before which "royal sin" was kept from public knowledge) to the present day (namely, Prince Charles' girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles). Her treatment is a royal-mistresses-for-dummies look at male monarchs having sex on the side. She establishes a basic chronological history of the institution and assigns it a set of general characteristics (for instance, the paramour is "never to be tired, ill, complaining, or grief-stricken"). The author explains what mistresses got out of their relationships, and she looks into the issue of how mistresses traditionally got along (or didn't) with queen wives. History made as buoyant as fiction. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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However the format of the book doesn't quite work for me. You get a good overview of the topic from the introduction, and after that the author attempts to divide things up into themed chapters (eg sex with the king, the mistress and the queen, etc). But many of the topics are similar and several famous mistresses get a mention in each chapter, so by midway through the book I felt like I was reading the same anecdotes again and again. I started skimming and skipping whole sections about fairly uninteresting anecdotes and skipping ahead to the more interesting and different chapters (the one about royal bastards was a highlight). In the end I gave up a chapter or two before I finished because I had more interesting things to read.
So look, it's not a bad read but it's not amazing. If you can borrow a copy give it a go, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it.
The biggest surprise for me was the realization that I didn't know who was better off. Was it the mistress of the king who was either in search of power herself, or more probably put into the king's path by her family in hopes of money, jewels, land, and power, or was it the queen who had lost the love of a husband; however, was free from the duties of entertaining a man, often times disgusting, who required unparalleled attention, doting, and nurturing.
The amount of children created in these unmarried parings were abundant. These healthy and often good looking bastard children had to jostle position in society and court. Whereas inbreeding in the royal family often created sickly offspring who if survived childhood were used as pawns in the marriage game for power and alliance. I would love to read something about the lives of the multitudes of illegitimate children, unfortunately I am unsure how much information has survived about them all.
A surprising section at the very end was the brief explanation of Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Camilla. I was young when Diana's death was headlining the news, but I had no idea how painful this love triangle was. It is difficult to compare the scandals across centuries when times and values are measured so differently, but perhaps this drama is eye-opening because it is relevant and so present in our generation. We see these faces in the news and media and therefore are shocked the most.
The author makes a good point that throughout the centuries, citizens are wrapped up in the drama of their royal families just like celebrities and feel they have an important personal opinion on how their king and his love interests should behave. Often being unable to aim criticism at the king (who could strip them of titles or their head) would instead direct their negative opinions at the mistresses and queens instead. Throughout history it was often easier to blame the weaker sex than identify the true culprit of the problem and furthermore provide a solution.
This was good. At times it felt a little repetitive or confusing because it kept bouncing back and forth between the same mistresses over and over again, but it was organized well regardless. I'd recommend it for anyone who has a general knowledge of kings and history in Europe.