Elizabeth C. Goldsmith’s short, engaging biography, The Kings’ Mistresses: The Liberated Lives of Marie Mancini, Princess Colonna, and Her Sister Hortense, Duchess Mazarin, is not about women who achieved greatness.
Not quite my kind of thing? I’m more likely to read biographies of political schemers like Anne Boleyn, or anarchist/birth control advocates like Emma Goldman.
But I was drawn to the glamour and independence of the famous Mancini sisters, runaway wives of the seventeenth century who published memoirs of their struggles to live independently. They were salon hostesses, patrons of the arts, performers in royal and private theatricals and ballets, runaway wives , mothers, and kings’ girlfriends/mistresses. They traveled widely and lived in Italy, France, Spain, and England.
And they dripped with jewels and baubles. Just the way the society tabloids liked it.
Because, oh yeah, they were celebrities.
At first I was entranced. Later I wanted more context.
Their uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, brought them as girls from Rome to Louis XIV’s court. Marie became Louis’s first serious girlfriend, and all France knew about the intensity of their chaste romance. They were intellectually compatible, read poetry and novels together, and danced in royal ballets. But the Queen and the Cardinal soon separated them, because Louis XIV had to make a royal marriage and was too ardent about Marie. The rebellious couple managed to conduct a secret correspondence, but Marie eventually realized she had to break it off.
Marie was the thoughtful sister and the great reader; Hortense was the party girl who later became the mistress of Charles II in England. But the Cardinal married both women off to inappropriate men.
Hortense’s husband, Duke Armand-Charles Mazarin, was crazy, jealous, and violent. He forbade her fashionable entertainments–plays, ballet, and concerts in the theater at their palace–and fired every servant she liked. He also slashed hundreds of valuable paintings of nude women collected in the Cardinal’s gallery to express his rage against her.
Hortense lost the sympathy of friends because she put up with so much, but could not get a legal separation or divorce. Women had almost no legal protection. After she ran away, leaving the children behind, she was locked in a convent with other rebellious wives. This is one of many convent episodes, because the Mancini sisters were in and out of convents from the moment they left their husbands. Women were often incarcerated if they didn’t want to live with their husbands.
In Rome, Marie was happily married for three years to Lorenzo Colonna, Grand Constable of the Kingdom of Naples. The couple enjoyed elaborate entertainments and high society, and if you want to learn about how “the rich are different from you and me,” as Fitzgerald put it, here’s the place to do it: When Marie’s first child was born, Lorenzo commissioned a baroque bed from designer Paul Schor, shaped like a seashell floating on waves and drawn by seahorses ridden by mermaids. And she was displayed on the bed.
While Marie was busy having three children, Hortense was struggling in France, whence she eventually escaped disguised as a man, with the help of their brother Philippe and servants, and sought refuge in the Colonna household. Social life in Rome became yet wilder, with two creative Mancini sisters in town competing for attention.
But Lorenzo had begun to have mistresses, and though that didn’t matter and was even expected after Marie decided three children was enough, one mistress was socially eminent and embarrassing. Marie began to fear that Lorenzo would poison her. So Marie and Hortense ran away together, dressed as men.
There are more travels, more convent episodes. Both husbands are vindictive and want the sisters back, under any circumstances. Rather than return to Lorenzo, Marie agreed to live in a convent in Madrid, and gradually makes friends at court, though there are setbacks: her husband can’t bear the thought that she might be happy, so sends her to a more restrictive convent, really a prison. And she is not released immediately.
Hortense, who had had enough of convents, escaped to England, where she became Charles II’s mistress, and a gambler and an alcoholic.
Hortense wrote and published her memoirs under her own name (the first woman in France to do so). She writes, “I know that a woman’s glory lies in her nog giving rise to gossip, but one cannot always choose the kind of life one would like to lead.”
Marie, living chastely in conservative Spain, wrote her memoirs after a false memoir was published under her name.
I call this “history lite” because it needs more context. I would have liked to see their problems analyzed in the context of, say, the history of divorce in the 17th century. Although Goldsmith explains that the Mancini sisters’ celebrity brought discussions of separation and divorce into the open by the 1690s, I would have liked to know more details about the women who did this.
But Goldsmith writes well about these beautiful, sociable women with hidden depths, and many will find it a good entertainment.
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