Madam Pompadour, we all know her name, she’s the famous or infamous mistress of Louis XIV the Sun King. Royal mistresses were popular, nearly every monarch had one. They were installed in lavish apartments with every amenity of their time available. This phenomenon of mistresses treated as near queens was exclusive to the royals for a long time.
And then the Victorian Era came about.
By now, maintaining a mistress was no longer limited to royals or aristocrats. It’d trickled down to the middle class, becoming a more common occurrence for a gentleman to go home to his family in the afternoon and have an evening’s tryst with his mistress across town in a small, well maintained flat.
Many things once reserved for the upper class became commonplace to the middle class, and even to some extent, the lower classes. While brothels and street walkers were always around, to many, having one woman as a mistress became more civilized.
Whether they were mistresses of a gentleman with means, or lesser means, they did have their own household to maintain. Oftentimes, they had children to go with it. In many novels you hear of illegitimate children being sent to the country, it was also quite common for the mistresses to be kept in the country as well—sent to pasture so to speak, or keeping her away from the wife, or even so they could raise their children.
It was also common for them to be abandoned by the men in their lives, forcing them to seek out another protector. If they could not find another, they came to an awful end. However, less frequently, married their paramour if the wife passed—through real or induced means. 😉
It was very rare for a man to divorce his wife in favor of a mistress, but it did happen. And not just in romance novels! But the most common, long-term arrangements were where the man lived with his wife and maintained his mistress until he died.
We romance readers (and writers!) don’t want to read about the hero having an affair. Still, it was a sad fact of the time; then and now.