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The Mistress Contract: A Memoir, by She and He, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£9.99, 216 pages
The authors of The Mistress Contract, we are told, are an American west coast couple now aged 88 and 93 respectively, who have known each other since the 1950s. Although they have been together for more than 30 years, “She and He” never married and live in separate houses in the same city. “They speak by phone nearly every day they are not in rooms together,” says the publisher’s introduction. This book is an edited collection of taped conversations the couple had in the early 1980s. They talk frankly about life, love, children, sex, marriage and friends. It’s a very romantic set-up.
What’s not romantic, in conventional terms, is the sort of relationship that “She and He” have. The woman – we learn that at the time of the tapes “She” was an artsy, financially insecure teacher steeped in the feminist movement – drew up a contract in 1981 that would formalise her status as the mistress of her (divorced) lover, a successful businessman.
As the existence of the tapes suggests, this document was always intended for the public domain and it is reproduced here with names omitted. Under its terms, Mr ___ agrees to provide his mistress with the means to pay for “adequate accommodations and expenses accrued in the normal course of her activities”. In return, she agrees to provide: “All sexual acts engaged in when requested by Mr ___, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers for duration of time requested, to be determined by Mr ___”.
How did an intellectual, feminist woman come up with this? And why did “He” agree right away? The book follows the couple’s discussion of their reasoning, and by doing so it comes to seem a lot less shocking, forcing, too, an engagement with the wider questions of what a conventional marriage entails.
We learn that, bruised by the legal battle of her divorce, “She” likes the simplicity and non-state-sanctioned clarity of her contract (“Marriage is too constant”). While “He” says: “One of the reasons you can go into this seemingly demeaning arrangement is that you know you can always just quit, be free.”
At first sight, The Mistress Contract also seems to offer the promise of a retro, reality show version of Fifty Shades of Grey, although anyone expecting Christian Grey-style shenanigans will be disappointed. Of course, there’s a lot of talk about sex, some of it very explicit. But it is only talk. (Essentially, “He” is highly sexed and “She” seems to prefer a good walk.)
“She” has had a mastectomy and is self-conscious, both physically and because she feels it robs her of an “everywoman quality” with which those reading a future account of the relationship could identify. “He” reassures her that he really isn’t bothered: “I don’t find mastectomies any less attractive than wrinkles and fat deposits and varicose veins. I put it all in the same category. We’re coming apart at the seams.”
The Mistress Contract is rather like a beguiling jigsaw that is missing some pieces. Ultimately, we just don’t know enough about “She and He”; their motives and satisfactions remain obscure. On page, the conversations look like a script and the book is, indeed, to become a play, adapted by Abi Morgan for the Royal Court Theatre in London early next year. Giving life to these characters could work wonders, transmuting static words into the private, charmed world of two people who love each other.