Commonplace Book: Literary Wives and Mistresses

Compelling passages, notable quotables, bon mots, disjecta, ephemera, and miscellany.


As Shakespeare says in his 144th sonnet, and as Josephine Baker reaffirms in her well-known song, each of us has ‘two loves.’ Both are genuine: one official, declared, conjugal, legal, admissible, and conventional; the other secret, sinful, adulterine, illicit, clandestine and shocking.


I also belong to this illustrious band. My (intellectual) wife is Hamlet; and my mistresses, whom I maintain publicly with mink coats, smart cars and rubies from Bulgari, are Cordelia, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth and Sir John. But in a small apartment in the suburbs I have a kept woman whom everyone else thinks rather plain, a seamstress who is satisfied with a small car, a coat of rabbit fur and some cheap jewellery. And when I am with her, Hamlet seems to me a little ineffectual, Cordelia a little cold, Desdemona a bit of a goose, Lady Macbeth rather quick with her fingers, and Sir John, well, perhaps just a little too paunchy. My subterranean love is Measure for Measure.”

English Literature (translated by David Gilmour).

First published in Italian with the title Letteratura inglese by Arnoldo Mondadori, Milan, 1990, 1991.

From The Siren & Selected Writings, by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Harvill Press, 1995)

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