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What does harsh mistress mean in this sentence?

Nostalgia can be a harsh mistress.

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I'd be confused too as even understanding the phrase it makes little sense. – GdD Aug 10 '12 at 11:33
    
Was there any context around that sentence that might help you understand it? – Mitch Aug 10 '12 at 13:04

It deliberately has two meanings, using the ambiguity for poetic effect.

One meaning of mistress is as the feminine form of master, and hence it is saying nostalgia must be obeyed, (and is harsh).

Another meaning of mistress is as a woman one (traditionally based on heterosexist assumptions, a man) has a romantic and/or sexual affair with. Hence it is saying that nostalgia is "courted" as something beloved, but responds harshly (in many ways a more fraught position than having a harsh mistress in the other sense).

The second is probably the predominant meaning, but the first is deliberately still in there, which affects its poetic impact.

Just where the balance lies depends on the subject:

In the case of nostalgia, it's hard to see the first meaning as applying much as there's always a voluntary aspect to engaging in nostalgia.

In the case of the sea (a common subject of the idiom), the balance is greater - those who work on the sea typically chose that career out of a love for it, but must also continue to work it to make their living even if they are no longer as fond.

In the case of The Moon in the famous Heinlein novel, both meanings are definitely present, but given that the story is about a revolt against an undemocratic leadership, the author more deliberately wants the dichotomy of mistress/slave brought to mind.

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Good points. I just wanted to add that I think the sea is a harsh mistress in part because it can be unpredictable and severe (during storms and such). In a similar way, a harsh mistress can make things very difficult on those who love her. – J.R. Aug 10 '12 at 12:09
    
@J.R. A harsh mistress as in a slave-owner or an employer of servants can also make things very difficult. I think the "harsh" bit is less ambiguous than the "mistress" bit. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 12:12
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I think the first sense of 'mistress' is primary. The second sense, which in modern use as often as not denotes a dependent beloved, evolved out of an original use in the courtly love tradition, where the beloved is depicted as a harsh mistress whose commands, however arbitrary, must be obeyed. – StoneyB Aug 10 '12 at 12:13
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True; I was really only remarking on the sea (you mentioned lost fondness, but didn't say much about storms and shipwrecks). – J.R. Aug 10 '12 at 12:14
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@StoneyB it makes less sense to talk of a "female master" one can easily disobey (just burn that old yearbook already!), nor does that match most actual uses of the idiom. The courtly love tradition also mixes both deliberately as the lover is voluntary in following her wishes and the context is an inherently one of ambiguous power (women having less power than men in such society, but the man doing things for her - chivarly is the noblesse oblige of sexism). Mistress meant a "kept woman" and a "female master" in English from about the same time ("teacher/governeress" is older). – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 12:26

According to Google Ngram, the 1830s is where we see the turn of phrase "harsh mistress" take root to describe the world, Russia, and actual females. Its usage there invokes the female equivalent of a "harsh master".

The phrase is used to describe someone (or something) with exacting standards that are hard, if not impossible, to satisfy.

Heavenly bodies like the earth and moon, as well as countries, are generally considered feminine in English (and explicitly so in languages like Spanish: la luna, la tierra), but this doesn't necessarily confer a woman's status (or historical lack thereof) to the object itself. For instance, "France deployed her troops" does not imply France's characteristics are "feminine" (as defined by patriarchal society?).

Without context, it's hard to discern the meaning(s) in the sentence. I lean toward "woman master" rather than "kept woman." Insofar as women are stereotyped as "love objects", the sentence could mean that nostalgia exerts some kind of lure that is ultimately unrewarding. However, it's not necessary to read in a woman's status, as the sentence means that nostalgia has some form of dominance despite nostalgia's lack of merit, regardless of "her" role.

Edit: removed non-existent Biblical reference, lazy citing on my part!

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I don't think we can say 1430 is "modern times", and 1426 "earlier than modern times" - both incidentally before English translations of the Bible were common. (And originally in English it meant a schoolteacher or children's governess). The moon and the sea (more relevant, since the expression is used with it) are indeed represented as female, but you can't argue that in choosing to represent something as a woman, people are not choosing to deal with ideas about what it means to be a woman. "Master" would serve as well as it does in Romans and in other biblical uses of it as a metaphor. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 14:25
    
@JonHanna When I first typed my answer, I put "at least back to its use in the Bible" but decided to leave it out. I would be curious if the idiom existed before the Bible (though I'm sure the construction existed). NGram hasn't helped, though looking for "harsh master" gave this insight from an 1818 book on synonyms: "A harsh master renders every burden which he imposes doubly sever, by the grating manner in which he communicates his will". I believe femininity isn't the emphasis, as someone saying "France sent her troops" has little to do with gender. I'll update my answer, though. – Zairja Aug 10 '12 at 15:00
    
@JonHanna (cont.) And I appreciate the critique! :) – Zairja Aug 10 '12 at 15:03
    
Well, there's no completely verifiable answer as to which of the two meanings is predominant - that's part of the point of using a phrase that offers more than one reading after all, so I'm not saying you're wrong. The influence of the KJV on English idioms is so strong, that I'm sure it did have an effect. I do feel though that anyone thinking "I'll change this from master to mistress because the object is traditionally written of as female" would be more fully concious of the way they were using gender, and hence of the other meanings. It's what makes for a well placed word after all. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 15:08
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@JonHanna You seem to be relying on OED for your 15th-century dates? I'm working off of the print 1st edition, and I can demonstrate that a) OED's earliest citation for the 'kept woman' sense is wrong and b) there's at least one 14th century (Chaucer) use in the 'beloved' sense which predates OED's earliest citation. I'm still trying to get access to the 3d edition, to see if these have been corrected. – StoneyB Aug 15 '12 at 1:38

Mistress - something you fall dearly in love with.
Harsh - the thing you love brings unanticipated heartache, hassles, headaches, and problems you wish you didn't have to deal with - a nightmare.

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The term X "is a harsh mistress" is an aphorism. "Mistress" is the traditional title for a head "Teacher" in a boarding school... As in "Head Mistress."

The meaning should be obvious to all but the least intelligent.

It means X "is a hard teacher."

For example; Reality is a harsh mistress, means "Reality is a hard teacher, lesson, etc. et al words synonymous with learning and/or experience.

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Early literal use of 'a harsh mistress'

The earliest instances of "a harsh mistress" in English refer to the female counterpart of a master— that is, either an employer (of a servant or employee) or an owner (of a slave). From a 1713 (fourth edition) translation of Terence's The Eunuch:

Thais. Were you afraid that I shou'd prove a harsh Mistress, that you ran for't?

Cherea. No indeed, Madam.

From Sarah Scott, The History of Sir George Ellison (1766):

... for a woman may be a very disagreeable wife, a tiresome friend, a harsh mistress, and very deficient in the duties of a mother, and yet, according to this narrow way of thinking, be honest, chaste, prudent, and in the common acceptation of the phrase, good natured.

From Emma Roberts, "The White Wolf," in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction (December 2–9, 1826):

Despite of the charms of the fair and jewelled multitude, his thoughts involuntarily recurred to the pale girl, pining beneath the iron sway of a harsh mistress ; but, at length, the image of the humble Mela was effaced by a lovely vision which which swam towards him in the graceful evolutions of the dance.

From Fifty Celebrated Women: Their Virtues and Their Failings, and the Lessons of Their Lives (1830):

And yet the Queen [Charlotte, wife of George III] was not wilfully unkind : she was an affectionate mother, and a devoted wife; and would have been shocked to consider herself a harsh mistress; but she did not conceive how any one could possibly care for pain, or discomfort, or illness, endured in the royal service.

From George Sargent, The English Peasant Girl (1830s[?]):

The English peasant girl, in those days, was insulted by the rich and powerful without means of redress: she might be torn from her parents and home, and sent away to other countries, to be offered for sale to the highest bidder, or taken to the house of her oppressors, and compelled to serve a harsh mistress, who might do almost anything she pleased with her, so that, even if the poor serf died under cruel treatment, there was scarcely any notice taken of it, or any punishment inflicted.

And from Charlotte Brontë, Villette, volume 1 (1853):

Even when she scolded me—which she did, now and then, very tartly—it was in such a way as did not humiliate, and left no sting; it was rather like an irascible , mother rating her daughter, than a harsh mistress lecturing a dependent : lecture indeed she could not, though she could occasionally storm.


Early figurative use of 'a harsh mistress'

Early figurative use of the phrase follows in the same vein. From a letter from Michael Faraday to the biographer, dated December 23, 1829, in John Paris, The Life of Sir Humphrey Davy (1831):

At the same time that he [Davy] thus gratified my desires as to scientific employment, he still advised me not to give up the prospects I had before me, telling me that Science was a harsh mistress ; and, in a pecuniary point of view, but poorly rewarding those who devoted themselves to her service.

From Robert Willmott, Conversations at Cambridge (1836):

The world is a harsh mistress, but consider how soon death fetches us home from school ! Every new affliction is, to the sincere Christian, only another friendly blow upon the fetters which bind him to his earthly servitude.

From "Duty," in The Young Woman's Journal (June 1913):

Duty may seem a harsh mistress when people are not well acquainted with her. Later, however, there comes to those who consistently follow the path marked out by her, a higher sense of the value of things and what should be done becomes not a hard task, a distasteful duty, but a blessed privilege.

From Cyrill Hall, Triumphs of Invention (1920) [combined snippets]:

In the Middle Ages the Church was a harsh mistress to those who did not obey her slightest behest, but her very exactions led to results most beneficial to the world at large. Throughout this period Humphrey Davy's warning to Faraday that Science was a harsh mistress to those devoted to her service was by far the most widely cited figurative expression involving "a harsh mistress."


Burgeoning figurative usage of 'a harsh mistress'

More recently, writers have extended the figurative use of "a harsh mistress" considerably. From James Cooper, Sheila of Big Wreck Cove: A Story of Cape Cod (1922):

The schooner, with her affairs, was a harsh mistress.

From Paule Henry-Bordeaux, The Circe of the Deserts (1925):

Only, there arrived a thing which was not expected ; the plague made its appearance and reigned as a harsh mistress over the Syrian coast.

From Young Men, volume 52 (1926):

Truth is a harsh mistress.

From Otto Lütken, Congo Gods (1929):

Africa was a harsh mistress. She put her victims through a veritable purgatory, visited upon them physical and spiritual misery, fever, malaria, sleeping sickness, and a boredom often approaching insanity.

From Papers Relating to the Question of the Closer Union of Kenya, Uganda, and the Tanganyika Territory (1931):

Moreover, in Tanganyika, nature has proved herself a harsh mistress, and some of the " settlement " has been precarious and unprofitable.

From Robert Frothingham, Trails Through the Golden West (1932):

She [the desert] is a harsh mistress, however, to those who take too much for granted. She also has a way of keeping her secrets from those who are unwilling to give the necessary hostages.

From Betty Jacobsen, A Girl Before the Mast (1934):

The sailing-ship is a harsh mistress and the sea a tyrant; I see that.

From Geoge Slocombe, The Heart of France: Parisian, Provincial & Peasant (1934):

The land is an unwilling servant and a harsh mistress.

From The Spectator: Property Insurance Review, volume 2 (1936):

The law, as a harsh mistress, often gives the lie to the old maxim ["what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander"], and what "is" sometimes "ain't."

And that takes us through 1936.


Conclusion

The double meaning of mistress that Jon Hanna discusses in his answer to this question is undoubtedly a factor in the sense of the wording as it is used today. Nevertheless, during the first century of its use, the phrase "X is a harsh mistress" seems to have used mistress primarily in its "female counterpart to master" sense, not in its "illicit girlfriend" sense.

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