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Companions, Jane Austen, and Same-Sex Possibilities

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 - 18:00

The introduction to this book uses various characters in Jane Austen's Emma to illustrate the social dynamics of companions. But once you start looking for companionate relationships in Austen, you see them all over the place. And that variety helps illustrate the function and dynamics of what's going on. Let's take a little tour.

In Sense and Sensibility, we don't see any of the central characters in a formal position of companion, but we see plenty of examples of the sort of extended visiting that could shade into a de facto companion role. When Elinor and Marianne travel to London with Mrs Jennings, they are clearly in a sort of "client" position to her--getting room and board in return for their company, and sometimes decidedly under pressure to put up with her whims and behaviors. The two Miss Steeles also spend time getting their "living" from being company to the mistress of the household who hosts them They are depicted as much more willing to perform the role of companion, cozying up to their hostess with flattery and a willingness to put up with their children's whims.

In Pride and Prejudice, we again see unmarried women varying their circumstances socially through extended serial visiting, whether which relatives (the Gardiners in London and while traveling) or friends (Lizzie's visit with Charlotte after her marriage). Caroline Bingley serves as her brother's hostess in what would be a companion role if she were performing it for a woman. A more direct example is Lydia's invitation to be companion to Colonel Foster's wife. As Mr. Bennett notes, the excursion costs him little--she will be supplied with room and board. And Mrs. Foster gains a social companion in the context of a military camp where even an officer's wife might be subject to harrassment if she went about on her own.

In Mansfield Park, we see many of the fictional themes about companionship. From the start, Fanny Price is trained up as a compliant and biddable companion to her aunts. Her presence and willingness to perform household tasks are taken for granted and taken advantage of. She is treated as having no desires, needs, and will of her own. And yet all of this occurs under the veneer that she is a member of the family and that there is no social stigma on those occasions when she is treated as such in public. Another theme (which is discussed later in Rizzo's book) is that a "good companion" is viewed as proving herself as a good prospective wife. Edmund may stand up for Fanny on occasion, but in the end he recognizes that Fanny's steadfast virtue through her trials has proven her to be an ideal wife.

Examples of companion themes in Emma have been discussed already. In Northanger Abbey we again see the "extended serial visiting" theme, as well as the precarious position that a single woman is placed in when her day-to-day life relies on the benevolence of her hosts. But it's in Persuasion that we see the companion role from multiple angles. Anne Elliot has, in essence, been turned into a companion within her own family. She is passed off to whichever relative or family friend has a use for her company. While living with her sister Mary, she is expected to tend the children, negotiate between Mary and her in-laws, and be the solid rock in every crisis. (And, of course, in the end, this is what convinces Captain Wentworth that she's still the woman for him.) But Elizabeth Elliot's friend Mrs Clay is set up to be a bad example of a companion. She is widowed (with children who are somehow conveniently dispensed with) and of a lower social class than the Elliots, which is pointedly remarked on as making her an unsuitable companion for Elizabeth. (There's an interesting contrast between how Mrs Clay's social background is held against her, while Captain Wentworth is allowed to rise above his origins by virtue of his accomplishments.) Mrs. Clay is an obvious "toad-eater", constantly flattering the Elliots in order to maintain their good graces. But she also emobodies one of the negative tropes about fictional companions, in that she is shown to have underhanded goals that are at oddes with those of her hosts,, with a suggestion of malice or revenge as a motivation.

Various of these companionate relationships have been used as jumping-off places for sapphic Austen fan-fiction, especially those in Emma. But even more than the specifics of these particular stories, they show how unmarried women might be brought into close physical and emotional proximity within the ordinary structures of society in ways that can provide all manner of inspiration for the f/f historical romance writer.

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Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 2 - The Social Economics

The chapter begins with a list of advertisements from 1772 either from people looking to hire female companions or from women offering themselves as such. The ads represent a wide variety of situations and job requirements. When compensation is discussed it’s in terms of room and board or, in some cases, only partial room and board. The ads—surprisingly--include requests or offers of female companions for men. In some cases, explicitly excluding the possibility of sexual services. Some ads explicitly specify that no wage is asked because the woman in question is not looking to be a servant.

These ads show the variability of the concept of companion. In addition to the tasks of providing company, the positions might include housekeeper, governess, lady’s maid, and in some cases--in coded language--a suggestion of sexual services for men. Men looking for a female companion were typically looking for a substitute wife, without the bonds of marriage involved.

For middle-class households, the position of companion typically involves multiple job. Only in an upper class household was the position likely to be purely that of a social companion and attendant. The higher the companion’s social status, the more unseemly it would be for her to receive payment for this position. The primary goal was to secure a place to live. The status of a companion was precarious and was affected by what tasks she was asked to perform, and how she was included in the activities of the family (or not).

Despite the variety of companion positions, some clear patterns emerge which this book will illustrate. Compared to ads for servants, ads for companions were relatively few. Most companionship arrangements were set up within the extended family or among social acquaintances.

Companions filled a genuine need in the household. Single women generally didn’t have the financial resources to live a solitary life. In public, companionship was needed for respectability. Much of everyday life, and most daily socializing, was gender-segregated. The mistress might be accompanied by her maid for shopping, but she couldn’t turn to servants for company out in society, or for emotional support.

In novels, when women go into public alone it is a marked state and one of overwhelming purpose. Women alone were subject to insult and harassment. Women novelists were much concerned with the hazards and difficulties for solitary female protagonists, even when their characters overcame them. Working-class women, of course, had different expectations, and some fictional heroines used working class disguise as a means of surviving alone in the world.

Upper and middle class women who lived “alone“ had a staff, both male and female. But even in this context, it was more acceptable for an older woman then a younger one to live alone.

A companion solved many problems for an unmarried woman but was also convenient for a married one. In social negotiations, even friends might have competing agendas. A companion was an advisor and confidant assumed to be loyal. A companion could serve as social secretary, shouldering some of the complex burdens of being an active hostess. The companion was expected to be available at any time to “fill in” socially as needed without having social needs of her own. They also removed the burden of wives being expected to provide sole company for their husbands--a key role, given that marriages weren’t particularly arranged for the satisfactory emotional lives of the couple.

The understanding that a companion was of an equivalent social status to her mistress was essential for pride on both sides of the relationship. A companion needed the illusion of being a member of the family to maintain her own social status, and a mistress could not present the possibility that she was treating an inferior as a social companion.

Because this understanding precluded the possibility of offering a salary, the needs and desires of companions were met via a delicate negotiation of gifts. (A companion might also have a small income of her own from other sources that weren’t enough to support her, but might be enough for personal expenses.)

Economic forces behind companionship revolved largely around gendered inheritance practices. To enhance and maintain family position, resources primarily went to the oldest son. Providing an unmarried daughter with enough to live independently was impractical and undesirable. Middle or upper-class women of this era had few opportunities for paid labor that wouldn’t destroy their, and their family's, reputation. Paid work was a last resort if no family support was available.

Single women who had enough funds to maintain a household fell in several general categories. They might be widowed, with a sufficient settlement, or even inheriting her husband’s property if there were no higher claim on the inheritance. She might be a daughter with no brothers (if the property were not entailed).

Marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal dowery to a livable independent income, but it required the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right number and type of children, and good financial choices at all stages. (Dowries were not the only enticement women had to attract husbands. Family connections and influence could be just as important.)

Women who declined marriage or failed to secure one were considered to be at fault for their financial circumstances. So economics were as strong--if not stronger—a force in women’s ability to live alone than social conventions. One must also remember that living “alone“ in a respectable fashion meant supporting a multi-person household, to say nothing of the expenses of a social life.

Barring the luck to have an “independence”, acceptable sources of income for a single woman might include combining the income (that is, annuities, interest, and family stipends) of multiple women living together. Another method was accepting money from what were, in effect, lodgers. Or one could reduce expenses by living outside London and not participating in high society.

Sarah Scott’s utopian novel Millenium Hall goes into these economic negotiations in great detail, when her characters brainstorm how to set up the living arrangements of their commune. Scott’s attitudes, as expressed in the novel, disparage marriage for women who could work, but she was outright scornful of the “occupation“ of companion. While not overtly equating it with marriage, the implication is there.

Like Mary Astell before her, Scott envisioned an independent community of single women whose shared resources and skills could remove the need for marriage as women’s only viable option. Many of Scott’s ideas came out of discussions among a group of women living in Bath who are concerned with women’s status and place in the world. Several members of this circle expressed their ideas in fiction.

A common theme in their work is that women who enter unworthy marriages or become companions do so to avoid losing the standard of living and social position they were raised in. (Though who can blame them.) These works often featured women in intentional communities, and their own circle could be seen as an implementation of some of those ideals.

The greatest moral hazard from companionship, they asserted, was toadying to those who had power over your life. Toadying is a small step to other immoral behaviors, because it focuses on hypocritical actions to establish and maintain one’s position and security.

The utopian communities the Bath circle envisioned were egalitarian--except for the servants of course--and allowed for autonomy in daily life once the administrative responsibilities were shared out. Millenium Hall was not a democracy but a means of freeing middle and upper class women from marriage and the marriage-like position of companion.

Scott did attempt a limited real-life Millenium Hall, unsuccessfully, but that it was attempted at all is noteworthy. Scott’s Bath circle itself speaks to one driving force in the institution of companionship: the need for women to create a supportive community in the face of social structures that excluded them.

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