Now we get to a set of biographies that are both intriguing and maddeningly skimpy. After chapters where the every movement and conversation of the subject is reconstructed from correspondence and memoirs, we have the story of a woman who -- without recourse to inheritance or marriage -- appears from obscurity with evidence that she somehow ammassed a comfortable fortune. How? Why? Where? When? No idea. She becomes the mentor, companion, and most likely lover of a woman widowed in her early 20s, also left with a comfortable fortune (and four children!) and they go traveling across Europe, hanging out with the famous and talented. Like many intriguing real-life stories, you'd have to work a bit to make it believable in a novel. But in keeping with the theme of mining history for plots and characters, I think you could do worse than examine the lives of Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges.
Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5
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 12 – Friends: Molly Carter and Louisa Clarges
This chapter, though just as packed with the confusion of life details as the previous ones, provides a much clearer picture of a particular configuration of companionship. The two women in the relationship were both from the comfortable middle class, but each with disadvantages to be overcome, and each had a certain amount of good fortune--or at least a good outcome that left them quite happy and comfortable. I’m going to take each of their stories separately at first and then blend them together.
Molly Carter was the youngest of 12 children of a well off middle-class family. Her father was a member of Parliament and the family had an estate to be handed on, although entirely too many children for all of them to be benefited by that resource. Molly Carter never married and, by unknown means, she ended up with a fairly significant fortune. Rizzo works backwards from the size of her establishment and the amount of the bequests she made in her will to determine that she must have had a fortune of at least 20,000 pounds.
While she may have made good investments to earn some of that, and she may also have received a legacy or legacies from unknown sources, unfortunately her position and status was of so little interest to posterity that we have almost no information about the period of her life when she acquired her fortune.
Molly was intelligent, strong-minded, and contemporaries frequently remarked on her “masculine“ intelligence and personality. (Keep in mind that intelligence and intellectual ability were defined as masculine qualities, so this isn’t necessarily a comment on her gender presentation.) She spent most of her life on the fringes of high society, being an acquaintance of people of rank and status, but not a close friend of any of them. Even those known to have been close friends of hers said little about her in their correspondence and memoirs. There is a sense of something ever so slightly “off” about her life—something that made her acceptability questionable in society—such that she was not entirely welcome or at home among fashionable people.
In later years, she was strongly rumored to be a lesbian, although specific relationships are not mentioned with the possible exception of Louisa Clarges.
Louisa had something of a checkered background herself. Her mother had been the mistress of Lord Sandwich and after he cast her off, she took up with a young man of comfortable wealth who was not entirely averse to picking up forsaken mistresses of the great. The two were not married at the time Louisa was born, thought they did marry shortly thereafter, but it appears that her father didn’t formally acknowledge her until after his death. Louisa’s mother died a few years after the marriage during a tour on the continent. She left Louisa a set of diamonds (no doubt a gift to her from Lord Sandwich) and appointed her husband to be Louisa’s guardian.
Louisa was charming, musically talented, somewhat giddy, and popular among the artistic set. Her musical talent and social connections brought her into fashionable society despite the moral lapses of her mother’s past and her own birth. She attracted the attention of Thomas Clarges, a rich man who, like her, was devoted to music, and it appears to have been a love match.
In the five years they were married, they had four children, including one pair of twins, and Lady Clarges was the toast of fashionable society. Unfortunately her husband died leaving her a 22-year-old widow with four children (but sufficient wealth to ease the sorrow).
Louisa and Molly had become friends at some point earlier and Molly appears to have lived in the Clarges household before and after Sir Thomas‘s death. Afterward, she became Louisa’s main emotional and logistical support while she regained her equilibrium. There was a significant age difference between the two. Molly was older and Rizzo—following her usual pattern of imposing parental roles on companions—suggests she took something of a motherly role. That might create an unfortunate impression in the reader given what followed.
Before Sir Thomas’s death, they had planned to make a stay on the continent for his health, and after afterward Louisa determined to continue with plans for the tour. Molly had previous experience with continental travel and so provided not merely personal support, but this expertise as well.
There are implications that Louisa had some mild scandal associated with her, and that she had reason to absent herself from England for a while so that talk with die down, but the specifics of that are nowhere provided. In any event, the two women, the children, and all the associated retinue went abroad and mixed in fashionable society in France and Italy.
Contemporaries who commented on them implied some interesting things. Molly was referred to as Louisa’ “chevalier” and it one point is called “her Sappho”. There are suggestions that she was regarded as masculine in some way, and given the direct references to her reputation as a lesbian it is a natural conclusion to suppose that the two women were known--or at least suspected--to be lovers.
These rumors don’t seem to have impeded their acceptance in society, or their enjoyment of travel and the social opportunities it brought. Louisa enjoyed at least one offer of marriage (or a near-offer) that she turns down. When they eventually returned to England several years later, they separated on amicable terms and remained excellent friends for the rest of their lives.
Luisa was no longer the glamorous and lighthearted socialite she had been before marriage, but had settled down to sensibility, devoting herself to her children and to music. She had unfortunate luck in her children’s health: one son being killed in the Navy, and two being of delicate health (possibly tuberculosis), for which reason she settled the family in the north of Wales where the air was said to be better. But to no avail in the end. Her last son survived to adulthood but never married.
Molly Carter continued to visit her in Wales. She had settled in London, but having no social or historical prominence of her own is rarely mentioned. We know a fair amount about her financial situation based on the wealth she was able to leave behind. She lived a long and active life, continued to travel, and was remarked upon regularly as a remarkable and memorable woman.
They both were buried in the same churchyard very close to each other, and it’s hard to imagine that this was by accident. Even though they spent only a portion of their lives in the same household, they were clearly close, and given the rumors it’s likely their relationship was at least romantic and possibly sexual.
Rizzo points out that for a positive companion relationship it is not sufficient for the participants simply to be benevolent and of similar temperament, but that financial comfort goes a long way to ensuring private success in one’s relations. And by whatever means they came by it, Molly and Louisa were sufficiently fortunate in their finances to be able to enjoy their partnership with no clouds for the time that it lasted.