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Farewell to the 18th c Companions

Sunday, October 4, 2020 - 20:00

I confess it, I got a bit grumpy about this book long before I finished blogging it. And I don't think that was just because it felt like a bait-and-switch. I wanted to learn more about the social institution of women's companionate relations in general: how it played out in various situations, what the social and economic dynamics were, how it was instantiated at different class levels. I got a little of that, but a lot more of overly intricate micro-biographies of a fairly narrow slice of literary women, most of whom were connected to each other in some way. (It did leave me wanting to look up more about the Duchess of Portland, who figures tangentially in many of the biographies.) But as a historical study, it was simply not very well written. Identities were presented in a confusing way (in part because of the multiplcation of common names that weren't clearly distinguished). The details of people's movements and interactions were catalogued without being related to any central thesis. And in the end, the central thesis that did emerge was entirely different from the stated topic.

But it's done now. For next week's entry (i.e., tomorrow's) I think I'm going to insert a rather short item that came up in the footnotes so I can take a breather before I plunge into another entire book.

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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 13 – Reformers: Sarah Scott and Barbara Montagu

This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.

Sarah Robinson Scott did not have an auspicious beginning in life. Although close to her sister Elizabeth through all their childhood, once Elizabeth married--and in particular after Sarah suffered from smallpox at age 20--there was a break between them. And though it might have been natural for Sarah to live with her sister later, instead she lived a precarious existence as guest of a sequence of relatives and family friends. Sarah satirized her sister somewhat in her Description of Millenium Hall as a beautiful, charming, witty woman whose primary weakness was vanity.

Sarah’s mother had been the property-owner of the marriage, and after the mother’s death when the property went to Sarah’s oldest brother, their father moved into meagre lodgings in London with his mistress/housekeeper, making his house doubly an unsuitable place for Sarah.

Eventually, Sarah migrated to Bath, where she met Barbara Montagu, who quickly became a fast friend. she also met her future husband there, though the marriage turned out to be unsatisfactory for significant, but never explained, reasons. Her Family interfered to separate the couple and ensure some minimal income for Sarah independently. After that, Sarah spent the majority of her life in Bath and its environs, almost continually in the company of Barbara Montagu.

The two don’t seem to have had a romantic friendship type of relationship, but definitely a domestic partnership and a close friendship. Barbara Montagu was from an aristocratic family but never married due to frail health. She had a barely sufficient income for independence in an inexpensive place such as Bath. When combined with Sarah’s various incomes, they were able to manage frugally.

The two were part of a larger circle of independent and forward-thinking women in Bath, and the discussions of that circle regarding women’s place in the world and how best to implement charitable principles provided the background and much of the development for Scott’s Description of Millenium Hall.

That was not Scott’s first published work. She wrote at least one novel earlier that also explored issues of women’s place in society. Millenium Hall was an ambitious thought experiment in what women could do if they pooled the resources to form, not merely an independent economic community for themselves, but an institution that could benefit their community through charitable and Christian principles.

The book was an unexpected success, which helped Scott financially, though it was often the case that Scott’s income was turned to charitable expenses. She had many projects, such as maintaining a school for poor girls in the village outside Bath where she and Montagu had a second home. The girls would be taught sewing, and the clothing they made distributed as charity to other poor people.

Millenium Hall fell short of truly Utopian ideals in not directly challenging patriarchal structures or the basis of class differences. It was very much an example of women of comfortable, if not extravagant, means pooling their resources to do good in the community for those less fortunate than themselves.

The Bath circle made an abortive attempt to implement an actual community along the lines of Millenium Hall, but it fell apart rather quickly due to conflicts over philosophy and authority.

As example of a form of companionship, this chapter does not focus a great deal on Scott and Montagu’s partnership, except in that Montagu was able to provide some financial stability for Scott during hard times, and Scott in turn, provided the companionship Montagu needed to live independently. But more than the two of them, the entire Bath circle was an example of women’s connections providing both the moral and intellectual support needed to challenge women’s disadvantages in the world.


In summarizing and presenting her conclusions, Rizzo emphasizes the range of women’s interactions with the world on a scale from tyranny to altruism, much more than the theme of women’s companionship relations that is ostensibly the topic of the book. She discusses how the women writers she covers approach the problem of women’s sexuality given the impossibility at that era for a woman to openly claim her sexuality and remain virtuous. Rizzo discusses a sliding scale of altruism from what she calls “immature altruism” where women simply refrain from becoming tyrants to “mature altruism” in which they rejected being either victims or victimizers, and did good for others without themselves being exploited.

This shift in focus from the social institution of companionship to the evaluation of social behavior with regard to altruism, combined with the book’s tendency toward anecdotal biography, has made it a less coherent book then it initially appeared to be. The biographies provide some interesting models for women’s lives, but I don’t feel that I have a clear picture of the nature of 18th century companionship from this work.

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