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 6 - Parent and Child: Montagu and Gregory
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This chapter looks at the relationship between noted bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Montagu] and her protégé Dorothea Gregory, who was taken on functionally as an adopted daughter and raised to continue Montagu’s career and projects.
Montagu had married a man somewhat beneath her own social status, but with extensive business interests and who was willing to indulge her social projects, in particular a circle of intellectuals who regularly met at their London house and came to be known as the Bluestocking Society.
Montagu was not simply a good wife but, in effect, a business partner although she represented herself as having no will or desires of her own, but simply implementing her husband’s policies and wishes. She gradually took over the management of his affairs, especially as he became ill towards the end of his life. For the most part she did genuinely play the role of obedient righthand man, though there is clear evidence that she was able to divert him to her own positions when she felt strongly about an issue. Once her husband died, leaving her as sole heir to his wealth and business interests, it was clear that Elizabeth had always had her own ideas but was content to be patient to implement them.
The Montagus only child died young and Elizabeth Montagu took on the daughter of an impoverished relative as a substitute daughter. Her intent, as well as gaining companionship, was to train her up to provide the sort of assistance and support that she had given her husband. After the death of Mr. Montagu, Dorothea Gregory did serve this function for an extended period. She repeated Elizabeth’s path in appearing to have no will or desires of her own but ably serving as Elizabeth’s surrogate in business affairs and social arrangements.
The sticking point in this companionate relationship came from the question of inheritance and legacy. If Dorothea had genuinely been intended as a daughter, Elizabeth could have adopted her, named her as heir, and ensured her permanent financial security. But for reasons that can only be teased out with effort and guesswork, this didn’t happen. It’s likely that Elizabeth’s need to always be the controlling figure and the center of flattery and attention was a major factor. (These features were commented on within the context of her salon, including by her sister Sarah Scott, the author of Millenium Hall.)
Instead of establishing Gregory clearly as her heir, Montagu named her much younger nephew. It’s unclear at what point Montagu hit on the plan of retaining Gregory’s services as companion, assistant, and surrogate without needing to provide her with independence, but at some point when the nephew was still in his teens (and a decade younger than Gregory), it was proposed that the two of them should make a match. Gregory responded with a soft refusal, while still giving the impression of compliant obedience. (And, to be fair, it does seem that Gregory was devoted to Montagu and would have liked to make her happy. She just had this idea about preferring to be in love before marrying.)
With the nephew plan delayed but still on the table, Gregory—while on an extended visit with family in Scotland—fell in love with an poor but aspiring clergyman and eventually broached the subject to Montagu about receiving her blessing to marry him.
This was not forthcoming, but at this point Gregory found that “will of her own” that she had previously professed not to have. Montagu was pressured into agreeing that she would agree to the marriage once Gregory’s suitor gained a position with a living sufficient to support a family. And then she appears to have gone to some lengths to sabotage his prospects.
The conflict lasted over an extended period of nearly 2 years with negotiation, conflict, emotional confrontations, and finally an outright break. A family friend of Gregory who had been trying to help make arrangements before being undermined by Montagu helped the couple cobble together sufficient income to bridge the gap until a living was forthcoming. Throughout this time, Gregory showed the ability and resources that not only had attracted Montagu’s attention and approval at the beginning, but that Montagu’s mentorship had helped to develop and solidify in her.
While the Montagu-Gregory relationship had benefitted both of them significantly, it broke at last due to Montagu’s vanity and pride. She had established a name for herself with the Bluestocking circle, but her goal was aggrandizement of her own reputation and the attraction of people who would flatter her personally.
What could have become a social and economic dynasty with Montagu succeeded by a woman who was just as able and talented as she has been, instead resulted in the two women breaking off any connection for the rest of their lives. Given Montagu’s personality, the break was inevitable, given that Gregory was as strong, confident, and determined as she was herself—and just as able to conceal her own goals and ends as Montagu had been, during the course of her marriage.
The form that different companionship relations take: whether that of friend, or spouse-substitute, or child stands independent of the dynamics of the relationship that determine its success or failure. In the past few chapters we’ve seen several specific examples of different relationships that failed due to the controlling nature of the woman in power, but this was not always the case. A companion had the ability to reshape the nature of the relationship with sufficient skills and the context in which those skills were both recognized and valued. As we will see in the next chapters.
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