Skip to content Skip to navigation

The 18th Century English Lady's Companion

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 19:00

Both Wahl's study that I just finished covering, and Rizzo's, which will take up the next couple weeks, have very practical applications for authors of f/f historical romance. They explore the spaces in society where women came into close and intimate social contact in ways that were publicly established and accepted. Although Wahl pointed out how suspicions of lesbianism intruded on women's social structures, and Rizzo includes examples of how the potential abuses of companionship included sexually-tinged ones, the fact remains that we're looking at social structures in which romantic and sexual relationships between women who were so inclined could flourish.

I bristle when f/f romance novels set in the 17-19th century make a big deal out of trying to get the characters alone in close proximity. Study the normal lives of women of these times and you'll find opportunities galore. Do you adore the trope "...and there was only one bed"? Bed-sharing was utterly normal and expected in many contexts. Your characters shouldn't be shocked or embarrassed. Tuck them in between the covers and let a heart-to-heart conversation inspire something more.

Need to find an excuse for your characters to share a household together? The oddity would be for an unmarried woman to live without another woman of her social class in the household. There can be any number of rational excuses: combining incomes, long-term visiting, a distant relationship. Some single women with no home of their own spend their entire adult lives as guests in a rotating succession of other people's households. Surely in one of them she can be delightfully surprised to find a permanent invitation?

Historical romance feels most realistic when the situation of the characters, their challenges, their misunderstandings, and the nature of their happy ending grow out of the actual circumstances and social dynamics of the time. There's so much inspiration here!

Major category: 
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 1 - Companionship a Range of Possible Choices

The content of this book is taken from letters, memoirs, and fiction produced by middle and upper class women. This is primarily a choice made due to the availability of materials. These woman talk about themselves, their lives, and their living conditions, both in personal and fictional representations. Less literate women must be studied by other means, alas.

The book focuses specifically on the institution of “female companions”. This was recognized as a specific social role, comprising the relationship of an employer, usually referred to as the mistress or sometimes patroness, and her companion. This arrangement resulted in an inherent difference of social status, although in theory the women were drawn from the same class. In functional ways, companionship mirrored the marriage structures of the time.

The book is organized as a collection of case studies or biographies that show the great variety of individual relationships. The mistress--especially if she is economically autonomous--has similar powers to that of a husband, with the same range of options for expressing them, from autocratic to benevolent. These expressions can be seen as a commentary on the ways in which the similar power was expressed by a husband.

Men’s views on companions mirrored their attitudes towards marriage: generally approving of a submissive, humble companion (who is viewed as ideal material for a good wife), while a tyrannical mistress was taken as evidence that women shouldn’t have authority. In the earlier 18th century, suspicions regarding women in authority were expressed as women being too irrational and passionate to use power properly. In the later part of the century, women were depicted as being by nature submissive and subordinate and thus unsuited to wielding authority. Men might recognize the dysfunctions within of marriage only when they saw them within companionship relationships.

This is one reason for including fictional accounts in the examples: they show how people thought about gender and relationships, not just how they were enacted in real life. Women’s writing reflects a range of comforts and dysfunctions that could be present within a companionship relationship that men were often oblivious to.

Not only were the power dynamics similar to marriage, but the day-to-day responsibilities were as well. They might begin with simple companionship, but also encompass household management, overseeing servants, and interfacing with neighbors, as well as tending to the mistress’s emotional needs. This social role being labeled “companion” sheds a different light on the underlying meaning of the term “companionate marriage”. A woman’s companion was not her equal in a functional sense, any more than a wife was equal to her husband. Both wives and companions were, in essence, the “head servant” of the household. (And many women used these exact terms to describe what was expected of them as a wife.)

This experience of marriage led many women to decline to enter it again, if widowed, even if their late husband had not been particularly tyrannical. Intelligent, educated women often found marriage constraining and tedious. Some went so far as to argue against the institution entirely, though recognizing the futility of such a call. The more radical expressions of anti-marriage sentiment faded after the reign of Queen Anne. Calls for women’s equality and fair treatment in marriage after that time were expressed primarily in fiction and plays. Even those were typically softened by being played for satire.

Disinterest in marriage due to the risk of pregnancy was expressed even more covertly, since procreation was considered to be woman’s purpose. Women’s negative commentary on perpetual pregnancy begin to surface more toward the end of the century.

During eras when direct negative commentary on marriage was out of favor, commentary via the function of companion was available as a substitute. Fictional portrayals in particular depicted the moral harm to a woman whose livelihood depended on subservience and devious work-arounds. At the same time, fictional depictions of the mistress in the relationship could counter the claim that women were submissive by nature.

Men saw the wife/companion parallel in a different way. A woman who has proven herself a compliant and useful companion to a woman was seen as a good marriage prospect.

Even independent women who found themselves in companion-like relationships, such as positions within the court hierarchy, use the marriage analogy as a means of accommodating themselves to a less than ideal work environment. (E.g., “my boss is a bitch, but I’m functionally married to her so I’ll just deal with the situation like I would with an unpleasant husband.”) Rizzo suggests that these analogies indicate that women didn’t think of marriage primarily in terms of sexuality, but of social and economic contracts.

An example of companionate relations can be found in Jane Austen’s Emma where Mrs. Weston is explicitly described as being prepared to be a wife by being Emma’s companion, and similarly that Emma treats Harriet as a wife-in-training. The personality traits that critics view as flaws in Emma would be unremarkable in a man of that era and class. In this context, the resolution of Emma’s marriage plot degrades her from full human being (i.e., husband-equivalent) to wife, and thus inferior.

There was an inevitable conflict when a woman was both a wife and the mistress of a companion. That was often the case: companions were not at all restricted to the households of single women. There is an example of this conflict provided from the marriage of Henry Fox and Lady Caroline, played out in correspondence when Caroline went to Bath accompanied by a woman who was usually the companion of one of her husband’s relatives. Caroline comments on the unwanted subservience of the woman and her husband bristles a bit at the implications that he expects that same subservience from Caroline.

The 18th century was an era concerned with identifying and challenging tyranny but domestic tyranny wasn’t easy to label. It was raised as a public topic most often by sons. Even when women’s complaints about a husband’s tyranny could only be made in private, men might publicly complain about the tyrrany of wives and mistresses purely on the grounds of having their authority and power questioned. (The problem of “if you’re privileged, equality feels like oppression.”)

With the rise of the concept of sensibility--an empathic reaction to the feelings and needs of others--this trait was assigned primarily to women, emphasizing how it naturally suited them for tending to those needs and feelings in others. Conduct manuals directed primarily at women worked to reinforce this trait, as well as others intended to shape women for a subservient role, such as modesty and delicacy. These traits were all defined as women’s “nature” without recognizing the contradiction that anything that must be so relentlessly taught and enforced can’t be natural. The men enjoining these traits on their wives and daughters presented themselves as having only benevolent intentions, but the end was to teach learned helplessness and hypocrisy.

Women might respond to domestic tyranny in various ways. One was to identify with the tyrant and become one when the opportunity arose, either in respect to one’s own subordinates or--as in fictional examples--women who became the “right-hand man” to assist a man in his domination of other women. Another response was to refocus one’s agency on situations where one could do good for others in a way one couldn't for oneself--to adopt altruism as a defense against helplessness. For 18th century women, altruism was obviously a more acceptable outlet. The literary example of this path is Sarah Scott’s utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall.

When studying women’s companionate relationships it is evident that successful ones were those involving benevolent and altruistic responses both within the relationship and generally among communities of women. Negative reactions were best saved for outside the relationship and especially toward men. When both members of a companionship behaved benevolently toward each other, the result (as shown in the biographies in this collection) was greater prosperity for both.

If such women did not overtly call for the benevolence and equality that that were a goal within their relations to be made general in society, it was often due to placing those calls within a subversive, indirect context, such as the representation of companionship within fiction--an indirection necessary for them to be heard.

Time period: