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Elizabeth Vesey and No-drama Handcock: the Boring Side of Companions

Monday, September 28, 2020 - 20:00

OK, maybe I've been working through this book too long and I'm just getting bored. Or maybe it's the sense that Rizzo is trying to build a narrative that she's already established in her mind, rather than study the sources. Whatever the reason, I'm feeling a bit snippish. The book is starting to feel like a random series of 18th century biographies that can in some way be related to the idea of "companions". (Given the social patterns of the time, I'm guessing that almost every household could be related to this concept in some way at some point.) People seem to be painted with broad brushes and Rizzo is fond of forcing them into fixed narratives. Husbands are expected to be jealous of their wives live-in female company. Companions are either bullies, toadies, or saintly martyrs. And there seems to be an underlying assumption that women are naturally in conflict with each other even when they appear to be performing voluntarily complementary roles. Moralism worms its way in with an assumption that being a competent household manager makes one a better person than being witty or charming or socially ept. Being frail or depressed is a personal failing or a means of manipulating others. Sometimes each of these may be true, but I've come to wonder whether Rizzo actually likes women as human beings. Because she regularly puts the worst interpretations on their actions. Well, I have three more chapters and will finish up this week. I've gotten some very useful ideas that can be applied to plots and characterization in my own work. So there's that.

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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 10 The Domestic Triangle: The Veseys and Handcock

This chapter feels a bit incoherent, as if Rizzo is simply trying to put together biographies of minor 18th century personalities who happen to have left significant correspondence, which can be forced into a narrative by means of random excerpts.

The subject of this chapter is Elizabeth Vesey and her sister-in-law and longtime companion Something-or-other Handcock. so little is known about Handcock’s life as an individual that although it’s known that she was one of the sisters of Vesey’s first husband, the question of which of three possibilities is left unspecified. Her first name is never recorded in any of Vesey’s memoirs or letters.

The two women formed a partnership that is familiar from other examples: one being the practical, managing sort, the other being the social person. Typically, of course, it is the companion who is the practical, managing person because that’s her means of adding value to the household and gaining a stable and secure position.

Mr. Vesey was somewhat set apart from the circle created by those two women. The marriage seems to of been a fairly typical one when not arranged for love. The two were indifferent companions to each other and never close. Mr. Vesey seems to have taken a certain pleasure in using his power as the patriarch to exclude the other two not only from household decisions but even from knowledge of his plans regarding travel and lodging.

Rizzo forces the three into an interpretation that she’s mentioned in previous chapters, where she sees the wife as being either allowed or encouraged to be childlike and ornamental, and then casting the female companion into the role of surrogate mother, and the husband into the role of surrogate father. It isn’t it all clear to me that this template correctly applies to some of the people Rizzo applies it to, and the more I work through this book the more annoyed I am by some of Rizzo’s interpretations. In this chapter, for example, there is a great deal of speculation regarding the motivations and feelings of the two Veseys that seems to be done purely to create a structured narrative, but for which little evidence is offered in support.

At any rate, Elizabeth Vesey and Handcock kept each other close company for many years until both were elderly and infirm and died--in somewhat straitened circumstances, due to the lack of provision in Mr. Vesey’s will, which may be seen either as carelessly improvident or as malicious. But in the meantime, the two women had created a fairly functional partnership, with Hancock being the practical one and Vesey the ornamental one. Their own contemporaries referred to them as “body” and “soul” with Handcock being the practical body and Vesey the soul.

There isn’t really much else to say about this household and the companion dynamics it illustrates, for all that the chapter goes into a great many random details of the Veseys’ life and social circles. Elizabeth Vesey was a minor hostess of the bluestockings. Not a brilliant one like Elizabeth Montagu, but with a certain social set of her own. She had artistic interests expressed in typical 18th century upper class directions: home decoration and landscaping. If she was not a brilliant mind she seems at least have been well beloved by her contemporaries. And Handcock? Handcock was always there for her, looking out for her, managing her household, being her constant companion. We have almost no idea what she thought of the arrangement as she seems to have left no correspondence or memoirs of her own, and visitor to the Veseys rarely commented on her presence or existent.

What does this chapter contribute to an understanding of the dynamics of companion relationships in the 18 century? I guess it demonstrates that some of them were functional, long lasting, stable, and loving, without very much in the way of drama other than what typically comes to women in a patriarchal society.

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