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Domestic Tyrannies

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 20:00

As I read through Rizzo's book, a number of thoughts have been coalescing with respect to plotting out historical f/f romances. Those thoughts aren't necessarily tied directly to the subject of the chapter, but are building as the various threads weave together.

Today I was thinking about how the avoidance or disparagement of marriage is treated in history as contrasted with how it is typically expressed in f/f historicals. The modern approach tends to be: "A distaste for heterosexual marriage is either a consequence of, or a telling symptom of a sexual preference for women. You can tell the heroine is a lesbian because she has always thought of marriage with revulsion."

But when you look at historic attitudes in the 18th century, women had all sorts of reasons for wishing they didn't have to marry. A fear of repeated pregnancy might be enough. Many women--though sometimes only in private correspondence--saw marriage as a form of servitude. Marriage generally meant an end to having the autonomy to pursue one's own interests, especially intellectual interests. A wife was legally at the mercy of her husband's commands and whims, and even a benevolent husband could control her associations, her movements, and her experiences.

Outside of marriage, a woman's reputation was far more at risk from an intimate relationship with a man than his was in the same circumstance. A male lover might not have legal power over a woman's life, but he had the social power to ruin her at no detriment to himself.

All of these are perfectly good reasons for an 18th century woman to find reasons not to marry, without any need for people to assume that she preferred women sexually.

In fact, sexual preference was generally considered irrelevant to the question of marriage, in both men and women. One married for reasons of economics, family connections, and social aspirations. "Enthusiastic consent" to the resulting sexual relationship was not a consideration. And given patterns of socializing, marriage was little hindrence to a woman pursuing a sexual relationship with a female friend, as long as her husband didn't feel rejected as a result.

Of course, the conventions of romance novels lead one to expect the romantic leads to aspire to an exclusive relationship with the object of one's affections. But perhaps we need to expand the paradigms for queer historical romances, rather than confining ourselves to a model invented for heterosexuals.

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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 - 3 Satires of Tyrants and Toad eaters: Fielding and Collier

“Toad eater“ was first recorded in the 1740s, with the explanation (whether true or not) that it was based on a traveling performer’s show trick demonstrating the ability of the performer to neutralize poison by having his assistant eat toads, which were thought to be poisonous. Thus the term referred to someone forced to do something nauseating in a subservient position.

The name toad-eater (eventually “toady”) was applied at the time to both political and social contexts, including domestic employees. Once having been named, this relationship became more of a focus of observation and discussion than it had been previously. It was regularly associated with the position of companion, though in fictional portrayals, it is often accompanied by disappointment and failure of the companion’s goals. (Perhaps as punishment for socially stigmatized behavior?) From a different angle, companions were also the depicted as holding grudges against their patrons and taking opportunities for revenge, whether small or great.

The defining of toad-eating as a behavior of a subservient companion or client also highlighted the role of the tyrant in the relationship. toad-eating would not be necessary except as a response to the tyrannical exercise of power.

In both politics and at home, tyranny was most easily recognized in others, and when experienced, not in oneself when wielded.

Within the context of domestic tyranny, authors regularly saw the parallels of marriage and companionship. The book gives extensive examples of fictional characters making this overt comparison in novels by Sarah Fielding.

Fielding‘s friend Jane Collier wrote books even more pointedly exploring the dynamics of domestic tyranny and how women might escape it. Education was considered key to eliminating the situation. Collier wrote biting satires similar to those of Jonathan Swift. One chapter of her essay “On the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting” is devoted to the relationship of mistress and companion. As a tendency to tyranny was endemic in mankind, she explains, it could only be prevented by careful attention to children’s education in benevolence and the proper treatment of others. Her work explored this concept by means of satirical instruction in psychological and emotional abuse. Collier’s book is brief on the subject of husbands, and declines to directly attack the institution of marriage, but though less detailed, her treatment of tyrannical husbands again focuses on the techniques of emotional abuse.

A common moral theme of this and similar works is that in subjugating her own judgment and integrity and performing according to the demands of her mistress, a companion’s moral character may be undermined in actual fact. But while this lesson appears in works authored by both women and men, male authors tended to see the performance of tyranny--when situationally available--to be a female trait. Put women in a position of power and they will abuse it. Male authors were less apt to recognize a pattern of similar male behavior in marriage. Female authors saw this parallel clearly. The same analysis of the negative possibilities inherent in the companion arrangement led men to conclude that women will inevitably of abuse power, and women to conclude that all those with power will inevitably abuse it.

This masculine interpretation of the effects of female authority generated a trope of the abusive mistress and angelic, complying companion. While female authors saw that compliance as a moral hazard on its own, male authors saw it as a test and proof of the companion’s suitability as a wife. They anticipated a willingness to perform the same compliance within marriage for a husband. The companion character in a male-authored novel typically found resolution in being rescued by an offer of marriage. She would continue to perform the same subservient role, but now within the approved context of marriage where such behavior was “natural” (as in Samuel Foote’s farce “A trip to Calais”).


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