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 8 – Agents, Rivals, and Spies: Empowering Strategies II
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While the previous chapter looked at examples of women conspiring together against the man in the household, this chapter looks at cases where a female companion enters the household to conspire with the husband against her mistress. Three of the examples are biographical and one fictional.
The first case is Mary Delaney, whom we met in a previous chapter. Mary was married at age 18 to a much older man--a close ally of her uncle--and made the strategic mistake of letting her husband know that she felt no attraction to him and considered his person to be somewhat disgusting. As one might imagine this did not endear her to him, though she was a willing participant in the marriage.
The problem was her husband’s sister Jane. Jane was decidedly ill-tempered and had been left in the lurch in her own marriage. Mary had asked her husband to promise never to have Jane live with them, but when the couple moved to London, she found Jane ensconced in their house as housekeeper, companion, and spy.
Mary suffered it, having nothing to hide, but the constant tension between the women meant that the marriage never improved.
Mary outlasted the situation by silent obedience. In the end she did convince her husband to send his sister packing and it looked like their relationship might turn around, but he died shortly after, having left no inheritance to Mary except the portion she brought into the marriage.
Mary Delaney then spent most of the rest of her life being not quite an official companion but certainly a long-term guest in the house of various friends, including the Duchess of Portland who shows up as a hostess in the lives of a number of women’s biographies in these pages. At one point, Mary Delaney did find a happy marriage, but to an impoverished man who did not improve her situation. After his death she lived only by means of a pension granted to her by the king and queen--the situation she was in when she met Frances Burney as previously mentioned.
The second example is much darker. Elizabeth Cathcart (we’ll refer to her by the highest title she achieved) managed an incredible climb in society and wealth through a series of strategic marriages and conveniently early deaths of the men she married. she began by marrying a wealthy man to please her parents and inherited a considerable estate from him on his death. Whereupon she married another wealthy man who died a scant six years later leaving her a fabulous amount of money and properties and the ability to make whatever choices in life took her fancy.
Her fancy was to marry a significantly younger Irishman who had risen in the Royal service, who it turned out was after her only for her money. He was able to secure it but means of an alliance with a young protégé of Elizabeth Cathcart who conspired against her mistress and then even impersonated her to pull the job off. Maguire essentially kidnapped his wife, took her off to Ireland where legal action couldn’t touch him, forced her to sign over various incomes to him, and then imprisoned her for 20 years in a castle belonging to one of his brothers.
The peculiar thing about this situation is that lady Cathcart’s relatives and friends back in London were well aware of the situation--of the fact that she had been kidnapped and that she was being held against her will--but did nothing except mention it in letters to each other. There is a sense that they felt she was getting her just desserts, having risen higher than she had a right to and then making a foolish marriage--possibly with the added crime of marrying a foreigner. She survived her husband and was freed and regained some part of her property, surviving to the age of 98.
The third example of a spy within the walls is much more ambiguous. When Georgiana Spencer was married at age 16 to the Duke of Devonshire there was no reason why the marriage shouldn’t have been happy…except that the Duke was a notorious cold fish and ill suited to compatibility with a very young, innocent wife. Their marriage was decidedly unhappy, which Georgiana took out in enormous gambling debts and the duke managed with reference to other women.
At some point, Lady Elizabeth Foster came into their lives. She was separated from her husband in an unhappy marriage, and from her two sons, with no income allowed to her. She moved in with the Devonshires under the story that she was a companion to Georgiana, but it soon became evident that she was a much more intimate companion to the Duke.
Without going into many of the long details, they formed an interesting triangle with both Georgiana and the Duke being devotedly in love with Foster and her playing the role of go-between for them. Lady Foster had several children attributed to the Duke and Rizzo suggests that she may have been a sexual facilitator to enable Georgiana to get pregnant eventually as well. There is also some evidence that the Duke was not the only Devonshire that Lady Foster was mistress to. There is some decidedly romantic poetry surviving that Georgiana wrote to Lady Foster and even given the power dynamics of the marriage it’s hard to imagine such not merely cordial, but loving, sentiments that Georgiana expressed to Lady Foster without there having been some genuine love underlying it.
(Since I’m periodically mentioning cinematic portrayals of the people mentioned here, I’ll note that The Duchess is the story of Georgiana’s life and includes the subplot about her having a sexual relationship with Lady Foster. IMDB link)
The fictional example used to top this off is Frances Burney’s novel Cecelia, discussed in an earlier chapter. Here again is a case where the companion figure in a household makes common cause with a male authority figure to undermine and betray her mistress.
The four examples in this chapter had varying relations with both the man they were allies to and the woman they were some type of companion to. The mistresses may in some cases have been oblivious although in Georgiana’s case she may have--to some degree--been a willing participant in the three cornered marriage.