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.
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.
The chapter begins with a list of advertisements from 1772 either from people looking to hire female companions or from women offering themselves as such. The ads represent a wide variety of situations and job requirements. When compensation is discussed it’s in terms of room and board or, in some cases, only partial room and board. The ads—surprisingly--include requests or offers of female companions for men. In some cases, explicitly excluding the possibility of sexual services. Some ads explicitly specify that no wage is asked because the woman in question is not looking to be a servant.
These ads show the variability of the concept of companion. In addition to the tasks of providing company, the positions might include housekeeper, governess, lady’s maid, and in some cases--in coded language--a suggestion of sexual services for men. Men looking for a female companion were typically looking for a substitute wife, without the bonds of marriage involved.
For middle-class households, the position of companion typically involves multiple job. Only in an upper class household was the position likely to be purely that of a social companion and attendant. The higher the companion’s social status, the more unseemly it would be for her to receive payment for this position. The primary goal was to secure a place to live. The status of a companion was precarious and was affected by what tasks she was asked to perform, and how she was included in the activities of the family (or not).
Despite the variety of companion positions, some clear patterns emerge which this book will illustrate. Compared to ads for servants, ads for companions were relatively few. Most companionship arrangements were set up within the extended family or among social acquaintances.
Companions filled a genuine need in the household. Single women generally didn’t have the financial resources to live a solitary life. In public, companionship was needed for respectability. Much of everyday life, and most daily socializing, was gender-segregated. The mistress might be accompanied by her maid for shopping, but she couldn’t turn to servants for company out in society, or for emotional support.
In novels, when women go into public alone it is a marked state and one of overwhelming purpose. Women alone were subject to insult and harassment. Women novelists were much concerned with the hazards and difficulties for solitary female protagonists, even when their characters overcame them. Working-class women, of course, had different expectations, and some fictional heroines used working class disguise as a means of surviving alone in the world.
Upper and middle class women who lived “alone“ had a staff, both male and female. But even in this context, it was more acceptable for an older woman then a younger one to live alone.
A companion solved many problems for an unmarried woman but was also convenient for a married one. In social negotiations, even friends might have competing agendas. A companion was an advisor and confidant assumed to be loyal. A companion could serve as social secretary, shouldering some of the complex burdens of being an active hostess. The companion was expected to be available at any time to “fill in” socially as needed without having social needs of her own. They also removed the burden of wives being expected to provide sole company for their husbands--a key role, given that marriages weren’t particularly arranged for the satisfactory emotional lives of the couple.
The understanding that a companion was of an equivalent social status to her mistress was essential for pride on both sides of the relationship. A companion needed the illusion of being a member of the family to maintain her own social status, and a mistress could not present the possibility that she was treating an inferior as a social companion.
Because this understanding precluded the possibility of offering a salary, the needs and desires of companions were met via a delicate negotiation of gifts. (A companion might also have a small income of her own from other sources that weren’t enough to support her, but might be enough for personal expenses.)
Economic forces behind companionship revolved largely around gendered inheritance practices. To enhance and maintain family position, resources primarily went to the oldest son. Providing an unmarried daughter with enough to live independently was impractical and undesirable. Middle or upper-class women of this era had few opportunities for paid labor that wouldn’t destroy their, and their family's, reputation. Paid work was a last resort if no family support was available.
Single women who had enough funds to maintain a household fell in several general categories. They might be widowed, with a sufficient settlement, or even inheriting her husband’s property if there were no higher claim on the inheritance. She might be a daughter with no brothers (if the property were not entailed).
Marriage was the primary route for converting a nominal dowery to a livable independent income, but it required the right combination of surviving one’s spouse, the right number and type of children, and good financial choices at all stages. (Dowries were not the only enticement women had to attract husbands. Family connections and influence could be just as important.)
Women who declined marriage or failed to secure one were considered to be at fault for their financial circumstances. So economics were as strong--if not stronger—a force in women’s ability to live alone than social conventions. One must also remember that living “alone“ in a respectable fashion meant supporting a multi-person household, to say nothing of the expenses of a social life.
Barring the luck to have an “independence”, acceptable sources of income for a single woman might include combining the income (that is, annuities, interest, and family stipends) of multiple women living together. Another method was accepting money from what were, in effect, lodgers. Or one could reduce expenses by living outside London and not participating in high society.
Sarah Scott’s utopian novel Millenium Hall goes into these economic negotiations in great detail, when her characters brainstorm how to set up the living arrangements of their commune. Scott’s attitudes, as expressed in the novel, disparage marriage for women who could work, but she was outright scornful of the “occupation“ of companion. While not overtly equating it with marriage, the implication is there.
Like Mary Astell before her, Scott envisioned an independent community of single women whose shared resources and skills could remove the need for marriage as women’s only viable option. Many of Scott’s ideas came out of discussions among a group of women living in Bath who are concerned with women’s status and place in the world. Several members of this circle expressed their ideas in fiction.
A common theme in their work is that women who enter unworthy marriages or become companions do so to avoid losing the standard of living and social position they were raised in. (Though who can blame them.) These works often featured women in intentional communities, and their own circle could be seen as an implementation of some of those ideals.
The greatest moral hazard from companionship, they asserted, was toadying to those who had power over your life. Toadying is a small step to other immoral behaviors, because it focuses on hypocritical actions to establish and maintain one’s position and security.
The utopian communities the Bath circle envisioned were egalitarian--except for the servants of course--and allowed for autonomy in daily life once the administrative responsibilities were shared out. Millenium Hall was not a democracy but a means of freeing middle and upper class women from marriage and the marriage-like position of companion.
Scott did attempt a limited real-life Millenium Hall, unsuccessfully, but that it was attempted at all is noteworthy. Scott’s Bath circle itself speaks to one driving force in the institution of companionship: the need for women to create a supportive community in the face of social structures that excluded them.
“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”).
Elizabeth Chudleigh’s life and career read like a fictional character--perhaps Manley’s Duchess of Cleveland in The Adventures of Rivella. Manley’s characters were powerful, profligate, and passionate. Chudleigh took as her model the Restoration image of the courtly woman, though her own career started around 1740. But the allowances made for larger-than-life figures in that previous era were no longer made when Chudleigh was tried for bigamy in her 50s and escaped penalty only through rank and exile.
She wrote a memoir in her 80s that reveals a startling lack of reflection and insight, but matches the characters in Manley’s fiction--nearly a century earlier--very closely. She spent lavishly on display while-being miserly behind the scenes. Her moods were mercurial and exaggerated, following every whim. Manley had been writing a satire on women of her day. But Chudleigh was out of step with changing ideals of behavior. While Rizzo’s portrait is severe, she notes that Chudleigh’s contemporaries were even harder on her.
Elizabeth Chudleigh was born into a respectable gentry family of moderate means. Both her parents were impulsive and pugnacious in temperament, setting a model for her own behavior. Elizabeth was beautiful, charming, and ambitious. She was witty, though not particularly intelligent. And she was used to having her own way. She gained a reputation for being brave in defense of her own interests--traveling with pistols at hand to protect the jewels she was never without.
At age 20 she became a maid of honor in the household of the Prince of Wales (the son of George II and father of the future George III). Having been taken on as a protégé by the Earl of Bath, one thing she learned was how to arrange favors for people without any expense to herself, which helped build her sphere of influence.
She had no loyalties except to herself and openly proclaimed that she changed her friends as she changed her dress. Chudleigh climbed the ladder of influence at court despite a secret marriage (disclaimed after the death of their son).
She had the knack of making powerful nobleman fall in love with her, including King George II who evidently was charmed by her performance in a court mask in a costume so revealing it was considered scandalous. She was mistress to a succession of powerful men and used the opportunities to live lavishly and enrich herself. She traveled extensively in Europe, leaving her ducal lover of the time to stew at home in order to leverage a marriage proposal from him.
This required the expedient of getting an annulment of her discarded marriage. While the marriage lasted, no one seriously challenged the fiction. But her greed to be named heir to the duke’s fortune was the last straw for the duke’s sister (and mother of the heir to his title). After the Duke‘s death, Chudleigh was indicted for bigamy. The charge was upheld, but conveniently Chudleigh’s discarded first husband had just become an Earl. That meant Chudleigh still had the necessary rank to avoid physical punishment for bigamy (branding).
She took her fortune into exile on the continent where her charm and never fulfilled promises to make various people her heir gained her welcome at various courts until her eventual death in Russia.
But how does all this relate to the topic of companions?
Chudleigh maintained three to six companions at any given time that she referred to as her “maids of honor” in reference to her time in that position for the Princess of Wales. She was not part of fashionable society--her circles tended more toward the Duke’s associates, and women who owed her favors, or hoped for them. For companionship she surrounded herself with young beautiful accomplished women…but fell into a rage if they were paid attention in place of her. Chudleigh attracted them with promises of making connections for good marriages or help securing pensions, but never actually carried through.
Rizzo suggests that her jealous behavior towards her companions implied they might have been her lovers on occasion as well, but the footnote for this offers no direct evidence. Chudleigh would definitely have been aware of lesbian activity around the court, and two of her intimate friends in her youth (back when she still had actual friends) were said to frequent a lesbian bordello.
[Note: What’s this, you say? A lesbian bordello? Well, clearly I need to track down this reference. The citation is from E.J. Burford in Wits, Wenches, and Wantons (London: Robert Hale, 1986) which, per Rizzo, “notes that eighteenth-century lesbian bordellos existed at Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street and Frances Bradshaw’s in Bow Street and that Harrington and Ashe [Chudleigh’s friends] were patrons, but he gives no sources.” Well, I’ll see for myself because I just ordered it.]
In addition to accompanying her to social events, Chudleigh’s companions were expected to attend when she went visiting (and to wait in the carriage while she did so). They kept her company at meals, sat with her while she napped, suffered her temper if she lost at cards, served as ushers at her entertainments, and during one. Period when she was denying the duke her bed, had them sit up in shifts through the night while she slept.
Brief biographies are offered of some of Chudleigh’s companions: an impoverished cousin (she often chose relatives), a woman who had worked her way up through the servants’ hierarchy (an atypical case of not sticking to one’s own class), and one woman, ostensibly a foundling left on Chudleigh’s doorstep, but rumored to be her own daughter, raised by Chudleigh’s mother, than taken on as an attendant. After a somewhat confused episode in Chudleigh’s absence, when the Duke was either made to take the girl (presumably his daughter as well) as mistress, or may even have done so, the girl was so badly treated by the jealous Chudleigh that she appears to have committed suicide.
Two companions are particularly noteworthy. Miss Bate was with Chudleigh for an extended period and was a mainstay during the lead-up to her marriage to the Duke. She was included in travels to Europe. Miss Bate was half-sister to two of Chudleigh’s male friends and Chudleigh arranged that a pension that had been paid to Miss Bate’s mother was transferred to Miss Bate (saving Chudleigh from having to cover her expenses). Miss Bate might well have continued attending her in her exile after the Duke’s death except that the Duke had left her a small annuity in his will, which enraged Chudleigh so much she cast her off. Whereupon Miss Bate married a clergyman in Bath and lived as happily as may be expected.
Miss Penrose, a rather younger woman than Miss Bate, was also with Chudleigh through her marriage and the death of the Duke. She accompanied Chudleigh into exile on the continent. She was a clergyman’s daughter and a distant relative of Chudleigh and was probably the model for the “virtuous companion” character in Foote’s play “A Trip to Calais.” But Penrose evidently kept Chudleigh’s goodwill to the end. The evidence of this is the legacies Chudleigh left various members of the Penrose family, though they were mostly worthless or had already been sold or lost before the will was executed.
Rizzo points out that the behavior that seems so outrageous in Chudleigh can be seen as unremarkable or only mildly exaggerated male behaviors. She broke the rules of feminine behavior of the time, claimed male prerogatives, performed male-coded actions, and exploited the women around her with the same callous disregard that men were wont to. Except for the matter of a lack of female solidarity, she might be viewed as a feminist icon.
She had no close friends among fashionable women but was never actually ostracized. She was received at court and her entertainments were well attended. But to those dependent on her provision and good will, she was a tyrant who would allow no rival or equals.
Novelist Frances Burney [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Burney] has the appearance of the idealized 18th century Englishwoman: altruistic, complacent, self-sacrificing. But beneath it she has a sense of self, of the firmness of purpose to make her own choices and set her own path. She was a dutiful daughter, but refused to marry a man she didn’t care for only to please her father. She chose a life of service, but not to the point of sacrificing her own happiness. And when she found him, she refused to give up the man she loved who wanted to marry her.
She made one unwise decision that placed her in the queen’s household under the thumb of a two-faced tyrant who toadied to the queen but terrorized those under her. But Burney escaped with an annuity, her dignity, and the ability to choose her own companionship.
Frances Burney came from a typical background for companions: genteel, but with no resources other than the father’s income. Both sons and daughters had their futures arranged for by other means. They might have individual talents that gave them an entrance into society, as with Frances’s writing or her father’s music teaching, but marriage was a different matter. And sometimes the talent that bought entrance only moved one further away from good marriages, as with the fuzzy line between being an accomplished musician and being a professional performer.
The Burney family boasted two talented daughters: Frances, the novelist and Esther, a musical prodigy; but suffered under a stepmother who had been accustomed to taking center stage and now found herself sidelined. The family fortunes, such as they were, had been built by the institution of companionship. Mr. Burney had turned musical talent into a household position with Fulke Grevile, who treated him as an equal and educated him in social graces.
Frances saw some of the less appealing sides of companionship in her father’s relations to his patron, but she was unable to escape being assigned as companion to her stepmother, who worked out her social frustrations in physical ailments and emotional demands, as well as a constant stream of sarcasm directed at Frances and her siblings when they failed to treat her with the respect she felt due. Among them all, there was a conspiracy to avoid bothering Mr. Burney with the dysfunctional family dynamics, though it was in general supportive of Frances’s aspirations.
The success of Frances’s first novel gave her some means of escape--socializing with Hester Thrale’s intellectual circle, or retreating to the home of her mentor Samuel Crisp to write--but only if she was able to offer a sacrificial sister in her place. Frances found it impossible to write in her father’s house, yet writing was her hope of escape.
Although a husband might have been less onerous than tending to her stepmother, she declined an offer from a man who wanted her for her “affability, sweetness, and sensibility” but had no use for her talents, intellect, and wit. Frances was staking her future on being able to support herself by writing--a risky plan as it was considered indecorous for a woman.
The characters portrayed in Frances’s novel Evelina reveal the strength of character Frances had herself. It was Evelina that brought her to the attention of Hester Thrale, famed for hosting an intellectual circle at her home. Thrale in turn got a talented woman to adorn that circle. Thrale had social connections but was hungry for female companionship. The extended visits Frances enjoyed with her benefited them both, but Frances also recognized the hazards in Thrale’s patronage. Thrale despised toad-eating even as she expected Frances’s attendance and compliance, so Frances must not be too accommodating or lose her respect. At the same time, Thrale wanted a full-time companion who would travel with her, not just enjoy long visits.
Frances used her family responsibilities as a tool to maintain control over the scheduling of her visits to Thrale, resulting in a constant and sometimes tense negotiation. Thrale thought the most valuable things she could offer were entrance to society circles and access to a good marriage, but Frances had already bartered away respectability for the independence of a writing career and didn’t plan to throw that away.
Frances greatly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of Thrale’s circle, even though keeping up with the social requirements on a writer’s income which meant serving as her own dressmaker and maid. This problem would continue later when she was at court.
At Thrale’s she resisted accepting presents of clothing because they would cement her status as a companion, not as a friend. The status of friend was what made freedom of movement possible, and freedom of movement--especially to visit Crisp--was what made writing possible. And writing was what had made entrance to Thrale’s circle possible. It was all braided together.
Correspondence shows a degree of emotional attachment and need on Thrale’s part that Frances found stifling, despite returning her devotion. Not until the publication of Frances’s second novel did Thrale accept that Frances would never settle for the role of full-time companion.
Once Thrale stopped pushing, Frances stopped resisting quite as much and she was more amenable to being present for Thrale’s needs, as when her husband died after a long illness. But Frances still resisted the role of companion and reacted badly to a newspaper announcement of their new domesticity, comparing them to other notable companionship arrangements of the day, for all the world like a marriage announcement.
Thrale was less insightful about the hazards of companionship then Frances, but their relationship was soon resolved in a different direction when Thrale transferred her demanding attentions to a new target: Gabriel Piozzi, who (like Frances) was in a position of financial need and struggled to avoid being sucked into Thrale’s needy generosity. With Piozzi, Thrale won out and married him, which took the pressure off Frances, though it marked the decline of their friendship.
The dynamics in the Burney and Thrale households show the complex dynamics of the day around real, pretended, and demanded concern for others. The acceptance of family duty was real, but could be negotiated and managed. One might choose to give the appearance of compliance with unreasonable demands from a calculated estimate of the alternatives and consequences.
If Frances‘s stepmother Elizabeth Burney emerges as a two-faced toady and tyrant, Hester Thrale appears as the not-entirely-self-aware emotional manipulator, who is foiled because Frances both genuinely likes her and sees her flaws. Both households revolved around men who had a stake in being oblivious to those dynamics, as long as they were catered to.
Frances directly tackled the negative side of companionship in her novel Cecelia, written during her greatest struggles with Thrale, in the person of an antagonist who is fairly transparently modeled on Frances‘s stepmother (a repeating theme). The work also shows a deep distrust of marriage and male authority figures as sources of security, despite ending in a conventional marriage plot.
But before a third novel could be written, Frances’s life went through major changes. Thrale drifted away after her marriage to Piozzi, and her circle dissolved. Frances’s mentor Crisp died. And when Frances joined an elderly friend in London, the friend (Mary Delaney, who will feature in chapter 8) for complex reasons brought Frances to the attention of the king and queen. The Burney family turned their attention to pressuring Frances to get a post at court that could benefit them all through favors and appointments.
But the post available was a fairly undistinguished one: second keeper of the robes, serving under a tyrannical woman who was a close friend and confidant of the queen. It was not a position likely to offer power or access without a greater willingness to dissemble than Frances was willing to embrace. Rather than supporting her writing time, the social duties of the post offered no easy escape. One could perform submission, or one could suffer.
In many ways, Frances’s relationship to her supervisor and to the queen repeated her relationship to her stepmother and her father. Had she been willing to toady, she might have gained the benefits her family hoped for. She never overtly blamed the queen for her situation, although the queen was almost certainly aware of her friend’s cruelty. (These cruelties are listed in some detail.)
Frances lasted for five years in the position. She left when she decided the situation would literally kill her if it went on. At the last she pressed for the favors her family had wanted, but when they were refused, Frances won some respect by her decision to leave her post with no further negotiation.
She was given a pension. She was now free of responsibilities and had an income that freed her from her father’s home and allowed her to write, but only as she wanted. It also put her in a position to marry a surprising choice: a penniless aristocratic French Catholic emigré (we’re into revolutionary times here) who had fallen mutually in love with her and offered her equal companionship, not patriarchal tyranny.
Frances return to writing novels in order to buy a house for the couple. As the breadwinner in the family, Frances was no longer in a vulnerable position and her husband seems to have been content to play the role of companion.
The house-buying novel Camilla once more featured a scheming toady of a companion, though played broadly for comic purposes this time. But perhaps her experiences had taught Frances not to expect such characters to meet their just desserts. The book allows the character to pass through the plot untouched and unmarred by the chaos in the wake of her manipulations. Once more, marriage is on display as a poor option, despite it being the eventual fate of the heroine.
Frances’s last novel again returns to the theme of the female tyrant who has bought into patriarchal structures and uses them to persecute the heroine--a transparent stand-in for the author in prevailing by steadfast, but quiet resistance.
In summary, Frances Burney both experiences and describes some of the most pernicious aspects of companionship while also showing that they may be resisted and that a virtuous person may come through them, though not unscathed. Frances is thought by some to be an overly decorous doormat, but in the biting portrayals of her fiction we can see how deliberate and calculated that performance was as a survival tactic. For most of her life she avoided both marriage and the position of companion, insisting on the less profitable role of friend, until she chose for herself an equal companion as a husband.
The problem of altruism runs through all her books. How do you continue to be a good and giving person when those around you are users and abusers?
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.
This chapter looks at the lives of women who, in their function as companions, provided significant economic and managerial benefit to the households they were attached to. In some cases, I feel that the category “companion” is being stretched a little, but I’ll go with Rizzo’s classification. The examples include using those talents for both good and ill (or perhaps, for the benefit of the household as a whole versus for personal enrichment) and include both biographical and fictional examples.
The first example is that of Anne Fannen, who began in a fairly low position in the household service of the Duke of Richmond and, by working her way up the servants hierarchy, became lady’s maid to the oldest daughter, Caroline. By assisting Caroline in her elopement with Henry Fox, Fannen established both her loyalty and resourcefulness and secured her future, though at some initial risk.
As a side note: Caroline’s story is central to the miniseries Aristocrats (IMDB link) although Fannen’s part is not featured.
Having thrown her lot in with the eloping couple, Fannen was rewarded with a secure position in their household and rose to become housekeeper—a significant function for the household of a rising politician—and supervisor of their two children. Her success relied on the fact that Henry Fox was reliably rewarded those who had helped him, and showed loyalty to those who were loyal to him.
Given this, when Fannen engaged in her own secret marriage with Fox’s new steward, it was a reasonable gamble that not only would he see the fair play in forgiving the subterfuge, but would value both their talents enough to give them increasingly significant responsibilities. The couple became mainstays of the Fox establishment and each served not only as valued servant but as companion and confidant.
Carolyn Fox had a interestingly symbiotic relationship with Fannen. The break with her family due to her elopement had hit her hard and contemporaries often described her as somewhat child-like in personality. Fannen stepped in and stepped up to the responsibilities of managing the household and serving as Carolyn’s surrogate in all manner of social tasks.
It might have been easy for a woman such as Caroline to resent or tyrannize over someone who was, after all, a servant, and yet had become such an essential part of the functioning of the family. But they were on good social terms until the end of Caroline’s life. After Fannen retired due to health and moved into a separate house with her husband, Caroline and her sons often visited them socially.
It must be emphasized that this was not a companionship of social equals. It was a case of a very able servant being given the opportunity and the permission to become an essential foundation of the household structure, but also treated as a friend and confidant. Because her skills were recognized, valued, and rewarded, the relationship among all parties was beneficial to them all.
A rather different dynamic is illustrated by the second family in this chapter, illustrating that even the ablest woman was not able to engage in managerial contributions to the household unless the man in charge allowed it. Jane Parr was intelligent and highly accomplished but made the mistake of marrying a misogynist who had no respect for women’s abilities. The frustration she felt in this arrangement came out in spiteful sarcasm on both sides, as duly witnessed by various members of their social circle. They had two daughters, the elder of whom took after her mother in being intelligent, personable, and very able. But as her mother’s confidant and companion she was persuaded to take an entirely different approach to marriage, than she had.
Rather than marrying a poor but brilliant scholar as her mother had, she was advised to marry a wealthy fool whom she expected to manage and dominate.
Unfortunately, marrying a stupid man, even one significantly her junior, did not achieve the independence in her personal life that she desired. She ended up with a husband just as misogynistic as her father, furthermore he was abusive to her. In the end, in a complex catastrophe of circumstances, the fallout from the daughter’s marriage resulted in the illness and rapid death of both women.
It’s not entirely clear how this example fits into the discussion of companions but Rizzo treats it as an example of women colluding together socially to achieve their end--unsuccessfully in this case.
The topic of economic motivations in family dynamics is last illustrated by two fictional examples. Samuel Johnson’s novel Rambler involves a courtship and marriage in which all parties are focusing solely on the expectation of economic gain, with love playing no part. By the time the wedding is celebrated, all parties feel cheated. The young bride brings with her into the marriage an older companion who, in theory, is to teach her domestic management, but in reality is her partner in plans to recover her expectations from the marriage financially.
Given that her husband married her for her money it’s hard to fault her for taking an equally mercenary view of the match. But the moral of the story as presented is that a man should marry a virtuous woman rather than marrying for money and should keep power over his estates in his own hands rather than allowing women to take it over. The conspiring women are punished in the end for their efforts.
The last example of the manipulation of economic power by a companion is Charlotte Smith’s novel The Old Manor House involving a housekeeper-companion to a tyrannical woman, who is happy to place the management of her affairs in the hands of someone whose feelings she considers of no value. The housekeeper companion is an able manager, but her morals have been destroyed by the need to toady to a woman less able than herself. Gradually she ousts anyone not loyal to her from the household and takes control of ever more of her mistress’s affairs.
But having taken her mistress as a model of behavior, the housekeeper eventually over steps and is betrayed by others in turn. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but the moral of the story is that a woman who abuses power for her own ends will meet a deserved come-upance, as well as the continuing theme that being companion to a tyrannical mistress will inevitably corrupt all but the most virtuous companion.
In this case the housekeeper-companion had the opportunity to turn her business and management skills to the advantage of the entire household, but not only was this end blocked by her mistress’s ill-will but by the companions moral flaws as well.
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.
This chapter looks at a fairly complicated relationship between two women, one a courtesan, and one fulfilling the role of companion, along with also being her manager, her pimp, and her lover.
Sophia Baddeley was a sometime actress and performer who found her talents more acceptably turned to the business of entertaining rich and handsome men. She would have done better in that profession if she had focus more on the rich ones than the handsome ones, but she did spend a significant period being maintained by one of the richest men in England. Unfortunately, she had a habit of spending far more than any reasonable man was willing to consider her worth. That, along with a free-spending lifestyle, an addiction to laudanum, and a series of bad choices in male companionship eventually led to her decline through the ranks of society until she was making a living once more on the stage at the end of her life.
Elizabeth Steele was Baddeley’s companion from the very beginning of her career. Sorting out the relationship between the two women is not easy. Rizzo doesn’t make it any easier by having some very fixed ideas about the nature of the relationship that aren’t always supported by the evidence she presents. Suffice it to say that Steele was the businesswoman. She was the one who made arrangements for living places. She was the one who discussed finances with Baddeley’s lovers. And she was the one who scraped together the money to pay off debts when the men didn’t come through.
Rizzo asserts that the two women were lovers and though the specific evidence for that isn’t presented, it fits with some of the patterns of behavior. Certainly there was a codependent relationship between them and Steele (in the posthumous biography she wrote of Baddeley, which was in part a context for extortion) depicts them as having a close and intimate relationship. They usually lived together (and shared a bed when Baddeley didn’t have a lover around), had explosive separations in the context of Baddeley’s aforementioned “bad choices”, and had tender and forgiving reunions (usually when Baddeley needed to get her finances back in order after a lover had cleaned her out).
Baddeley was clearly emotionally dependent on Steele, as well as relying on her for business sense. But I’m not sure I entirely buy Rizzo’s depiction of Steele as being focused primarily on using Baddeley as a source of income. Time and again, Steele retrieves Baddeley from unfortunate situations, puts her on her feet again, and sees her back into some semblance of functionality. There are situations presented where Steele’s actions make no sense unless she had a genuine attachment to her.
Rizzo also asserts that the women’s story is an example of a principle that she has identified that when women’s alliances are used in support of patriarchal structures, they are successful, but when they ally to oppose patriarchal structures, they’re doomed. Baddeley and Steele regularly scorned the men whose desires supported them, mocking many of Baddeley’s suitors and playing cruel tricks on others. But I don’t see that Baddeley’s eventual fall from fashion can be pinned on that attitude, except by treating it as some abstract moral accounting. Based on the evidence presented, it strikes me that Baddeley‘s fall was caused by her extravagant personality, her lack of common sense when it came to business, and her addictions.
In fact the more I read through this book the more it feels like there’s an underlying streak of misogyny in how Rizzo interprets many of the biographies. Women’s motivations and actions are interpreted negatively whenever possible. Not that the men’s actions are depicted any more positively, so perhaps we might say an underlying misanthropic streak. This may be turned around in the next few chapters, where the topic turns to biographies of women considered to be altruistic.
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.
This chapter provides a somewhat more coherent theme with regard to companionship, and it presents an entirely positive model. It contrasts the lives of Frances Greville, the wife of Fulke Greville who has been mentioned previously, and Georgianna Spencer. But I must clear up the identity of this Georgiana because I spent half the chapter being confused. This is Georgiana married-name-Spencer, who is the mother of the Georgiana Spencer who married William Cavendish and thereby became the unhappy Duchess of Devonshire.
The Spencer and Greville were close friends though rather unalike in personality. Frances Greville was renowned for her outspoken wit, strong opinions, and preference for disdaining sensibility and emotionalism. She had rather hostile relations with her husband and they separated because of that, leaving her is difficult financial circumstances. Greville’s relations with her companions were shaped, in part, by her inability to support a companion of her own rank. In fact, most of her companions also served as lady’s maid, though she was willing to forgo some expertise in that field as long as they were skilled at reading to her and were good company. A side effect of these requirements was that they were women who were not at risk of challenging her authority or expecting much in terms of intimacy.
Georgiana Spencer, on the other hand, had a very happy marriage, but her husband was significantly older and died, leaving her a widow at a relatively young age. Both of Georgianna’s daughters led tumultuous lives, and one of the things Georgiana seems to have looked for a companion was a substitute daughter who would provide less drama.
Greville and Spencer were both consistently pleasant and benevolent in their relations to their companions, not the domineering tyrants of earlier chapters. Frances Greville took good care of the succession of maid/companion figures in her life, seeing to them when they were ill and ensuring that they were taken care of once they left her service. Some of the young women who filled this role had been selected and trained up by her friend Georgiana, who seem to have a hobby of identifying and providing suitable young women for her friends’ households.
After her husband‘s death, and with her two daughters married off, Georgiana engaged the services of the daughter of a clergyman who was a client of the family. Elizabeth Preedy. While Greville’s companions needed to do double-duty as ladies maid and companion, Spencer attached Elizabeth Preedy purely for the sake of company. Georgiana chose to live a relatively quiet life after being widowed, with a turn to charity and good works, and Preedy suited her very well in that state of mind.
Preedy might have retained the post of companion for the rest of their lives, but a wealthy widower who was a friend of the Spencers settled on her as the ideal second wife to manage his household and look after his children. Georgiana was hesitant to forbid the match. Not only was it an unlooked-for opportunity for Preedy herself, but the larger Preedy family was in dire need of the support such a match could bring.
But as the possibility of the marriage was discussed between Spencer and Preedy, it became obvious that women were far more attached to each other than they had previously realized. Rizzo frames this as a romantic attachment and although the language they used about each other is ambiguous regarding the nature of their feelings, the extended agonizing over the possible separation, and whether it was the best choice, tells it’s own story. Despite their clear emotional distress at the thought of their separation, in the end Preedy did marry the wealthy widower and seems to have been reconciled to finding happiness on that path. But it seems clear that she might have preferred to stay as Georgiana‘s companion for the rest of their lives, if family pressures hadn’t intervened.
Both women, Georgiana Spencer and Frances Greville, deliberately chose companions who were of lower status than themselves, but for different purposes and functions. This choice may have contributed to the success and happiness of the arrangements, but the temperament of the women as mistresses must also be taken into account.
This chapter, though just as packed with the confusion of life details as the previous ones, provides a much clearer picture of a particular configuration of companionship. The two women in the relationship were both from the comfortable middle class, but each with disadvantages to be overcome, and each had a certain amount of good fortune--or at least a good outcome that left them quite happy and comfortable. I’m going to take each of their stories separately at first and then blend them together.
Molly Carter was the youngest of 12 children of a well off middle-class family. Her father was a member of Parliament and the family had an estate to be handed on, although entirely too many children for all of them to be benefited by that resource. Molly Carter never married and, by unknown means, she ended up with a fairly significant fortune. Rizzo works backwards from the size of her establishment and the amount of the bequests she made in her will to determine that she must have had a fortune of at least 20,000 pounds.
While she may have made good investments to earn some of that, and she may also have received a legacy or legacies from unknown sources, unfortunately her position and status was of so little interest to posterity that we have almost no information about the period of her life when she acquired her fortune.
Molly was intelligent, strong-minded, and contemporaries frequently remarked on her “masculine“ intelligence and personality. (Keep in mind that intelligence and intellectual ability were defined as masculine qualities, so this isn’t necessarily a comment on her gender presentation.) She spent most of her life on the fringes of high society, being an acquaintance of people of rank and status, but not a close friend of any of them. Even those known to have been close friends of hers said little about her in their correspondence and memoirs. There is a sense of something ever so slightly “off” about her life—something that made her acceptability questionable in society—such that she was not entirely welcome or at home among fashionable people.
In later years, she was strongly rumored to be a lesbian, although specific relationships are not mentioned with the possible exception of Louisa Clarges.
Louisa had something of a checkered background herself. Her mother had been the mistress of Lord Sandwich and after he cast her off, she took up with a young man of comfortable wealth who was not entirely averse to picking up forsaken mistresses of the great. The two were not married at the time Louisa was born, thought they did marry shortly thereafter, but it appears that her father didn’t formally acknowledge her until after his death. Louisa’s mother died a few years after the marriage during a tour on the continent. She left Louisa a set of diamonds (no doubt a gift to her from Lord Sandwich) and appointed her husband to be Louisa’s guardian.
Louisa was charming, musically talented, somewhat giddy, and popular among the artistic set. Her musical talent and social connections brought her into fashionable society despite the moral lapses of her mother’s past and her own birth. She attracted the attention of Thomas Clarges, a rich man who, like her, was devoted to music, and it appears to have been a love match.
In the five years they were married, they had four children, including one pair of twins, and Lady Clarges was the toast of fashionable society. Unfortunately her husband died leaving her a 22-year-old widow with four children (but sufficient wealth to ease the sorrow).
Louisa and Molly had become friends at some point earlier and Molly appears to have lived in the Clarges household before and after Sir Thomas‘s death. Afterward, she became Louisa’s main emotional and logistical support while she regained her equilibrium. There was a significant age difference between the two. Molly was older and Rizzo—following her usual pattern of imposing parental roles on companions—suggests she took something of a motherly role. That might create an unfortunate impression in the reader given what followed.
Before Sir Thomas’s death, they had planned to make a stay on the continent for his health, and after afterward Louisa determined to continue with plans for the tour. Molly had previous experience with continental travel and so provided not merely personal support, but this expertise as well.
There are implications that Louisa had some mild scandal associated with her, and that she had reason to absent herself from England for a while so that talk with die down, but the specifics of that are nowhere provided. In any event, the two women, the children, and all the associated retinue went abroad and mixed in fashionable society in France and Italy.
Contemporaries who commented on them implied some interesting things. Molly was referred to as Louisa’ “chevalier” and it one point is called “her Sappho”. There are suggestions that she was regarded as masculine in some way, and given the direct references to her reputation as a lesbian it is a natural conclusion to suppose that the two women were known--or at least suspected--to be lovers.
These rumors don’t seem to have impeded their acceptance in society, or their enjoyment of travel and the social opportunities it brought. Louisa enjoyed at least one offer of marriage (or a near-offer) that she turns down. When they eventually returned to England several years later, they separated on amicable terms and remained excellent friends for the rest of their lives.
Luisa was no longer the glamorous and lighthearted socialite she had been before marriage, but had settled down to sensibility, devoting herself to her children and to music. She had unfortunate luck in her children’s health: one son being killed in the Navy, and two being of delicate health (possibly tuberculosis), for which reason she settled the family in the north of Wales where the air was said to be better. But to no avail in the end. Her last son survived to adulthood but never married.
Molly Carter continued to visit her in Wales. She had settled in London, but having no social or historical prominence of her own is rarely mentioned. We know a fair amount about her financial situation based on the wealth she was able to leave behind. She lived a long and active life, continued to travel, and was remarked upon regularly as a remarkable and memorable woman.
They both were buried in the same churchyard very close to each other, and it’s hard to imagine that this was by accident. Even though they spent only a portion of their lives in the same household, they were clearly close, and given the rumors it’s likely their relationship was at least romantic and possibly sexual.
Rizzo points out that for a positive companion relationship it is not sufficient for the participants simply to be benevolent and of similar temperament, but that financial comfort goes a long way to ensuring private success in one’s relations. And by whatever means they came by it, Molly and Louisa were sufficiently fortunate in their finances to be able to enjoy their partnership with no clouds for the time that it lasted.
This chapter once again shows a certain incoherence of narrative, in that Sarah Scott had close connections with two women named Montagu: her sister Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (discussed in chapter 6, the founder of the Bluestocking Society) and lady Barbara Montagu from a completely unrelated family. Rizzo’s tendency to refer to Elizabeth Montagu simply as “Montagu” during the early part of the chapter is extremely confusing, as Barbara Montagu doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later.
Sarah Robinson Scott did not have an auspicious beginning in life. Although close to her sister Elizabeth through all their childhood, once Elizabeth married--and in particular after Sarah suffered from smallpox at age 20--there was a break between them. And though it might have been natural for Sarah to live with her sister later, instead she lived a precarious existence as guest of a sequence of relatives and family friends. Sarah satirized her sister somewhat in her Description of Millenium Hall as a beautiful, charming, witty woman whose primary weakness was vanity.
Sarah’s mother had been the property-owner of the marriage, and after the mother’s death when the property went to Sarah’s oldest brother, their father moved into meagre lodgings in London with his mistress/housekeeper, making his house doubly an unsuitable place for Sarah.
Eventually, Sarah migrated to Bath, where she met Barbara Montagu, who quickly became a fast friend. she also met her future husband there, though the marriage turned out to be unsatisfactory for significant, but never explained, reasons. Her Family interfered to separate the couple and ensure some minimal income for Sarah independently. After that, Sarah spent the majority of her life in Bath and its environs, almost continually in the company of Barbara Montagu.
The two don’t seem to have had a romantic friendship type of relationship, but definitely a domestic partnership and a close friendship. Barbara Montagu was from an aristocratic family but never married due to frail health. She had a barely sufficient income for independence in an inexpensive place such as Bath. When combined with Sarah’s various incomes, they were able to manage frugally.
The two were part of a larger circle of independent and forward-thinking women in Bath, and the discussions of that circle regarding women’s place in the world and how best to implement charitable principles provided the background and much of the development for Scott’s Description of Millenium Hall.
That was not Scott’s first published work. She wrote at least one novel earlier that also explored issues of women’s place in society. Millenium Hall was an ambitious thought experiment in what women could do if they pooled the resources to form, not merely an independent economic community for themselves, but an institution that could benefit their community through charitable and Christian principles.
The book was an unexpected success, which helped Scott financially, though it was often the case that Scott’s income was turned to charitable expenses. She had many projects, such as maintaining a school for poor girls in the village outside Bath where she and Montagu had a second home. The girls would be taught sewing, and the clothing they made distributed as charity to other poor people.
Millenium Hall fell short of truly Utopian ideals in not directly challenging patriarchal structures or the basis of class differences. It was very much an example of women of comfortable, if not extravagant, means pooling their resources to do good in the community for those less fortunate than themselves.
The Bath circle made an abortive attempt to implement an actual community along the lines of Millenium Hall, but it fell apart rather quickly due to conflicts over philosophy and authority.
As example of a form of companionship, this chapter does not focus a great deal on Scott and Montagu’s partnership, except in that Montagu was able to provide some financial stability for Scott during hard times, and Scott in turn, provided the companionship Montagu needed to live independently. But more than the two of them, the entire Bath circle was an example of women’s connections providing both the moral and intellectual support needed to challenge women’s disadvantages in the world.
In summarizing and presenting her conclusions, Rizzo emphasizes the range of women’s interactions with the world on a scale from tyranny to altruism, much more than the theme of women’s companionship relations that is ostensibly the topic of the book. She discusses how the women writers she covers approach the problem of women’s sexuality given the impossibility at that era for a woman to openly claim her sexuality and remain virtuous. Rizzo discusses a sliding scale of altruism from what she calls “immature altruism” where women simply refrain from becoming tyrants to “mature altruism” in which they rejected being either victims or victimizers, and did good for others without themselves being exploited.
This shift in focus from the social institution of companionship to the evaluation of social behavior with regard to altruism, combined with the book’s tendency toward anecdotal biography, has made it a less coherent book then it initially appeared to be. The biographies provide some interesting models for women’s lives, but I don’t feel that I have a clear picture of the nature of 18th century companionship from this work.