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 5 Frances Bernie and the Anatomy of Companionship
It’s interesting to read about Hester Thrale from a more personal angle. My previous encounters with her in this blog have been less sympathetic. The quoted correspondence from Thrale talking about Frances Burney is full of expressions of love and devotion. The sort that scholars quote when discussing the fuzzy line between conventional social expressions of friendship and ones that hint of erotic attraction.
But I can’t help remembering the other side of Thrale’s writing: her gossipy accusations of close female friends being “a little too devoted to their own sex” and the striking passage in which Thrale referred to the Ladies of Llangollen as “damned Sapphists.“ Though people of the time didn’t necessary see an equivalence between male and female same-sex relations, Thrale was even more vicious in her private writing about men she suspected of homosexuality.
So is Thrale an example of how romantic language doesn’t always indicate erotic same-sex love? Or is there a suggestion that Thrale was conflicted on the topic due to her own disappointment in not achieving the companionship she wanted? Or is this simply a lesson in how affection, romance, eros, and other varieties of love come in different combinations and people draw their lines of acceptable and unacceptable in individual places?
My vote is on the last. One of the reasons that romantic friendship created a space in which homoerotic relationships could exist is that there was always ambiguity. Or rather, the types of emotional relationships that were real for 18th century people included intensely romantic feelings that did not incorporate eros, as well as those that did. And there will always be people like Thrale who embrace one combination of emotions as the only acceptable combination, while disparaging others.
At the same time, it’s clear that Thrale was not always introspective about her feelings. At the same time, she wanted Frances Burney to be present and available to her at all times as a supportive friend and confidant, who would value that friendship not only for Thrale’s presence but for her presents, and Thrale despised companions who were subservient, dependent, and toad-eaters. The latter allowed her to forgive Burney for refusing the former. But that lack of insight into her own conflicts may have contributed to a failure to see common ground with women who enjoyed “companionship with benefits” and concluding that those women were Doing It Wrong.
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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?