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 7 - Deputy Labor: Empowering Strategies
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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.
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