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 11 - Sensibility and Romantic Friendship: Frances Greville and Lady Spencer
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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.