We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Betty Rizzo's _Companions Without Vows_ · 18 August 08

Dear Friends,

While I was away, I read on C18-l, that the great 18th century scholar, Betty Rizzo, died. She had been friendly and very kind to me on and offlist, sent me copies of texts we were both interested in (women’s poems), which were hard to get. At one point Betty thanked me for having written a review of her book, Companions Without Vows, which, as I recall, she said I did more justice to and understood better (from what had been written about it) than anyone else.

She also thought she and I had met once in NYC, on the porch steps of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street:

“Ellen did we ever meet? I have a clear recollection of after having finished with the graduate center in 1971, having a very interesting conversation with a current student on the side steps of the NYPL. I think it may have been you. Best, Betty.”

This was possible as the year she thought we had met in I was doing graduate work at the Graduate Center right across the street and going to the library regularly.

I thought I could commemorate her by copying and pasting my review of her book here on my blog. Hitherto it was posted to Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo and I put it on my website; in neither place does it get much attention. At the time of writing I had no blog.

Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2003
Subject: [Womenwriters] Companions Without Vows by Betty Rizzo
Reply-To: WomenwritersThroughTheAges@yahoogroups.com

Elizabeth Vesey (1715-91), the mistress in a maid-mistress companionship pair

This is strongly to recommend reading Betty Rizzo’s Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century Women, one of the more perceptive, thoroughly well informed and non-sentimental, non-false books I’ve read in years. I connect it to these ghost stories by women as in these we do find the mirrored reflection (no matter how indirect, how glancing) of the real relationships between maids and mistresses. Sometimes the maid dominates the mistress, sometimes the husband uses both, and then again the wife is dominatrix.

Rizzo’s book is explicit and hard. She studies a series of pairs of women in the 18th century where one was a mistress and the other a companion. In some cases the woman who is the mistress is shown with a series of companions; in some cases, the woman who finds herself driven to this hard position is shown as companion (or treated as a companion) with several women.

This is a deeply unpleasant book in a way. Rizzo shows just how people will treat others who they can dominate almost it seems inevitably and the treatment is nearly always disrespectful on some level, and frequently openly grating, exploitative, and demeaning for the “unpaid” companion. I just finished the chapter on Burney who was partly treated as a companion by Hester Thrale and did endure 5 years of being the companion of the queen’s wardrobe woman. Burney nearly died of it. The previous chapter was about Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress); those to come include a hard look at Elizabeth Montagu (mistress), Frances Greville (companion). Threaded through are smaller “lives” of women like Sarah Scott, Sarah Fielding and Jane Collier. They formed circles of women who tried to live independently—on very little—rather than submit to becoming someone’s “toady.” The word is used frequently in 18th and 19th century diaries.

I hadn’t know the origin of this unsympathetic slang term for sycophant. It comes from mountebank shows in the 17th century. A boy was hired (think Oliver Twist) to eat toads as part of the show. The meal was something clearly nauseating. I also hadn’t know why Jane Collier’s The Art of Tormenting was such a popular book among women readers in the 18th century and can still be seen as a “lift-off” in some 19th century books by women. By sheer happenstance I came across it as the opener in Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher (which later had the beautiful poems I quoted last week. Here is how The Young Philosopher opens:

“It is, I believe, in a work written by Mrs Sarah Fielding [a common misattribution], and now out of print, called The Art of Tormenting that I have read the following fable:

‘A society of animals were once disputing on various modes of suffering, and of death; many offered their opinions, but it was at length agreed that the sheep, as the most frequent victim, could give the best account of the agonies inflicted by the teeth and claws of beasts of prey.”

Smith then goes on to liken herself to the sheep in the fable and says her novel will dwell on the world seen from the view of sheep like her: not all of them sheep based on the same reasons.

The sheep in Rizzo’s book are unpaid and paid companions of the wealthy and some upper servants (governesses), but she shows how the position of such women (very real and very common throughout the 19th century as it was not socially acceptable for a woman who had the money to afford it to live alone) could resonate out to many niches in society and how “the art of tormenting” – a way of making daily experience grating could ring home to readers. A drop in status is one of the worst social experiences people can suffer, and to be an unpaid companion brings home quite graphically the awareness of such experiences. Rizzo’s book includes reprints of ads by women trying to find a place (nowhere as innocuous as Jane Eyre’s) as well as ads by women trying to get such a woman (through the general language you see a kind of continual obedient slavery and utter complaisance about how each minute of your life may be spent is what is demanded). Then she also quotes diaries where it’s clear the woman doesn’t quite realize what she’s doing to her companion (Mrs Thrale’s early treatment of the Burney doll who wrote the star book, Evelina) and also women who realize what they are doing and even revel in it (though they don’t admit this).

The book is filled with sociological and and economic data about real women’s lives very hard to come by. There’s an underlying desire once and for all to stop romanticizing women. Rizzo gets a kick out of showing what people are. Curiously too (and this is part of the book’s atmosphere or feel and perspective) Rizzo does not only sympathize with the companion, she openly enters into the case of the mistress. She herself likes some of her bullies. She sees that they are bullied too.

A second perspective working its way continually through the book is that the unpaid companion and her relationship to her mistress were seen as precisely analogous to the position of a wife to a husband. The wife was the unpaid servant. The way Thrale treated his wife constrained and enslaved her: what else is this continual going to bed and producing children when the man is distasteful to her and doesn’t care for her in the least? Repeatedly Rizzo quotes poems and passages where women in the period who were wives or were being pushed into marrying likened the position to that of a servant, unpaid and having to obey.

She argues that another way of reading books on women and their companions is to see in them an argument against marriage. Why should a woman marry? Cannot society be arranged another way where this is not the only way she can survive respectably? A whole undercurrent of (justifiably) angry and depressed and frustrated feeling which went with a way of life that underlies Victorian novels is brought out. When men write these novels, we can’t see this; if we want to get at the woman reader of such books and the very occasional woman writer who brings this out (and that’s not Eliot or Gaskell but Austen very indireclty, Brontes openly and hardly anyone else), we need to see this analogy working out in women’s minds. Rizzo provides the data for us to see it both in life and in many many texts.

I have put the following poem on 18thCentury Worlds more than once. It was the most frequently reprinted poem by a woman in the 18th century. It’s by Mary Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710):

To the Ladies

Wife and servant are the same,
But only differ in the name:
For when that fatal knot is tied,
Which nothing, nothing can divide,
When she the word obey has said,
Abd man by law supreme had made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but state and pride.
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows,
And all his innate rigour shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the nuptial contract break.
Like mutes, she signs alone must make,
And never any freedom take,
But still be governed by a nod,
And fear her husband as her god:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty lord thinks fits,
Who, with the power, has all the wit.
Then shun, Oh! shun that wretched state,
And all the fawning flatterers hate.
Value yourselves, and men despise:
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise.

(first printed 1703)

Here’s another poem on marriage by Hetty Wright (1697-1751); the poem is not so well-known:

*“Wedlock: A Satire”*

Thou tyrant, whom I will not name,
Whom heaven and hell alike disclaim;
Abhorred and shunned, for different ends,
By angels, Jesuits, beasts and fiends!
What terms to curse thee shall I find,
Thou plague peculiar to mankind?
O may my verse excel in spite
The wiliest, wittiest imps of night!
Then lend me for a while your rage,
You maidens old and maidens sage:
So may my terms in railing seem
As vile and hateful as my theme.

External foe to soft desires,
Inflamer of forbidden fires,
Thou source of discord, pain and care,
Thou sure forerunner of despair,
Thou scorpion with a double face,
Thou lawful plague of human race,
Thou bane of freedom, ease and mirth,
Thou deep damnation upon earth,
Thou serpent which the angels fly,
Thou monster whom the beasts defy,
Whom wily Jesuits sneer at too;
And Satan (let him have his due)
Was never so confirmed a dunce
To risk damnation more than once.
That wretch, if such a wretch there be,
Who hopes for happiness from thee,
May search successfully as well
For truth in whores and ease in hell.

(written 1752, published 1862)

Hetty Wright was sister to the Wesley brothers. The editor, Lonsdale, provides a brief entry in which he adds an autobiographical detail to the effect Wright was unhappily married. The effect (probably unintended) could be to limit the general applicability of the poem. Tomorrow I’ll provide a life and works of Hetty Wright (one of my foremother poet postings for Wompo).


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Clare (who ever kind):

    “Well that’s what I look for in a review. Should I or should I read the book? So obviously it was a good review as the book is now winging it’s way to me from Alibris. I can tell you’re back Ellen. I’ve hit the online book-stores twice in the last three days (tongue in cheek).

    Elinor    Aug 18, 1:26pm    #
  2. (Blush.) Thank you, Clare, you are ever kind. I tell myself I have provided you with good experiences—Rizzo’s book is remarkable, and even if long compelling reading. She shows how people will use power ruthlessly if given it; for every single individual who is pointed to as the good person, there are 10 who use power to the limit. She shows how the demand women marry without option for a career drives them into such toadying—in our book on Eighteenth Century Worlds, Tillyard's Aristocrats and Harriet O'Caroll's film adaptation, Caroline may want to possess her own life and live in a fulfilled way but the terms of her rebellion are only to marry someone more interesting or congenial than her parents would have given her, not herself to have a career. That is seen in a couple of scenes where we see Henry Fox just too busy and preoccupied, not that he doesn’t care for her.

    Most of all Rizzo though shows how personalities count. It’s striking how sometimes the mistress emerges as the weak person in the household, the husband taking control for real with the companion playing them off against one another; this happens particularly when the husband took a companion for his mistress for a while. Sometimes the situation (rare but it happens in the book and such situations did leave more papers) emerges like the movie The Servant where the mistress grows to depend on her companion for coping with “the world.”

    And yet the reviews basically ignored this. They were irritated she didn’t discuss lesbianism; her book fits no fashionable agenda and did what Freud says never to do: reveal human nature as unpleasant and the core reason for the injustices of one of its typical societies.

    Elinor    Aug 18, 1:32pm    #
  3. Dear Ellen, Another copy of Rizzo’s book will find its way to me imminently… With thanks, as ever, Tom

    PS Yesterday’s find at the Strand: Chapman’s 1932 2 vol ed of Austen’s letters, very nice set: with a lovely year of publication presentation inscription from a husband to his wife commemorating their 32nd wedding anniversary! (Also a Bath bookseller’s label). Oh, yes, $20. for the set! (same bindings I believe as those on Chapman’s 5 vol Austen ed published some years previously).
    T. Wood    Aug 18, 8:01pm    #
  4. It strikes me that the depiction of women in Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds, especially Lucy Morris with Lady Linlithgow, and somewhat less, Miss MacNulty with Lady Eustace is a exemplum of just what Rizzo is talking about. The instance of Lucinda Roanoke pushed into marriage to avoid the companoin job fate, and Mrs Carbuncle making it by being a quiet prostitute on the sly (so common) has its analogues in real women in Rizzo’s book too.

    See my blog on "protofeminism" in Trollope's Eustace Diamonds, erased from Raven's Lizzie matter in the Pallisers (6:12-7:13), 20 May '08.

    Elinor    Aug 21, 11:46am    #
  5. Dear Tom,

    I just got hold of a copy of Jan Fergus’s JA: A Literary Life which you rejoiced so to have found. I am wondering how you liked yours. I am thinking of reading another biography of Austen and should this be it?

    Thank you for your comment on my blog about the Strand. While at Willis Monie I did buy a beautiful book about art in the 18th and 19th century, one just loaded with reproductions. I’ll be putting some of them on my two lists.

    Hope you are keeping cool,
    Elinor    Aug 21, 4:33pm    #
  6. From Diana B:

    “I did read the review of the Betty Rizzo book and thought it interesting!”
    Elinor    Aug 22, 8:02am    #
  7. From a thread on ECW:

    One of the more memorable of the long chapters of the 7 or 8 pairs of rich women and companions is about Georgiana Spencer Cavenish and Elizabeth Foster. Betty Rizzo’s portrait is much harder than Amanda Foreman’s biography, and to me it was more persuasive.

    The outlines are the same: early pressured marriage, cold indifferent husband, many pregnancies, gambling for release, then the companion who not only became Spencer’s best friend, and lover too (so Foreman hints and Rizzo agrees) and the Duke’s mistress, but paradoxically was the person Spencer leaned upon. She needed someone for emotional support and never got it until she met Forster; she was a loving mother and gave strong support to her children partly the result of her memories of deprivation. Forster though also took advantage of this, and become in some ways the leader of the menage a trois: shows what a personality can do.

    Rizzo sees her relationship with Charles James Fox (who we encounter as a gambler in Aristocrats) not only a political alliance but another emotional dependency. The two of them in the wee hours of the morning gambling. Spencer did fall in love with another male and had at least one child by him; this was a child her husband kept from her—though it was just fine for him to keep his illegitimate children about. There is a record of her intense distress over her gambling and what it forced her to do to pay her debts: The Sylph.

    After Georgiana’s death, the Duke married Elizabeth.

    Rizzo has critiqued Foreman's book on C18-l. Rizzo objected to some interpretations, the sort of sentimentality here and there that Foreman is now throwing out in buckets. Rizzo also (and here I did agree with her) say that Foreman's inference at the end that women were not that disabled by circumstances, and deeply engaged in public life was founded on the case of one woman, rich, privileged, and that power behind the throne, contingent, networking was fleeting and ineffective power. The end of Spencer's politicking brought her nothing and there's no proof it had any effect beyond causing a great deal of ugly propaganda against here. Foreman herself shows that at the same time Georgiana needed someone to lean upon, she was vigorous and aggressive in political life and was hideously cruelly attacked (like Dora Jordan).

    Elinor    Aug 28, 12:33pm    #

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