Feb 19, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Reading is one of my favorite hobbies and I’m usually engrossed in more than one story at the same time. I like to balance my reading choices between fiction and non-fiction. While my non-fiction tastes span the gamut, when it comes to fiction I’m going through a Victorian season. I am fascinated by the levels of social hierarchy and shocked by the hoops young heroines had to jump through to eke out success. It’s an eye-opening exercise to put yourself in their silk shoes. For example, if you were a lady of means just getting dressed required assistance and a tremendous amount of patience. But I think the biggest culture shock for me is the quiet. Yep, no smart phones or televisions or i-Pads were present. While I look forward to device-free hours during my day, the thought of never having these distractions to entertain me seems daunting. As a modern gal I have to wonder how our Victorian ancestors responded to all this silence. Firstly, I suppose the silence didn’t seem all that strange to them. (However, perhaps the noise of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution did leave some folks pining for a more peaceful soundscape.) Secondly, Victorian ladies were quite resourceful. They used the lulls to hone new skills like needlepoint. In fact, their creations still enjoy top-billing on antique sites such as Ruby Lane. Maybe next time I’m not sure how to cope with a quiet moment I would be better served by filling the void with a handicraft rather than scrolling through Instagram!
Despite all of these amusements, solitude can transform into loneliness with surprising ease. As the wise Winnie the Pooh would remind us – “it’s so much more friendly with two.” So in many of my favorite novels a recurring character joins the plot. Who is this constant friendly force? A lady’s companion of course! Join me as we learn more about this steadfast figure from Victorian literature and domestic life.
The position of a lady’s companion is complicated. Usually employed by rich, older patrons a companion wasn’t quite viewed in the same light as a typical servant. The relationship was more like a blend between mentor/student and benefactor/nurse. To make matters a bit more tricky, candidates for this job had to belong to a similar social class as their employer. While that may seem a bit counter-intuitive, it makes sense once you realize the position originated during the 9th century when royalty enjoyed the company of ladies-in-waiting. (After all, if you were going to make a political power play in those days, you better have a posse by your side. It goes without saying that this support network should dazzle and titles were the quickest way to wow a crowd.) Due to this lineage, being a lady’s companion became a top choice for genteel women who were facing financial difficulties. It was the kind of job that allowed you to save face instead of heading to the poor house. (In fact her compensation was known as an allowance, never something as vulgar as a wage!) Because of these details and noble pedigree a distinguished, but down-on-her-luck, woman could take work as a companion and not lose her social status.
In fact, during a time when marriage was the sole way for a woman to have security, being a lady’s companion could generate the best prospects. When you consider the limited employment options available during this time, I can see the appeal. But what was the day-to-day like? The task list was guided by one truth: keep the boss happy. During one moment that may entail being the entertainer: reading out loud, singing an uplifting tune, or tickling the ivories on the pianoforte. In another moment the companion becomes project manager, directing servants, administering medicine or assisting with correspondence. But if you had to choose one thing that the ideal lady’s companion excelled at it would be manners. She needed to be someone that instilled confidence, exuded charm, and radiated grace. She was well-educated, never ill-at-ease during society functions, capable of engaging in delightful conversation, and available to help her patron at the drop of a bonnet.
For the average woman who couldn’t afford a real-life companion, the emerging publication industry was there to help! The monthly magazine known as “The Ladies Companion” provided stimulating articles focused on the same topics you would have heard discussed in the halls of the great manors. Was this the democratization of elite friendships? Maybe we can’t make that leap, but celebrating the realm of female life in print gave credibility to the gentler sex. There’s something special about seeing an idea you can relate to captured in print – it’s validating. Definitely powerful during a time when many female authors would write under male nom de plumes. (Unlike the title of “lady’s companion”, “female author” was largely seen as scandalous.)
What interests me most about this idea of a lady’s companion is the dynamic of women supporting women. We must keep in mind that this job thrived during a time when it could be a very rough world for a vulnerable woman without a means of income. It’s quite an elegant solution as it affords the companion to retain her status (and chances of marriage) and provides the patron with an ally. As humans we aren’t wired to do life alone and with loneliness reaching epidemic proportions, there is something to be learned by looking to the past. To be sure, the job wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Not every patron was benevolent nor was every companion loyal, but this idea of women coming alongside each other to navigate difficult situations is inspiring…