- Lady's companion
A lady's companion was a woman of genteel birth who acted as a paid companion for women of rank or wealth. The term was in use in the United Kingdom from at least the 18th century to the mid 20th century. It was related to the position of
lady-in-waiting, which by the 19th century was only applied to the female retainers of female members of the royal family. Ladies-in-waiting were usually women from the most privileged backgrounds who took the position for the prestige of associating with royalty, or for the enhanced marriage prospects available to those who spent time at court, but lady's companions usually took up their occupation because they needed to earn a living.
A lady's companion was not regarded as a
servant. Only women from a class background similar to or only a little below that of their employer would be considered for the position. Women took positions as companions if they had no other means of support, as until the late 19th century there were very few other ways in which an upper or upper-middle class woman could earn a living which did not result in a complete loss of her class status. (Employment as a governess, running a private girls' school and writing were virtually the only other such options).
The companion's role was to spend her time with her employer, providing company and conversation, to help her to entertain guests and often to accompany her to social events. A companion received board and lodging and an allowance (which would never have been referred to as wages). She would not be expected to perform any domestic duties which her employer might not carry out herself, in other words little other than giving directions to servants, fancy sewing and pouring tea. Thus the role was not very different from that of an adult relation in respect of the lady of a household, except for the essential subservience resulting from financial dependency.
Lady's companions were employed because upper and middle class women spent most of their time at home. A lady's companion might be taken on by an unmarried woman living on her own, by a widow, or by an unmarried woman who was living with her father or another male relation but had lost her mother, and was too old to have a governess. In the latter case the companion would also act as a
chaperone , for example at the time it would not have been socially acceptable for a young lady to receive male visitors without either a male relation or an older lady present (a female servant would not have sufficed).
The occupation of lady's companion is redundant in the United Kingdom and most other developed countries because on the one hand rich women are no longer based at home to anything like the same extent (and rich young women no longer have ever-present chaperones) and on the other hand because women have many other employment options.
Examples in fiction
*The unnamed narrator of "Rebecca" is a lady's companion as the novel begins.
*Miss Taylor, one of the first characters met in
Jane Austen's novel "Emma", lives with the Woodhouses "less as a governess than a friend" to her grown-up charge.
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