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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.
Status and duties
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. In return she would be given a room in the family's part of the house (rather than the servants' quarters), all of her meals would be provided, and she would be paid a small salary, which would be called an "allowance" never "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; 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 end of the lady's companion
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.
Lady's companions in fiction
In the works of Agatha Christie
There are numerous lady's companions in the works of Agatha Christie. In her novels dating from before World War II, the companion is presented as a conventional feature of the life of the moneyed classes, but after World War II desperation begins to creep in. The companions are drawn from an enlarged large group of elderly women who grew up in Victorian times and were not brought up in the expectation of having to provide for themselves, but find themselves impoverished due to the decline of the fortunes of many once well-to-do families as a result of the Great Depression, and the investment losses of World War II. At the same time, the women who employ them are often not so well off as they once were themselves, especially in net terms due to high rates of taxation. This situation is compounded by the collapse in the supply of (working-class) servants due to changing labour market conditions and social attitudes, so that companions are increasingly asked to do domestic duties which they find humiliating. This degradation of the status of the companion, combined with the increasing range of options open to young middle-class women, and their increasing keenness to have a career, also reflected in many of Christie's works, represents the closure of the era of the lady's companion in the United Kingdom.
A notably vicious companion appears in the novel After the Funeral; Miss Gilchrist, an apparently meek and fearful woman, is revealed to be conniving and murderous, brutally killing her employer with a hatchet to gain a valuable Vermeer artwork, and disguising herself as her employer at a relative's funeral in order to turn the family against each other. After being exposed, she is shown to be insane.
- 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.
- Josephine March is a companion to her wealthy great aunt in Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women.
- Sarah Woodruff works as a companion in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman.
- In the 1969 thriller What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? a widow murders her housekeepers/companion in order to get their savings.
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