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Occupation: Female Companion

Joan Fontaine in 'Rebecca'

Found in  The Fingerpost: A Guide to Professions for Educated Women, with Information as to Necessary Training (Central Bureau for the Employment of Women,1906) an article about getting work as a female companion. It suggests that the occupation, often found in thrillers and novels up to the late 1930s, hardly existed even in 1906. Vere Cochran, the writer of this piece, says that the profession was at its height in early Victorian times when 'semi invalidism' was a prevailing fashion. 'Who (now) can afford the doubtful luxury of a paid companion?' One of the most notable companions in fiction is the unnamed narrator of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) While working as the companion to a wealthy American woman on holiday in Monte Carlo she meets the rich and troubled widower Max de Winter who whisks her off to his country mansion Manderley...

"Companion, Housekeeper, or any position of trust - I could undertake work of this kind".

If the many seekers after work who open their campaign with these words could gauge their true import, or the effect which they produce, they would not so lightly use them. Few words could more clearly display their ignorance with regard to the conditions of the labour market;indeed, to the ears of those who know and who receive year by year hundreds of such applications, these words almost constitute a badge of incapacity.

Companion, Housekeeper, or any position of trust! Those who "dwell at home in ease" can hardly realise the depth of pathos underlying the commonplace sentence. To them, such occupations will appear entirely desirable, laudable, refreshingly feminine: the vagueness of the last on the list being redeemed by the glow of respectability shed by the two first. But there are other things which may not occur to them. Firstly: There is no general demand for companions. Secondly: There is no general demand for housekeepers in small private families. Thirdly: A business-like employer demands proof of special training and ability for each particular position of trust he may have to offer. In a word: He has no use for nondescript bundles of general trustworthiness. One has only to glance round the circle of one's acquaintances to note that the services of a companion are at a discount. While every woman of means has her maid and her dress-maker, who can afford the doubtful luxury of a paid companion? 

The modern unmarried woman who carves outer own career and chooses her own friends is  totally different being from the languid Early Victorian lady, who engaged a companion to play the piano to her, to do the flowers and to help her turn the heel of her brother's stocking. The companion of fifty years ago was the necessary prop to the victim of semi invalidism, then a prevailing fashion. With the cessation of the disease there is no further demand for the remedy.

Of douses there exist such very occasion "plums" as travelling companionships to girls, but in these rare vacancies the companion usually has to combine the duties of tutor, or courier, or chaperone. Further there are occasional old or delicate ladies to be found who desire the companionship of some young and active person; but in nine cases out of ten this want is met by the presences of a well-educated maid, a nurse or a nurse-attendant… Companions, as I have said, are in  little demand, and advertisements for them should be looked upon with suspicion as traps for the unwary. 

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2 thoughts on “Occupation: Female Companion

  1. Dr Donald Hopkins

    I can't speak for the situation in 1906, but the personal ads in The Lady, even today, are ample testimony of the demand for female companions. Indeed, I know of someone who answered such an ad and became a companion to a much older Greek heiress, with houses in London and Switzerland, for nearly 10 years.

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  2. admin Post author

    Thanks of the feedback. I know The Lady is still going strong as our shop buys their review copies and I am heartened to hear there is still a demand for paid companions. I remember that the job of butler had a resurgence in Beverley Hills and beyond a few years back. The rich, like the poor, are always with us…

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