There is about the very word companion the suggestion of a homely, sheltered, comfortable occupation, very attractive to a lonely woman who finds herself adrift and untrained, unskilled among a host of trained and skilled workers.
Small wonder that to be " companion to a lady " was one of the very, very few careers open to the middle-aged gentlewoman in reduced circumstances living in the early and mid-victorian era.
Practically and legally she was a domestic servant, paid a regular salary, and performing certain duties ; but such a fact was gently covered over and hidden by the kindly disposed well-to-do relative or rich acquaintance who took the desolate being to her hearth and home to eat bread with her, thus letting her perform her real function ; for the word companion is derived from the Latin cum, with, and panis, bread. Perhaps in those leisurely days people were more charitable ; certainly women were less self-dependent ; and certainly chaperonage was more strict, so that the companion was much in evidence.
Our social and domestic life has changed a good deal since those days ; our dwellings, our servants, our amusements, our occupations belong to a new century. We have lady cooks, lady housemaids, and even the ubiquitous charwoman expects to be known as " lady " ; but the companion is among us still. She has taken a new lease of life, and, if the signs of the times are to be relied on, she has a long and vigorous existence before her in several different roles.
First, there is a large number of elderly people, both men and women, who are not really invalids, but who have no near relative or friend able and willing to look after them, to read to them, to walk with them, to attend to their wants, to see they have suitable food at proper times, and to amuse them. The duties are not heavy, and in the case of dear, grateful old people - there are many such - the companion has usually an interesting time, for one of the sweetest things in human nature is the kindly charity and wise talk of the aged who retain their intellectual powers unimpaired. The woman who is best fitted to act as companion to such is one who has had some experience of nursing either in her own home or as a professional nurse.
There are plenty of middle-aged women who have done much private or hospital nursing, and who need less exacting work ; others who have broken down under the strain, and after a long rest are ready to take up lighter work of this kind. Their professional training and experience secure them posts, for naturally the friends or nearest of kin rest more satisfied in entrusting the elderly person to one who understands nursing. Of course, there are aged people most trying to live with.
Well, it is easy to refuse a post that entails broken nights and constant complaints by day. Anyone who cannot endure such trials should make a point of seeing and talking to the person to whom it is proposed she should act as companion. But, anyhow, the engagement is not likely to be very prolonged, and most little disagreeables can be tolerated if one considers the truly merciful character of the work of caring for the feeble.
Then there is the companion to a wealthy society woman, who has no daughter or niece available for companionship, and who needs a gentlewoman, preferably somewhat younger than herself, who is prepared to work, read, play music, and walk or drive with her. She may, perhaps, be called on to write out the menus for a forthcoming dinner, to take a pet dog for an airing, to help entertain visitors or to arrange flowers in vases - any light duties, in fact, which would naturally fall to the daughter of the house to perform. These engagements are not very plentiful, but the writer has in mind a most agreeable one as companion-reader for three or four hours in the morning, followed by lunch a deux, the time being pleasantly spent by the companion in reading aloud first the daily newspapers, and then interesting and informative books. If a special dinner happened to be in prospect, there might be a discussion of suitable current topics for conversation at it.
The salary attached to this post, involving a few hours' pleasant intercourse in a luxurious home, was about £52 per annum. The companion had, of course, to be a woman of culture and intelligence, widely read, too, and of agreeable personality.
There is a demand for companions in another direction. In the present scarcity of servants, a young married woman, living during the day alone in her small house or flat, is glad to have a useful companion with some knowledge of domestic work and skill therein, to be with her while her husband is away during the day. There may not be sleeping accommodation in a small flat, which would necessitate the engagement being a daily one.
Plenty of "bachelor" women do live alone in their flats, but there are many women, unmarried and unattached, who cannot bear to live alone, and are glad to select from among their acquaintances a congenial spirit for the sake of companionship, offering salaries in accord with their means, anything from £25 upwards. Such engagements are by no means plentiful, and more often two friends agree to unite their small incomes and live together.
It may happen that through some mutual acquaintance a girl without a home of her own, and with marriage in prospect, is glad, for a small salary, to act as companion to a married woman alone during the day, save for the one maidservant. In this way a practical acquaintance with housekeeping is obtained. Some satisfactory engagements of this kind have come to the writer's notice.
Companion - Housekeepers
There are still to be found posts as companion-housekeepers to elderly men, usually widowers of the middle class, and the duties may or may not include those of a working housekeeper. They are undertaken only by middle-aged women, and cannot be regarded as mere companionships. But everywhere the occupation of the companion pure and simple, as it existed fifty years ago, has passed away. It is combined with others, requiring definite training along certain lines.
Consider, for instance, the work of the companion-governess, or the companion-chaperon to a girl with an invalid mother or none at all. She is a woman who has spent years in arduous study and the perfecting of her music, painting, and foreign languages, a woman of good birth and breeding, accustomed to entertain and to take part in social functions. She may have been governess for several years to the girl or girls she now takes in charge socially, and she enters the career of companionship through a widely different door from that of the housekeeper. Her duties are far less arduous than those of the governess, but require much tact, and exceptional personal qualifications for influencing and guiding the young girl just out of the schoolroom.
It may happen to fall to her lot to travel with the girl, and then her acquaintance with French, German, or Italian, and with tourist haunts is valuable. Good salaries are sometimes obtained by one acting as travelling companion to girls of Colonial or American birth travelling in Europe for a few months ; but the travelling companionships most advertised in the daily papers are usually inserted by women who wish for the company of those willing to share expenses, and have no salary attached. When personal services are rendered, a wealthy • woman takes with her a maid or attendant-nurse. Posts as travelling companions are much sought after, particularly by those who have had some experience of Continental life and foreign ways.
A woman who thinks of taking a post as companion will have three means of finding an engagement. Naturally the most satisfactory is by private recommendation, through some mutual acquaintance who knows the duties required and the two persons she intends to bring together. In this case there is far more likelihood of mutual agreement and a satisfactory engagement than if either of the other two means are used, because a good deal can be known beforehand about the character and temperament of those who will have to live in hourly contact.
Situations as companions are also obtainable through agencies and guilds for women workers existing in cities and most large towns. Applications for governess-companions are made (though it must be remembered these are rare) to the chief agencies for governesses, such as advertise regularly in the leading newspapers, also in some weekly periodicals for women.
A Word of Warning
Then, lastly, there is the method of independent advertisement in the newspapers. This way of obtaining a post is to be approached with extreme caution. Many attractive advertisements are snares laid to entrap, and women need to be most careful to have two or more references at least. An instance came to the writer's notice some time ago. In this case the post advertised was for a companion to a lady of title, and it was inserted ostensibly by a bona-fide agency. The applicant for the post called at the address given, and was offered other engagements - the " lady of title " was evidently a fiction - which, young and ignorant as she was of the shady side of life, so roused her suspicions that she was glad to escape with the loss of her 5s. fee. What made the incident more pitiable was the bundle of letters in that so-called office, written in the unmistakable handwriting of the " gentlewoman in reduced circumstances." Agencies are better supervised now, but deceptive advertisements appear to flourish still, being uncensored.
The salaries earned by companions vary widely, since they are quite arbitrary. The limits, on the average, may be fairly correctly stated as £25 to £1oo, though sometimes they fall short or exceed these amounts. For instance, a travelling companion to a wealthy man's daughter would be paid anything from £150 upwards; a companion-housekeeper in a middle-class household from £25 to £50.
In conclusion, emphasis is laid on the fact that the occupation of a companion is now almost wholly a branch road from other employments entailing distinct preparation and special training.