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Companion, Manager, Lover

Friday, September 25, 2020 - 21:00

I can't help but think that the story of Baddeley & Steele is more fascinating than the rather sordid, mercenary mess that Rizzo presents it as. If I were still doing the more detailed notetaking that I'm trying to step back from, I'm not sure how I would have stopped on this one. It would make a fascinating movie, full of intrigue, drama, and larger than life characters. (Almost none of which is apparent in her rather thin Wikipedia entry. Though it does have a link to Steele's biography of her.)

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Full citation: 

Rizzo, Betty. 1994. Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women. Athens: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3218-5

Publication summary: 

A collection of studies of women as “professional companions” in 18th century England, with especial consideration of the parallels the arrangement had to marriage.

Chapter 9 - Business Partners: Baddeley and Steele

This chapter looks at a fairly complicated relationship between two women, one a courtesan, and one fulfilling the role of companion, along with also being her manager, her pimp, and her lover.

Sophia Baddeley was a sometime actress and performer who found her talents more acceptably turned to the business of entertaining rich and handsome men. She would have done better in that profession if she had focus more on the rich ones than the handsome ones, but she did spend a significant period being maintained by one of the richest men in England. Unfortunately, she had a habit of spending far more than any reasonable man was willing to consider her worth. That, along with a free-spending lifestyle, an addiction to laudanum, and a series of bad choices in male companionship eventually led to her decline through the ranks of society until she was making a living once more on the stage at the end of her life.

Elizabeth Steele was Baddeley’s companion from the very beginning of her career. Sorting out the relationship between the two women is not easy. Rizzo doesn’t make it any easier by having some very fixed ideas about the nature of the relationship that aren’t always supported by the evidence she presents. Suffice it to say that Steele was the businesswoman. She was the one who made arrangements for living places. She was the one who discussed finances with Baddeley’s lovers. And she was the one who scraped together the money to pay off debts when the men didn’t come through.

Rizzo asserts that the two women were lovers and though the specific evidence for that isn’t presented, it fits with some of the patterns of behavior. Certainly there was a codependent relationship between them and Steele (in the posthumous biography she wrote of Baddeley, which was in part a context for extortion) depicts them as having a close and intimate relationship. They usually lived together (and shared a bed when Baddeley didn’t have a lover around), had explosive separations in the context of Baddeley’s aforementioned “bad choices”, and had tender and forgiving reunions (usually when Baddeley needed to get her finances back in order after a lover had cleaned her out).

Baddeley was clearly emotionally dependent on Steele, as well as relying on her for business sense. But I’m not sure I entirely buy Rizzo’s depiction of Steele as being focused primarily on using Baddeley as a source of income. Time and again, Steele retrieves Baddeley from unfortunate situations, puts her on her feet again, and sees her back into some semblance of functionality. There are situations presented where Steele’s actions make no sense unless she had a genuine attachment to her.

Rizzo also asserts that the women’s story is an example of a principle that she has identified that when women’s alliances are used in support of patriarchal structures, they are successful, but when they ally to oppose patriarchal structures, they’re doomed. Baddeley and Steele regularly scorned the men whose desires supported them, mocking many of Baddeley’s suitors and playing cruel tricks on others. But I don’t see that Baddeley’s eventual fall from fashion can be pinned on that attitude, except by treating it as some abstract moral accounting. Based on the evidence presented, it strikes me that Baddeley‘s fall was caused by her extravagant personality, her lack of common sense when it came to business, and her addictions.

In fact the more I read through this book the more it feels like there’s an underlying streak of misogyny in how Rizzo interprets many of the biographies. Women’s motivations and actions are interpreted negatively whenever possible. Not that the men’s actions are depicted any more positively, so perhaps we might say an underlying misanthropic streak. This may be turned around in the next few chapters, where the topic turns to biographies of women considered to be altruistic.

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