This dissertation explores the role of the paid female companion in the Victorian novel. As the paid friends of other women, companions were hired to enact the private virtues supposed to be organic to relationships between women; in particular, they were expected to serve as a receptacle for their mistresses’ most intimate confidences, to provide company and sympathy. However, as a number of Victorian writers show, this purchased sympathy-on-demand could be distorted and corrupted. I argue that authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Ellen Wood, Wilkie Collins, and Thomas Hardy used their companion characters to interrogate and deconstruct sympathy. The novels I discuss experiment with portrayals of sympathy not as a selfless, empathetic understanding of others’ suffering but as a manipulative mode of relating. In these texts, sympathy is represented as a self-centered strategy for gaining transgressive power, social mobility, romantic attachments, and narrative centrality.
The ambiguity in the mistress-companion relationship enabled Victorian writers to experiment with the diverse narrative versatility of the companion character as well. The companion figure has a special relationship to narrativity because she provides an unstable, mobile locus authors could use to perform ancillary narrative functions. As such, this dissertation also examines the ways companion characters reveal and promulgate supplementary knowledge to other characters and to the reader and address the relationship among author, text, and reader. The companion’s status as an intersection of class, economic, and affective investments troubles the very meaning of women’s work and women’s relationships in the Victorian period; however, the companion is lost to historical and literary studies, hidden in the crux of scholarship on the governess and domestic servant—lingering only in the Victorian novels we read today. This project introduces the figure into the critical dialogue on nineteenth-century women’s work and relationships, highlighting both the pervasiveness of the figure in Victorian literature as well as illuminating the ways in which authors used the companion to address troubled contemporary issues as diverse as gender roles, employment dynamics, power, eroticism, sympathy, and narrative structure in their work.