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From Silence to “Civil Converse”: Of the Attempts to Control Seventeenth-Century Women’s “Ripe Wit and Ready Tongues”

Michèle Lardy
p. 105-122

Résumés

Tout au long du xviie siècle, « Discrétion, Silence et Décence » demeurent trois qualités exigées des femmes. Au début du siècle, des pamphlets misogynes attaquent les femmes qui, avec leur « langue bien pendue », séduisent puis dominent les hommes. Les auteurs de traités, pour leur part, répètent qu’on « devrait voir, et non entendre » les femmes, invitées à contrôler cet organe sous peine d’être soupçonnées d’indécence. Dans la seconde moitié du siècle, les manuels de conduite insistent davantage sur un ensemble de règles permettant d’accorder un « discours courtois », « raisonnable et opportun » à une conduite irréprochable, garant d’une réputation sans tache.

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  • 1  Thomas Becon (1512/13-1567) was a theologian and Church of England clergyman.

1When in 1564, the protestant divine Thomas Becon1 wrote in his Catechism that “a maid should be seen and not heard” (369), he was only one more voice in a long tradition, while other writers throughout the next century tried to convince their readers that, difficult though it was, women’s tongues had to be controlled. They referred to ancient authors, a great favourite being Aristotle who, himself quoting Socrates, had written that “Silence gives grace to woman, though that is not the case likewise with a man” (Politics, 1.5.9). He was then often quoted by seventeenth-century writers who, stressing that Socrates expected three main qualities from his disciples, “Discretion, Silence, and Modesty,” immediately established a parallel, and repeatedly claimed that those were the very qualities that best adorned women. The Bible, in which discretion was seen as an essential component of female virtue, was another reference. Wasn’t a good woman described thus in Proverbs 31.27: “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness”?

  • 2  Barnabe Rych (1542-1617) professed to be “souldier seruant to the Kings most excellent Maiestie” o (...)

2It is exactly what Barnabe Rych2 wrote in his 1613 treatise The Excellency of Good Women: “The infallible markes of a vertuous woman then, as they are set downe by Salomon are these, shee must haue modesty, bashfullnes, silence, abstinence, sobrietie: shee must be tractable to her husband, Shee doth her husband good &c. Shee must not bee a vaine talker She openeth her mouth with wisdom (32). Silence and modesty are linked: “The woman of modesty openeth not her mouth but with discretion, neither is there any bitternes in her tongue: shee seemeth in speaking, to hould her peace, and in her silence shee seemeth to speake” (29).

3Silence on women’s part, however, seemed hard to get. Are women not indefatigable talkers? Indeed, after listening to the serpent, what did Eve do but talk Adam into transgression? Moreover, the harlot was depicted in the Bible as possessing a loud, seductive and deceiving tongue. This appears in Prov. 7.10-11: “a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtle of heart. She is loud and stubborn”; Prov. 9.13: “A foolish woman is clamorous: she is simple, and knoweth nothing” and Prov. 11.22: “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s mouth, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.”

4We shall see that quite a number of works discussed and condemned women’s propensity to talk. In the first half of the century, some popular misogynistic pamphlets (Raymond; Neuburg) aimed at a mostly male readership cast women in the part of the tattling, scheming shrew. Later on, conduct-books (St. Clair & Maessen) written with female readers in mind, but also suitable for a male readership, became increasingly popular. Although their authors also dwelt on this typically feminine flaw, they offered women precious advice on how to tame their tongue. Even if silence was still considered best, those works established a set of rules to follow in order to master the art of conversation. Indeed, as loquacity was suspected of being a tell-tale sign of immodesty, “civil converse” was seen as the guardian of women’s modesty.

Seduction, dominance and indiscretion

5At the beginning of the century, great emphasis was laid in satirical works on the harm women caused by departing from a modest, reserved behaviour and giving their tongue too much freedom, thus wreaking havoc on men. The seductress as well as the gossiping, nagging wife, the shrew, all stock characters in many plays of the Renaissance, were given pride of place in popular pamphlets. The tongue was indeed a weapon wielded by women first of all to seduce men. The sexually predatory woman, the harlot of evil reputation, was depicted as an expert at seduction.

  • 3  Joseph Swetnam (d. 1621) was a fencing master and a pamphleteer. This pamphlet was his most famous (...)

6In 1615, Joseph Swetnam3 published The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward and unconstant Women: Or the vanitie of them, choose you whether. In “The Epistle to the Reader,” he argued that trusting young men had to beware of those “most lascivious and crafty women” who were as dangerous as “venomous Adders, Serpents and Snakes” (np). He then moved on to lamenting their talent for persuasion and deception, attributing it to their “ripe wits and ready tongues,” (28) and professed to be puzzled by the nature of a woman’s tongue:

Is it not strange of what kinde of mettall a womans tongue is made of? that neither correction can chastise, nor faire meanes quiet: for there is a kind of venome in it, that neither by faire meanes nor foule they are to be ruled. All beasts by man are made tame, but a womans tongue will neuer be lame; it is but a small thing, and seldome seene, but it is often heard, to the terror and vtter confusion of many a man. (40)

7Speech he described as just part of a wider strategy of seduction: “For the most part, […] [women] are subtill and dangerous for men to deal withall, for their faces are lures, their beauties are baits, their looks are nets, and their words charms, and all to bring men to ruin” (4). Women were depicted as experts: “they are so cunning in the art of flattery, as if they had bin bound prentice to the trade, they haue Sirens songs to allure thee […] and all to deceiue the simple and plaine meaning men.” Inexperienced, trusting men were thus easily seduced, for those scheming creatures “haue delicate tongues, which will rauish and tickle the itching eares of giddye headed yong men, so foolish, that they thinke themselues happy if they can but kisse the dazie whereon their loue doth tread” (32).

8Once she had talked a man into marriage, a wife swiftly moved on to phase two, taming her husband, with her tongue as part of a more comprehensive weaponry. Well-versed in the art of manipulation, she would cunningly mix sexual abstinence forced on the man and recriminations whenever denied something she felt she should have: “she will quickly shut thee out of the doores of her fauor, & deny thee her person, and shew her selfe as it were at a window playing vpon thee, not with small shot, but with a cruell tongue shee will ring thee such a peale, that one would thinke the Deuill were come from Hell” (8). Those attacks on women and their venomous tongue no doubt enjoyed a favourable reception, and there is proof of the popularity of Swetnam’s pamphlet since it was published at least once a year between 1615 and 1620, and ran into many editions as late as 1682.

  • 4  John Taylor (1578-1653) was a Thames waterman who took up writing poetry. He was called “the water (...)

9Another writer harped on the same themes fourteen years later. In 1639, John Taylor4 published A Juniper lecture. With the description of all sorts of women, good, and bad. From the Modest to the maddest, from the most Civil to the scold Rampant, their praise and dispraise compendiously related. With, clearly, much more emphasis on the dispraise than the praise with this female rogues’ gallery: a shrew, a scold-rampant who nags at her loving husband, a pathologically jealous wife, a rich young widow who mocks and humiliates an old suitor, another widow with an insatiable sexual appetite, etc...

10In lecture number 10, “A Mothers Lecture to her daughter concerning Marriage, and thus shee beginnes,” Taylor’s purpose is clearly to demonstrate that some wives are nothing but scheming shrews who deprive their spouse of a restful silence and submit him to an uninterrupted flow of words in order to establish dominance. Thus, a mother aims to convince her daughter that she should marry a fool, and sets herself as a model, explaining how “with my vexatious verbosity, fluent loquacity, I brought my good man to my bow” (84). It is worth being a shrew, the mother underlines, for “Indeede your tongue may (as you may use it) make your house your earthly Paradise, your Husbands Purgatory, and your servants Hell; and all these severall sorts of happines are yours, if you marrie with a foole, and have the gift to use your tongue as a wise woman should doe” (79). The mother endeavours to detail what seems akin to torture sessions inflicted upon the husband: “it lyes in you to vexe him to the very heart, and not to suffer him to take any rest day or night, but with the Clapper of your tongue to ring him a perpetuall peale” (74). The young wife should “snap, snarle, and give […] taunting and harsh speeches” (72) until her husband’s resistance snaps. In order to reach the ultimate goal, “commanding all, not to bee commanded by any,” (72) she should not only “be scolding, clamorous”, but also “proud, lascivious, voluptuous,” (72) sending such a variety of signals that her husband will beg for mercy. The mother clearly establishes that a wife who possesses “the vertue and volubility of the tongue” (72) and who can alternately charm and torment her husband will dominate him and be mistress of the house.

11But this goes further than the mere relationship between husband and wife; for in Lecture 11, a dialogue “betweene a man and his wife, which is the scold rampant,” Taylor has the husband assert that a scold is a conveyor of chaos, not only indoors but also outdoors: “in her house she will be waspish, peevish, teasty, tetchy and snappish. It is meat and drinke to her to exercise her spleene and envy, and with her twittle twattle to sow strife, debate, contention, division, and discording heart-burning amongst her neighbours” (113). Words can thus undermine social order. The only mortal enemy of a shrew being silence, his advice to tame one is simple: ignore her.

  • 5  Jacques Olivier was a French Franciscan priest. This work was part of the “querelle des femmes” wh (...)
  • 6  Oliver Heywood (1630-1702) was a clergyman and ejected minister.

12This stereotype kept its appeal until the end of the century, as can be seen with two other works. The year 1662 saw the publication in English of a work by the French author Jacques Olivier,5 Alphabet de l’Imperfection et Malice des Femmes that had originally appeared in France in 1617, and had been immensely popular. Under the letter G, “Garrulum Guttur, Garrulity of Tongue,” in A Discourse of Women, Shewing their Imperfections, Alphabetically, readers were told that “Women have such propensity to talk, that the greatest punishment they can suffer, is hindring them from babbling,” (54) and Olivier insisted that the pain of having to keep silent was worse for them than that of child-bearing. The “secret of this imperfection” (54) he found in Genesis: Women are “talkative and babbling” because they were made from a “hard and crakling” rib, (55) whereas men, made from earth, have “an indisposition to noise” (55) and are therefore reserved and silent. At the very end of the century, in 1693, Oliver Heywood6 asserted in his turn that “vain discourse and idle chatt [are] the feminine malady” (67) in Advice to an Only Childe: “As for censuring of others, how familiar it is for those of your Sex, when they come together, to run division in the Censures of other persons, […] always finding fault, and often makin (as coneys do holes in the Rocks) where they cannot find […]” (64).

  • 7  Gervase Markham (c.1568-1637) was an English poet and writer whose most famous work is certainly T (...)

13Women were therefore repeatedly submitted to a barrage of recommendations that they were urged to follow in order to eradicate their defects and improve their conduct. Knowing where they belonged and behaving accordingly was the first important step. In 1615, Gervase Markham7had clearly placed men and women in two different spheres in The English Hus-wife, Contayning The inward and outward vertues which ought to be in a compleat woman, which conditioned her speech:

the perfect husbandman […] is the father and master of the family, [his] office and employments are ever for the most part abroad, or removed from the house, as in the field or yard; […] the English housewife, who is the mother and mistress of the family, […] hath her most general employment within the house. [...] [She must be] wise in discourse, but not frequent therein, sharp and quick of speech, but not bitter or talkative, secret in her affairs, comfortable in her counsels. (“Her general virtues”1, 7)

14If Markham took care to underline that a woman’s speech had to be kept within clear boundaries, his work focused essentially on the qualities and skills required to be a good housewife. Other writers however examined this issue in depth and established a clear link between modesty of speech and modesty of heart.

  • 8  Richard Brathwait (1588-1673) was an English poet who wrote many works, the most famous being Drun (...)

15While Swetnam had wondered “of what kinde of mettall a womans tongue is made of,” (40) and concluded it could not be tamed, in his tratise The English Gentlewoman, drawne out to the full Body (1631), Richard Brathwait8 saw it as a “glibbery member” that had to be kept in check within the fortress of the mouth:

Truth is, [women’s] tongues are held their defensive armour; but in no particular detract they more from their honour, then by giving too free scope to that glibbery member […] What restraint is required in respect of the tongue, may appeare by that ivory guard or garrison with which it is impaled. See, how it is double warded, that it may with more reservancy and better security be restrained! (88)

A bashful silence, a reserved attitude, linked to a woman’s “honour”, were clear indicators of her modesty and chastity. Loquacity, on the other hand, would betray her flaws and might be the sign of a lack of control, of a lascivious nature: “To give liberty to the tongue to utter what it list, is the argument of an indiscreet person. In much Speech there can never want sinne, it either leaves some tincture of vaine-glory, which discovers the proud heart, from whence it proceeded; or some taste of scurrility, which displayes the wanton heart, from whence it streamed” (88).

16Brathwait then reminded his readers, both male and female, but specifically the latter, to beware of “volubility of tongue:”

It was an excellent precept of Ecclesiasticus: Thou that art young, speake, if need be, and yet scarcely when thou art twice asked. Comprehend much in few words; in many be as one that is ignorant: be as one that understandeth, and yet hold thy tongue. The direction is generall, but to none more consequently usefull then to young women; whose bashfull silence is an ornament to their Sexe. Volubility of tongue in these, argues either rudenesse of breeding, or boldnesse of expression. (89)

He underlined that “what is spoken of Maids may be properly applyed by an usefull consequence to Women: They should be seene and not heard” (41); he stated that “Silence in a Woman is a moving Rhetoricke, winning most, when in words it wooeth least” and advocated “moderation of Speech” (90). Nevertheless, as he admitted that “without Speech can no Society subsist” (88), he took care to establish principles to be respected. First of all, he insisted on the rules of precedence and on the fact that a gentlewoman had to “observe, rather than discourse” (89), for “it suites not with her honour, for a young woman to be prolocutor: But especially, when either men are in presence, or ancient Matrons, to whom shee owes a civill reverence, it will become her to tip her tongue with silence” (90). Then he defined which topics were acceptable. This choice was based on several criteria, women’s role in society, their intellectual capacities and the necessity to remain modest and pure so as to avoid “all prejudicate censure:”

Make choice of such arguments as may best improve your knowledge in household affaires, and other private employments. To discourse of state matters, will not become your auditory: nor to dispute high points of Divinity, will it sort well with women of your quality [....]. In the whole current of your discourse, let no light subject have any place with you: this, as it proceeds from a corrupt and indisposed heart, so it corrupts the hearer. Likewise, beware of selfe-prayse; […] Let not calumny runne descant on your tongue: it discovers your passion too much; in the meane time, venting of your spleene affords no cure to your griefe, no salve to your sore. If opportunity give your sexe argument of discourse; let it neither taste of affectation, for that were servile; nor touch upon any wanton relation, for that were uncivill; nor any State-politicall action, for the height of such a subject, compared with your weaknesse, were unequall. If you affect Rhetoricke, let it be with that familiarity expressed, as your plainenesse may witnesse for you, that you doe not affect it. (88-91)

  • 9  There were two editions in 1631. Ten years later, Brathwait published another work which was a com (...)

17This work was to be very influential, and many echoes of Brathwait’s precepts can be found in later writings.9

Conduct books, and the art of conversation

18As the century wore on, treatises were gradually replaced by conduct-books. Written specifically for female readers, they no longer confined women to the home, but rather sought to define their role in society and offered advice on social behaviour and conduct. Some authors set to the task of establishing a number of rules to make sure women would not stray from the path of discretion and virtue. In order to correspond to an ideal image, that is be discreet and modest whenever they left their home to appear in public, gentlewomen were urged to remember one key-word: control, in particular control of the tongue. Indeed, even if the emphasis was less on the necessity of silence than on appropriateness of speech, one permanent feature remained: all along, women were reminded to bear in mind, and stay, where they belonged and were urged to always be above reproach.

  • 10  Even if the name Hannah Woolley appears both on the title page and in the “Epistle Dedicatory”, au (...)
  • 11  “It is true (Ladies) your tongues are held your defensive armour, but you never detract more from (...)
  • 12  “That excellent precept of Ecclesiasticus, though it was spoken in general yet I know not to whom (...)
  • 13  John Shirley (fl. 1680-1700). The quotations come from the Appendix (175 ff): ‘The Second Part, or (...)

19The first golden rule was that discretion was always best. This came first and foremost in [Hannah Woolley]’s The Gentlewomans Companion, or a guide to the Female Sex; Containing Directions of Behaviour in all Places, Companies, Relations, and Conditions, from their Childhood down to old age,10 published in 1673. This conduct-book started by warning women against the destructive power of the tongue: “you never detract more from your honour than when you give too much liberty to that slippery glib member” (“Of Speech and Complement” 42). [Woolley] borrowed heavily from Brathwait’s English Gentlewoman, whole passages appearing nearly word for word. She underlined that a loquacious woman might be suspected of “vainglory” and “scurrility,”11 which would taint her reputation. She resorted to the same quotation from Ecclesiasticus12 to urge women to be reserved, and insisted that “Gentlewomen, it will become ye […] in publick society to observe, rather than discourse ; especially among elder matrons to whom you owe a civil reverence, and therefore ought to tip your tongue with silence” (43), because “Silence in a Woman is a moving-rhetorick, winning most when in words it wooeth least” (16). Fourteen years later, in 1687, John Shirley13 echoed [Woolley] with The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities. In the preface, he offered advice such as “for the generality rather chuse to be seen than heard” (192) and “Womens discourse should not be much, because Modesty and Moderation is her Ornament, and are in themselves a moving rhetoric” (204), which he repeated over and over again, insisting on “Discretion, Silence and Modesty being the ornaments of the Female Sex” (197).

20As conduct-books increasingly devoted whole chapters to the way women, and particularly gentlewomen, should behave in society, they also tried to codify their behaviour. Authors detailed the rules to be followed when taking part in a conversation and explained why it was essential to follow them. At the heart of their preoccupations lay the observation that women who had no control over their speech would be seen as carefree and light, which would taint their reputation.

  • 14  Jacques DuBoscq (d. 1660) was a French Franciscan priest. There were three different translations (...)
  • 15  Christina Luckyj argues that DuBoscq’s vision of silence as protection “is so far from the traditi (...)

21The French author Jacques DuBoscq14 discussed this in L’honneste Femme (1632), translated into English in 1639. The Compleat Woman shows that he saw the “honneste” or respectable woman above all as a member of a social elite who should master the art of politeness, urbanity and conversation. He devoted a chapter to conversation, highlighting that “we must confesse that it is very hard to passe away the time with innocence and pleasure in company or alone” since “we live in a cunning age, where it seems that words, invented to expresse thoughts, serve no more then to hide them handsomely” (17).15Women being in constant danger of being deceived and led astray, he thought it was necessary for them to learn how to handle silence and discourse, a skill central to the art of conversation. His main preoccupation, he insisted, was not to ensure women would say nothing, even if silence could be “put in the ranks of the most necessary Arts” since it gives “grace to speech itself, as shadowes to colours in a picture” (20). However he warned women to be careful:

To say then what seems to mee the most necessary, I should content my selfe to wish in women the three perfections which Socrates desired in his disciples, Discretion, Silence, and Modesty. These are so faire and necessary qualities in Society, that to judge the importance of them, wee need but only represent the vices opposite, Imprudence, Babble, and Impudence. I would not have them thinke, I purpose to take away the use of speech, instead of ruling it [...]. I only entreat those Women, who have not the inclination to speak little, to consider, that if there is a time to speak something, and also to say nothing, there is never any to speak all. [...] That [...] sorrow and shame alwayes follow very close the discourses, which Prudence ushers not. (18-19)

  • 16  George Saville, 1st Marquess of Halifax (1633-1695) was an English statesman, writer and politicia (...)

22The same concern was voiced in 1688 by George Saville, Lord Halifax16 in The Lady's New-Years Gift: or, Advice to a Daughter. The young girl would go out into the world one day and this worried him: “I shrink as if I were struck at the prospect of Danger, to which a young Woman must be expos'd. By how much the more Lively, so much the more Liable you are to be hurt […]. Whilst you are playing full of Innocence, the spiteful World will bite, except you are guarded by your Caution” (2-3).

  • 17  See The Gentlewoman’s Companion, or a guide to the Female Sex; Containing Directions of Behaviour. (...)
  • 18  He clearly borrowed from [Woolley]’s work and explains in the ‘Preface to the reader’ that he “tra (...)
  • 19  Oliver Heywood likewise recommended “civil converse in all companies” (63).

23Caution and discretion are central to conduct-books which made it clear they offered “Directions of Behaviour”17 that women had to follow in every aspect of their lives, for indeed governing the tongue was just part of a general set of rules. In the early century, the consensus had been that women should be unobtrusive. They had to walk demurely, eyes cast down, and were told not to strut about lightly or proudly, darting their eyes to and fro; they were likewise to be reserved in their speech. By the end of the century, those rules still largely prevailed. Three chapters of The Gentlewomans Companion emphasised decency and modesty: “Of a Gentlewomans civil Behaviour to all sorts of people in all places” (33), which contained many recommendations about conversation, “Of the gate or gesture” (37), and “of the government of the eye” (38). Shirley also sought to define the proper role of gentlewomen in society.18His conduct-book was meant to be a “Delightfull Companion,” with “Instructions for Young Gentlewomen how to behave themselves in all Societies, upon sundry occasions” (ch. 5, 192) as well as “Instructions for a Young Gentlewoman to Manage her Gate and Gesture; to Govern her eyes and tongue, &c. upon sundry necessary occasions” (ch. 6, 196). This general self-control was the key to a modest conversation and the first indicator of virtue. It would permit to achieve “civility,” thanks in great part to “civil converse”19 which [Woolley] attempted to define: “Before I shall direct you in a method for civil converse in Society, it will not be improper to give you an account of Civility [...]. Civility, or gentle plausibility, [...] is in my slender judgment nothing else but the modesty and handsome decorum, to be observed by every one according to his or her condition; attended with a bonne grace, and a neat becoming air” (43-44).

24How could this “Civil converse” be achieved, then? How could women shun silence or even discretion, and still remain respectable? Once again, clear indications were issued in conduct-books, as the authors focused on which topics to discuss and on which interlocutors to choose, as well as on timing and duration of speech. It was first of all a matter of what was appropriate. In The Gentlewomans Companion, women were told not to meddle with subjects “above the Sphere of [their] proper concern, for that were unequal” (43). They had to bear in mind that being below men, they were to stay where they belonged. [Woolley] defined “four circumstances which attend Civility,” to guarantee that women would never overstep the boundaries of urbane feminine conversation: “First, Ladies, you must consult your years, and so accordingly behave your self to your age and condition. Next, Preserve all due respect to the quality of the Person you converse withal. Thirdly, Consider well the time. And, lastly, the place where you are” (46). This was crucial since it permitted to respect custom, and social hierarchy.

25In The Compleat Woman (1639), DuBoscq advised women to devote time to reading, for books are the gate to knowledge. In the first chapter ‘Of Reading,’ he took care to establish that “Reading, Conversation and Musing” could not be separated if a woman wanted to be “compleat” and play her part in society: “It is certain that Reading, Conversation, and Musing, are the best and most excellent things of the world. By Reading wee treat with the dead; by Conversation with the living and by Musing with ourselves. Reading enricheth the memory, Conversation polisheth the mind, and Musing frames the judgement” (1). A well-read woman would thus be well-versed as to the appropriate subjects of conversation.

  • 20  Also: “consort with such whose names were never branded, converse with such whose tongues for immo (...)
  • 21  After page 65, pagination goes back to 1. “Of Curiosity and Slander” starts on page 41 of this new (...)

26Being careful whose company and conversation women chose was another essential rule on which all writers agreed. Richard Brathwait, who had warned in The English Gentlewoman: “Beware therefore with whom you consort, as you tender your repute […]. Consort with such whose names were never branded, consort with such, whose tongues for immodesty were never taxed,”(41) was once more echoed by [Woolley]: “Be very cautious in the choice of your Companions, and when your age adapts you for Society, have a care with whom you associate. If you tender your repute, you must beware with whom you consort” (16).20 Shirley gave similar advice: “be wary in the choice of your Companions; and as you grow up, shun the Conversation of those that have a report of Lightness, lest they draw you into a Snare, or bring a scandal causlesly upon your good Name, but chuse those whose Reputations are candid” (192). Duboscq was adamant that a respectable woman should never be seen in the company of gossips for it would tarnish her reputation. Indeed, he insisted that the more women indulged in “irksome prattle,” (20) the more likely they were to be offensive, or worse, to betray a friend’s trust by revealing a secret: “it is almost impossible that in speaking so many things, they let not fall something amisse” (21). In the chapter “of curiosity and slander,”21 he warned against misplaced curiosity and vicious talk, the viral spread of which might contaminate every woman present: “while they believe slanders, their ears are no lesse guilty, then others tongues. And if Calumny be a civill murther, at least they are the Complices” (43). He warned of hypocrites, who under the guise of flattery, destroy reputations “with golden arrows” (45). For this is indeed what was at stake: a woman’s good name, which might be quickly lost. Heywood also recommended caution for careless chatter could wreak havoc: “Let it be as a Bridle to your tongue to restrain your speaking evil of others and to curb all censuring.” For “[...] this speaking evil of others, is the great Make-bate, the grand Incendiary that raiseth up flames, kindles hatred and malice, and damps all Love and Affection” (63). Gossip, he said, would cause “quarrels and contentions in all companies” (63).

27When, and to what extent, to join in a conversation was another art to master. Shirley advised: “your Words few, yet to the purpose” (181), insisting with “[…] let all your Discourses be to the purpose […] see they be done upon fit occasion, and in season; […] observe that you interrupt not any person when he or she is speaking” (203). Heywood was of the same opinion: “let your words be few and well considered before you speak” (67). [Woolley] insisted on “propriety of Speech” after “a well-season'd deliberation”: “Think not I would have you altogether silent (Ladies) in company, for that is a misbecoming error on the other side; but I would have you when you do speak, to do it knowingly and opportunely” (42). For nothing was more irksome than what Lord Halifax mockingly described as a “prating engine” who soon tired her auditory: “a good-humour'd Woman, one who thinketh she must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile; and because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality, thinketh it less ill-manners to talk impertinently, than to be silent in Company” (106).

  • 22  The author is identified only by the initials N.H. at the end of the dedication.

28Pride was another typically feminine defect often underlined in conduct-books, as it led women not only to wear immodest attire but also to utter immodest words. Pride and impropriety were linked, and improper words raised suspicion of unchaste behaviour. A work published in 1694, and very reminiscent of the conduct-books that preceded it, The Ladies Dictionary; Being a General Entertainment For the Fair-Sex,22 contained many entries that focused on conversation and on what was deemed proper, such as “Affability,” “Behaviour,” “eloquence,” “manners” or “recreation.” What was improper appeared in other entries, such as “Anger in Ladies” – the cause of a distorted face and loud voice – or “Coquettery” defined as “the prattle or twattle of a pert Gossip or Minx” (108). But most of all, the author gave a scathing description of proud women affected by “too much Loquacity”:

Their Discourse, is so much and loud, that a few Women would suffice to make the Noise of a Mill. And it could be wished, their Discourse were not Lascivious, as well as Loud, for too often we find them Allurers of Men, and Corrupters of their own Modesty, by their wanton and unbridled Discourse: For the Tongue being the Orator of the Heart, declares the intent of the mind; with what care therefore ought Women to speak, and with what Modesty to govern the Organ of their Thoughts, since few will be perswaded to believe, that any thing but what is Pure and irreproveable, will proceed from a Heart that is without Stain and blemish. (401)

29The woman who could not hold her tongue, this “tatling organ,” (460) was seen as an “allurer of men,” a concern which appeared in every conduct-book, just as it had been central to every treatise. The Ladies Dictionary took pains to remind its readers, with the entry “Sobriety and Temperance” that “Though some may Imagine this Extends no farther than Moderate Eating and drinking, they are mainly mistaken, for it takes in Carriage, behaviour, discourse and Recreations” (466). Hence the necessity of constant control to be beyond reproach: only a flawless behaviour coupled with a flawless language, a reasonable, seasonable discourse on carefully chosen subjects in the presence of carefully chosen company guaranteed that women would be respected – for their reputation would be untainted.

30If at the beginning of the century, pamphlets had ridiculed women’s speech while treatises tried to police it, at the end of the century, conduct-books rather endeavoured to polish and refine gentlewomen’s conversation while expressing serious warnings against the “divers Misfortunes and Inconveniencies” their tongue would cause “for want of good government” (The Ladies Dictionary 176). The authorized reasonable and seasonable discourse women had to master thanks to the art of conversation gave them little leeway. Nevertheless, the codes were also there to protect them from the many pitfalls into which they might fall. One word too many, one laugh that might be seen as encouragement to a suitor or an admirer, one glance, for the eyes also could speak, and a woman’s reputation could be undone. If at the end of the century, they were no longer confined to their home, and to bashful silence, women were still constantly reminded to play by the rules and curb their “ripe wits and ready tongues” to protect their reputation and respectability.

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Bibliographie

Primary sources

[Anon.] The Ladies Dictionary; Being a General Entertainment For the Fair-Sex. A Work Never attempted before in English. London: 1694. 02/07/2016.
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Aristotle. Politics. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1944.

Becon, Thomas. Catechism. 1564. Edited by John Ayre for the Parker Society Cambridge: CUP, 1844.

Brathwait, Richard. The English Gentlewoman, drawne out to the full Body, expressing, what habiliments doe best attire her, what ornaments doe best adorne her, what complements doe best accomplish her. By Richard Brathwait, esquire. 2nd edition. London, 1631.

Du Bosc, Jacques. “L’Honnête Femme”: The Respectable Woman in Society and the New Collection of Letters and Responses by Contemporary Women. Trans. Aurora Wolfgang & Sharon Diane Nell. Toronto: Iter/CRRS, 2014.

Du Bosc, Jacques. The Compleat Woman, written in French by Monsieur Dubosq, and by him after severall Editions, reviewed, corrected and amended: and now faithfully translated into English by N.N. London, 1639.

Heywood, Oliver. Advice to an Only Child, or, Excellent Council to all Young Persons. London, 1693.

Markham, Gervase. The English House-wife. 1615. Ed. Michael R. Best. Montreal: McGill-Queen UP, 1986.

Olivier, Jacques. Alphabet de l’Imperfection et Malice des Femmes. Paris, 1617.

Olivier, Jacques. A Discourse of Women, Shewing their Imperfections, Alphabetically. London, 1662.

Rych, Barnabe. The Excellency of Good Women. The honour and estimation that belongeth unto them. The infallible markes whereby to know them. London, 1613.

Saville, George, Lord Halifax. The Lady’s New Year’s gift, or, Advice to a Daughter: under these following heads, viz., religion, husband, house and family, servants, behaviour and conversation, friendship, censure, vanity and affectation, pride, diversion, dancing. London, 1688.

Shirley, John. The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of RARITIES: or the Ingenious Gentlewoman and Servant Maids Delightfull Companion, the second edition, with many additions. London,1687.

Swetnam, Joseph. The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and unconstant women Or the vanity of them, choose you whether, With a commendation of wise, virtuous, and honest Women, Pleasant for married Men, profitable for young Men, and hurtful to none. London, 1615.

Taylor, John. A Juniper Lecture. With the description of all sorts of women, good, and bad. From the Modest to the maddest, from the most Civil to the scold Rampant, their praise and dispraise compendiously related. The Second Impression, with many new additions. Also, the Author’s advice how to tame a shrew or vex her. 2nd edition. London, 1639.

[Woolley, Hannah.] The Gentlewomans Companion or, A Guide to the Female Sex. 1675. Introd. Caterina Albano. Blackawton: Prospect Books, 2001.

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Notes

1  Thomas Becon (1512/13-1567) was a theologian and Church of England clergyman.

2  Barnabe Rych (1542-1617) professed to be “souldier seruant to the Kings most excellent Maiestie” on the title page of his The Excellency of Good Women. He was a prolific writer.

3  Joseph Swetnam (d. 1621) was a fencing master and a pamphleteer. This pamphlet was his most famous work.

4  John Taylor (1578-1653) was a Thames waterman who took up writing poetry. He was called “the water poet.” In addition to many other works, he wrote two misogynistic pamphlets, A Juniper Lecture, and Divers crabtree lectures Expressing the severall languages that shrews read to their husbands, either at morning, noone, or night, London, 1639.

5  Jacques Olivier was a French Franciscan priest. This work was part of the “querelle des femmes” which raged on the continent at the time.

6  Oliver Heywood (1630-1702) was a clergyman and ejected minister.

7  Gervase Markham (c.1568-1637) was an English poet and writer whose most famous work is certainly The English Hus-wife, Containing The inward and outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman, first published in 1615. He was a prolific writer, whose works included many treatises on husbandry, horsemanship and archery.

8  Richard Brathwait (1588-1673) was an English poet who wrote many works, the most famous being Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys, London, 1638.

9  There were two editions in 1631. Ten years later, Brathwait published another work which was a combination of his English Gentleman (1630, reprinted in 1633) and his English Gentlewoman, under the title of The English gentleman, and The English gentlewoman both in one volume couched, and in one modell portrayed. By Richard Brathwait, London, 1641.

10  Even if the name Hannah Woolley appears both on the title page and in the “Epistle Dedicatory”, authorship of this work has long been debated. See Caterina Albano, “Introduction,” in [Woolley] 7.

11  “It is true (Ladies) your tongues are held your defensive armour, but you never detract more from your honour than when you give too much liberty to that slippery glib member. That Ivory guard or garrison, which impales your tongue, doth caution and instruct you, to put a restraint on your Speech. In much talk you must of necessity commit much error, as least it leaves some tincture of vain-glory, which proclaims the proud heart from whence it proceeded, or some taste of scurrility, which displays the wanton heart from whence it streamed” (42).

12  “That excellent precept of Ecclesiasticus, though it was spoken in general yet I know not to whom it is more particularly useful than to young Women. Thou that art young, speak, if need be, and yet scarecely when thou art twice asked. Comprehend much in few words; [...]; be as one that is ignorant; be as one that understandeth, and yet hold thy tongue” (43).

13  John Shirley (fl. 1680-1700). The quotations come from the Appendix (175 ff): ‘The Second Part, or Appendix to the forgoing Work, containing directions for Behavior, as to what relates to the Female Sex, on all occasions, &c.’

14  Jacques DuBoscq (d. 1660) was a French Franciscan priest. There were three different translations of L’honneste Femme: The Compleat Woman (1639), The Accomplished Woman (1656), and The Excellent Woman (1692). See Wolfgang & Nell.

15  Christina Luckyj argues that DuBoscq’s vision of silence as protection “is so far from the traditional notion of feminine subservience that [he] can recommend it as a moral virtue for women […]. While, like Brathwait, Du Bosc genders garrulousness as feminine, the silence he urges on women is not submission but wisdom and self-awareness” (55).

16  George Saville, 1st Marquess of Halifax (1633-1695) was an English statesman, writer and politician. When he wrote this conduct-book for his daughter Elizabeth (1677-1708), she was still quite young.

17  See The Gentlewoman’s Companion, or a guide to the Female Sex; Containing Directions of Behaviour...; also, John Shirley “The Second Part, or Appendix to the Foregoing Work. Containing Directions for Behaviour…

18  He clearly borrowed from [Woolley]’s work and explains in the ‘Preface to the reader’ that he “travelled through the world of Curiosities to furnish out this Cabinet of Rarities”, and that his book is “the very quintessence of whatever has been practiced or published, and more perhaps than can probably be expected from so small a Book.”

19  Oliver Heywood likewise recommended “civil converse in all companies” (63).

20  Also: “consort with such whose names were never branded, converse with such whose tongues for immodesty were never taxed” (16).

21  After page 65, pagination goes back to 1. “Of Curiosity and Slander” starts on page 41 of this new pagination.

22  The author is identified only by the initials N.H. at the end of the dedication.

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Michèle Lardy, « From Silence to “Civil Converse”: Of the Attempts to Control Seventeenth-Century Women’s “Ripe Wit and Ready Tongues” », XVII-XVIII, 73 | 2016, 105-122.

Référence électronique

Michèle Lardy, « From Silence to “Civil Converse”: Of the Attempts to Control Seventeenth-Century Women’s “Ripe Wit and Ready Tongues” », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 73 | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 26 septembre 2017. URL : http://1718.revues.org/752 ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.752

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Auteur

Michèle Lardy

Université Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne
Normalienne supérieure (ENSET Cachan) et agrégée, Michèle Lardy est depuis 1991 Maître de Conférences à l’Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne où elle enseigne l’anglais (langue, civilisation britannique et américaine) à des étudiants de sciences humaines et sciences économiques. À la suite de sa thèse (« L’Éducation des filles de la noblesses et de la gentry en Angleterre au XVIIème siècle »), elle axe sa recherche sur l’éducation des femmes et les écrits privés féminins au XVIIème siècle ainsi que sur les proto-féministes anglaises. Elle travaille également sur le genre, en particulier à travers les pamphlets de cette époque.
Michele.Lardy[at]univ-paris1.fr

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