Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Woman's Language; or, How to Speak like Mrs. Palmer (and Other Silly People)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Woman's Language; or, How to Speak like Mrs. Palmer (and Other Silly People)

Article excerpt

LINE THE VERY BEST dramatists, Austen played brilliantly with what we now call the "performance" of gender. The idea is that, biological differences aside, a lot of what it means to be perceived as a gendered being derives from how we act. When we dress and groom ourselves in certain ways, when we do and say certain things, we are playing into or against the social norms of our culture. To be sure, "how to be a woman" changes over time, but the norms are widely understood in any given time and place, both in the crudest stereotypes (envision men in drag) and in subtler manifestations. I know I'm not the only one who felt there was something tomboyish--not quite womanly--in Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet. Whether or not we agree with that interpretation of the character, it does have a grounding in a text in which Elizabeth tramps over the countryside, allows herself to get tanned, and talks back to her betters. Elizabeth Bennet is not "butch," but she's not exactly a "girly" girl.

One of the most important ways to "perform' gender is in the way we speak. Since the 1970s, feminist linguists have looked at differences between men and women in conversational interactions. The earliest work emphasized how women reinforced their powerlessness by using tentative language. Others noted that men tend to "compete" in conversation, while women more often "cooperate." As the field has developed, the focus has shifted from assigning fixed, gendered labels to certain patterns of speech, to observing how people perform a gendered identity, over time, by using and/or modifying conventional gender norms (Eckert 1-5, 315-25).

Feminist linguists rely primarily on evidence from the present time and make no claims about how women spoke in the past. And of course we can never know what "real" women sounded like in Austen's day. But we can see the performance of gender in Austen's dialogue. For example, women traditionally do the "conversational work," keeping the conversation going and making sure everyone is included, and in general Austen assigns that role to female characters. Emma, for one, is vigilant about doing the conversational work, especially in turning the conversation away from topics that might be touchy. When her father and her sister contrast the medical advice they have received, Emma, "feeling this to be an unsafe subject," proposes another one--several, in fact--though in the end she realizes her "attempts to stop her father had been in vain" (108, 114). When she feels a conversation might be difficult for her friend, Emma takes over, "always putting forward to prevent Harriet's being obliged to say a word" (166). And so on. It is, of course, the flawlessness of Emma's usual performance that makes her gaffe at Box Hill so shocking.

If Austen admires the tact that is part of women's conversational role, she could also poke fun at a negative stereotype of her time, "woman's language" (sic). The ancient stereotype is that women talk too much and say too little, the negative counterpart to the modest woman who doesn't take the spotlight away from more important people. What with all the texting and tweeting that men do now, this stereotype may be dying. Still, it lasted well into the twentieth century; I am old enough to remember when yakking on the phone was supposedly something only women did. (Empirical studies consistently show that, in fact, men take up more "air-time" than women do [Eckert 114-19].) Austen refers to this stereotype in Emma. However respectable Miss Bates may be, there is no denying that her loquaciousness tries people's patience. And Mr. Knightley contrasts himself to the stereotype when he briefly describes Mr. Martin's proposal: "'Your friend Harriet will make a much longer history when you see her.--She will give you all the minute particulars, which only woman's language can make interesting.--In our communications, we deal only in the great'" (515, emphasis added).

The talkativeness of women was a common target for attack in the eighteenth century. …

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