Historical literature is filled with the censorious proclamation to women… “you talk too much!”
From Ancient Roman times, to Shakespeare, to Jane Austen; literature is filled with references of women being talkative. These references are also contained in the contemporary journals and morality sermons of the day, such as The Spectator and Fordyce’s Sermons, of which some excerpts are below.
We are told by some ancient Authors that Socrates was instructed in Eloquence by a Woman, whose Name, if I am not mistaken, was Aspasia. I have indeed very often looked upon that Art as the most proper for the Female Sex, and I think the Universities would do well to consider whether they should not fill the Rhetorick Chairs with She Professors.
It has been said in the Praise of some Men, that they could Talk whole Hours together upon any Thing; but it must be owned to the Honour of the other Sex, that there are many among them who can Talk whole Hours together upon Nothing. I have known a Woman branch out into a long Extempore Dissertation upon the Edging of a Petticoat, and chide her servant for breaking a China Cup, in all the Figures of Rhetorick.
The Spectator, No. 247, Dec 1711.
But what words can express the impertinence of a female tongue let loose into boundless loquacity? Nothing can be more stunning, except where a number of Fine Ladies open at once – Protect us, ye powers of gentleness and decorum, protect us from the disgust of such a scene – Ah! my dear hearers, if ye knew how terrible it appears to a male ear of the least delicacy, I think you would take care never to practise it.
For endless prattling, and loud discourse, no degree of capacity can atone. … How different from that playful spirit in conversation spoken of before; which, blended with good sense and kept within reasonable bounds, contributes, like the lighter and more careless touches in a picture, to give an air of ease and freedom to the whole!
Sermons to Young Women, James Fordyce (1766).
Whilst it is fascinating to hear the ‘real’ admonishments to the ‘real’ women in history, it is also interesting to look at the inadvertent reprisals to women that take place in literature. Rather than issuing a directive, literature uses the voice and experience of a character to convey the message of the author.
A few examples of talkative, ‘out-there’ women in English literature include:
- Beatrice – Much Ado About Nothing
- Kate – Taming of the Shrew
- Mrs Middleton – Sense and Sensibility
- Lydia Bennet – Pride and Prejudice
- Jo March – Little Women
- Anne Shirley – Anne of Green Gables
I had expected to find many negative portraits of women in literature; women who are chatty, vain, and frivolous, and indeed there are many. These women are the ones who gossip, slander, meddle, endlessly talk, are annoying, and have an unguarded manner.
What I did not expect to find was as many positive women as I did. These women are witty, playful, courageous, have educated opinions, and often express a sense of humour. In hearing the voices of these types of women through literature, it is evident that the authors have developed ways for the Fairer Sex to speak in socially accepted ways through the medium of their stories.
In essence, perhaps the lesson these various writers had for the women of their time is that it is not the talking in itself that is the problem. It is the effect is has on the people that listen. And I am sure that the issue has not changed through the passage of history… today our talking still affects those around us!
Who are your favourite female characters in literature? Are they the talkative, out-there kind?
Sources and Relevant Links
“Women really DO talk more than men” – Daily Mail Article (2006)
“Talkative Women Myth Debunked” – NPR Article (2007)