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Still, however, it is certain that young ladies should be more apt to hear than to speak“: Silence in Eighteenth Century Conduct Books for Young Women

Cornelia Dahmer
p. 123-145


Les manuels de bonne conduite publiés au xviiie siècle en Angleterre et destinés aux femmes de la “middling sort” traitent de la bienséance du silence féminin, envisagé dans le cadre de la conversation policée, dans des lieux, situations et contextes d’interlocution spécifiques. Ils traitent du silence comme moyen de communication non verbal, contribuant à la transmission de messages variés, à la promotion de certaines vertus, et à la dissimulation de secrets et de défauts. Ces manières d’envisager le silence soulignent une tendance générale vers une plus grande acceptation de la parole féminine tout au long du siècle. Le besoin naissant de prendre en considération les nouveaux idéaux féminins en lien avec la question du silence a pu concourir à la popularité croissante du genre.

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  • 1  The page numbers given here refer to the pagination of the 2004 reprint, not to the original pagin (...)
  • 2  This is an unacknowledged quote from Diogenes Laertius. Compare: “The reason why we have two ears (...)

1A 1760 conduct book called The Polite Lady sets up a basic rule for a young lady’s conduct in regard to silence: “Still, however, it is certain, that young ladies should be more apt to hear than to speak” ([Allen] 97).1 The Polite Lady is a collection of anonymously published fictional letters from a mother to her daughter “Sophy,” who is a well-to-do young woman about to finish her education and set out to find a suitable husband. That Sophy’s mother’s advice on how to conduct one’s life includes a recommendation of silence is most typical of conduct books for young women in the late eighteenth century: for example a 1790 edition of the long-selling English version of Marchioness de Lamberts Advice of a Mother to her Daughter (first published in 1728) rules that “the greatest prudence lies in speaking little” (183), and a 1795 edition of John Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady (first published in 1784) reminds the young female reader that “nature has given you two ears, and only one tongue2; and that scripture has said, ‘be swift to hear but slow to speak.’ ” (2:25) But The Polite Lady’s defensive “[s]till, however, it is certain” ([Allen] 97), while obviously referring to some exceptions mentioned earlier in the text, may nevertheless leave the observant reader wondering why it should be phrased so defiantly if it were indeed so indisputably “certain.”

2In this article, I will explore how conduct books published in English during the long eighteenth century addressed the question of female silence. The focus will be on the voluntary renunciation of speech in everyday social interaction. I shall argue that silence is considered a non-verbal means of communication in its own right, that it is an elaborate communicative practice subject to controversy and to historical change.

  • 3  It is also, as Heimerdinger (“Gelebter Konjunktiv”) has shown, doubtful whether typical readers of (...)
  • 4  Susanne Roeder’s (49-51) study of conduct and courtesy books’ treatment of the rules for speech se (...)

3The term “conduct book” in this context refers to a specific historical subgenre of advice literature. Its most important characteristic is that it gives advice on both character formation and the conduct of life (Newton, Learning). It comes in different forms such as sermons, series of letters, tracts or fables and its typical target audience are middle class adolescents and young adults. It is sometimes (e.g. Carré, Morgan) interpreted as specific to the long eighteenth century in that it replaced the older courtesy book (targeting the aristocracy) as a particularly popular type of advice literature and was in turn replaced by the etiquette book (focussing on etiquette rules) in the nineteenth century. During the eighteenth century, a growing number of conduct books targeted young women (Poovey 15). Different authors give strikingly similar advice to their young female readers. They all prescribe a model biography (Schrick 234): coming out, choice of marriage partner, being a wife, a mother and the mistress of a great house with servants. Conduct books of course do not give us a faithful picture of real life3 but of the ideal to which young ladies were supposed to aspire. The proliferation, the apparently growing popularity of conduct books for young women of the “middling sort” during the eighteenth century has been discussed as historically new and specific to the century. The increasing demand for advice literature on questions of proper female conduct has therefore been attributed to historical changes in female education and the prevailing ideal of femininity (e.g. Armstrong, Bérenguier, Mergenthal, Todd 1: xiv, Taylor 127): ever since Nancy Armstrong’s influential study Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987), eighteenth-century conduct books for middle class young ladies have been read as prescriptive texts, which disseminate the novel ideal of the “domestic woman” (Armstrong), of the almost invisible, quiet middle class housewife. That the preference for domesticity and avoidance of conspicuous self-display recommended in conduct books would be accompanied by taciturnity rather than loquaciousness has, to my knowledge, been acknowledged in research on eighteenth-century English-language conduct books for women, but it has not received much attention.4 The eighteenth-century conduct book’s generally positive attitude towards female silence hearkens back to a well-known centuries-old tradition: more broadly focused research on prevalent attitudes towards women’s silence (Benthien 196-238) shows the ubiquity of praise of female silence and lamentation about women’s allegedly natural loquaciousness in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discourse on silence.

  • 5  Texts addressed specifically to female servants or other professional groups were excluded, as wer (...)
  • 6  So for example silence is mentioned in connexion with questions such as how to deal with male sile (...)
  • 7  Johnson’s definition of “social silence” includes a third criterion besides the two named above: “ (...)

4My findings are based on a close reading of nine English language conduct books published during the eighteenth century. These conduct books are addressed to young women or, in some cases, to their parents.5 Most of them were successful in their time and are almost canonical texts in conduct book research today. As conduct books aim at preparing their readers for life, there is a broad range of subjects, in relation to which the question of silence is discussed.6 This article will focus on the instructions for the youthful reader’s own present conduct (rather than her own future conduct as a wife and mother or other people’s conduct). I will only investigate “social silence,” that is, silence in the presence of “two or more persons among whom words might pass […and who] are in some social relationship in which speech would seem natural” (Johnson 13-14).7 I shall concentrate on the topic most frequently discussed in conduct books, which is female silence in conversation, meaning not so much mere pauses during turn-taking, nor hesitation or rhetorical uses of or accidental silence, but different modes of taciturnity while present during a conversation.

5What do conduct books have to say on the topic of a young woman’s social silence? Conduct books recommend silence, both in general and especially for young women, repeatedly, at times defiantly, showing they did not think it a matter of course. Some authors (e.g. Gregory; Wollstonecraft, see below) claim that taciturnity in conversation was natural to young women. Others assume that girls and women are, on the contrary, naturally talkative. So for example the anonymous author of the 1787 edition of The Ladies Calling (a conduct book first published in 1673 and still in demand more than a century later): “That their visits should be only a dumb shew, none will suspect among women […]” ([Allestree] 11). Silence is recommended to young women regardless of their assumed natural disposition. It is, however, not recommended unconditionally. Conduct manuals for women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, according to Heidi Brayman Hackel, “advocated the [ideal] of silence […] with consistency to the point of cliché” (104). But eighteenth-century conduct books instead set up specific rules for where, when, how, in whose company and on which topic to be silent.

6First of all, there are certain topics young women were not supposed to talk about. Obviously propriety is an issue: conduct books expect their target readership not to use “profane language” (as Thomas Gisbourne specifies in his 1797 conduct book Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex, 2:33) and warn them of “an indiscreet freedom of […] conversation with men” (Gisbourne 2:184). They also advise their readers more specifically on the suitability of possible conversation topics, so for example they are not supposed to talk about scandal (Gisbourne 2:287), religion (Gregory 8) or unladylike branches of learning (Pennington 77). While conduct books acknowledge and even warn that there are “such secrets as are not fit to be kept” (as Hester Chapone instructs the readers of her 1773 Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, 2:106), they advise young ladies to keep certain personal and family secrets. The Polite Lady contrasts Miss A— and Miss L—:

Miss A— is possessed of an uncommon share of wit, sense, and knowledge; but then she is peevish and ill-natured. [...] Her friends will not intrust her with their secrets; because these she might betray in a fit of passion [...] Miss L—, on the contrary, tho’ endued with a very moderate degree of sense, wit, or knowledge, is blessed with such a sweet temper and gentle disposition, that she is beloved and caressed by all her acquaintance. She knows the most important secrets of all her friends, because she never disclosed the most trifling secret of any one. ([Allen] 270)

7It is typical of conduct books, that right and wrong conduct is illustrated by contrasting descriptions of the exemplary young woman and her counterpart and Sarah Emily Newton (Newton, “Wise”) has appositely compared this pedagogical technique to the biblical “Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.” In this case, however, it is not clever Miss A—, but the simpleton, Miss L—, who is exemplary in that she can and does hold her tongue. Openness is not appreciated as a necessary consequence of a commitment to truthfulness. On the contrary, it is discouraged as showing a want of self-control. Conduct books even occasionally associate openness with non-truthfulness: in the case of gossips, who are bound to exaggerate and to retell untrue stories heard from other people, speaking, according to An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (Gisbourne 2:287), comes close to lying. There are topics, however, on which conduct book authors prefer young women not to be silent: Sarah Pennington advises her readers to openly criticise their friends, as silence would make them “in some measure, an accessary to the fault” (124). All in all, conduct book authors certainly do not want young women to be passionately eloquent and outspoken. Authors fear this would make the young ladies embarrassingly indiscreet, make them talk nonsense, gossip or even lie. The conduct books prefer their readers to hold their tongue and exert a certain kind of self-censorship, but to speak up, if it is a moral duty to do so.

8Secondly, apart from the topics about which to speak or not to speak, conduct books also give advice on the setting for being silent: on where, in which situations and in whose company to be silent. In any event, a young woman (or her parent) is expected to make sure that she attends only such social gatherings during which she will not run “the risk of having her ears insulted by the mirth and jests of the unprincipled” (Gisbourne 2:149) or meet with people with whom it would not be considered proper she should converse. But even if she limits herself, as recommended, to select private companies and a small choice of suitable as well as exclusive public amusements, she would still have to decide whether to actively participate in conversation or to be silent. So James Fordyce in his popular conduct book Sermons to Young Women (first published in 1765) explains the significance of the biblical “Let your women keep silence in the churches […]” (King James Bible 1 Cor: 14, 34) for the young woman of his time:

  • 8  All the quotations from Sermons to Young Women in this article are taken from a reprint, which was (...)

Must women then keep silence in the house, as well as in the church? By no means. There may indeed be many cases, in which it will particularly become a young lady to observe the apostolic rule, ‘Be swift to hear, and slow to speak:’ but there are many too, wherein it will be no less fit, that with an unassuming air she should endeavour to support and enliven the conversation. (Fordyce 1 I: 195)8

So in order to determine whether her being silent would be “particularly becom[ing],” the young woman has to consider the place (church or house etc.) and the specific “case” as Fordyce calls it (probably the occasion for meeting, the degree of formality of the event and of familiarity between the attendees or rules of etiquette specific to the situation). Besides place and “case,” there is another crucial factor for the decision to be silent: the social status of the interlocutors. According to The Polite Lady, young women may “chatter and prattle as much as [they please]” ([Allen] 90) if they are among their peers. But if with elder persons of their own rank, they should demonstrate their gratitude for being admitted into their company by remaining entirely silent: the fictional young lady “Sophy” in The Polite Lady is forbidden to speak in the presence of her aunt’s guests. She complains about this to her mother, and this is the mother’s reply:

my Dear, let me observe that your aunt has acted very wisely in enjoining you […] a profound silence, except when a question is put to you. – You must learn to think, before you presume to speak; and the best, the only, way for this, is, to sit silent, and to listen with attention to the conversation of those who are elder and wiser than yourself. ([Allen] 90)

  • 9  Obviously, silence in the presence of elders is not just a question of gender but of age: As the y (...)

The mother presents being silent as a learning strategy: “Sophy” is to listen as one would attend to a teacher’s demonstration of a skill to be acquired. She is to absorb novel thoughts and use them as a starting point for her own reflections, the way a student would during a traditional university lecture. Silently listening young women may also, as de Lambert puts it “sit in judgment upon others, and run no hazard [themselves]” (182).9 So, to determine whether it would be appropriate to be silent, an exemplary young woman must correctly apply all the specific rules for different places, “cases, and interlocutors.

  • 10  As most conduct books insist on the usefulness of their advice for women regardless of their socia (...)

9Once the basic decision to remain silent has been reached, an exemplary young woman would still have to choose the appropriate mode of silence: conduct books depict young women silently listening as actively – even if non-verbally – communicating. As I will show, there are manifold communicative messages she can convey by her specific mode of silence. First of all, silence may signal a suitable consciousness of youthful inexperience. The instructions for “Sophy” quoted above show that the young woman who deliberately keeps silent in company and listens attentively non-verbally acknowledges her neophyte status as a participant in polite conversation. Conspicuous silence may also signify those personal attributes deemed suitable for the addressee’s age, gender and rank10: the female conduct book’s typical target readership is young and of the “middling sort,” as well as female. This is predictably depicted as incompatible with showy self-presentation. Retiring inconspicuousness is required. So a young lady can show off her exemplariness only by not actively drawing attention to herself. John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters advises the reader to advertise her virtuous femininity in such a paradoxical manner:

This modesty, which I think so essential in your sex, will naturally dispose you to be rather silent in company, especially in a large one. – People of sense and discernment will never mistake such silence for dullness. One may take a share in conversation without uttering a syllable. The expression in the countenance shews it, and this never escapes an observing eye. (Gregory 12)

Gregory advises his daughters, for whom his conduct book was originally written, to show off their female modesty by conspicuously not speaking up, not actively making themselves the listener’s centre of attention. According to Gregory, a young woman’s silence can signify her modesty just as clearly as a verbal message could, as sophisticated interlocutors will look for non-verbal cues distinguishing accidental silence from communicatively significant modes. Besides modesty conduct books suggest other much valued feminine attributes which can be demonstrated by being silent, such as “dignity” (Lambert 182), or “timidity” and “diffidence” (Bennett 2:68). The purpose of such modes of silence appears to be that the young woman renders herself virtually transparent, making it easy for the “observing eye” of “people of sense and discernment” (Gregory 12) to place her.

  • 11  This peculiarly feminine version of display already had a long tradition in the eighteenth century (...)
  • 12  Luckyj has shown that in the seventeenth century female silence was subject to male anxieties, as (...)

10Conduct books generally stress that silence becomes a young lady, that it shows her to advantage, and makes her attractive. This comes close to what Brayman Hackel has called an “oxymoronic ideal of displayed silence” (101): a woman inaudibly boasting of being silent, flaunting her attractiveness as a virtuous woman in a way that can only indirectly be perceived.11 There is no explicit encouragement, though, to use silence strategically as a kind of paradoxical “self-marketing,” for example to attract potential husbands. But Vivien Jones has argued that conduct books served as “guides to success – and survival” (Jones, “Introduction” vi). If this is correct, young female conduct book readers might actually have concluded that by conspicuously not talking they might increase their attractiveness12 and make themselves the centre of attention. Moreover, I think that this is not the only strategic use of silence deducible from the advice given in conduct books: authors also occasionally, and rather coyly, recommend silence as a means of imposition, of elegantly hiding personal faults or unflattering personal attributes. Exceptionally good health, for example, should be enjoyed in “grateful silence” (20) according to Gregory’s Legacy, because he considers it unfeminine and therefore unattractive. Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1787 Thoughts on the Education of Daughters at first sight just gives us the adults’ view on young girls’ silence; it is convenient because it prevents silly little girls from becoming a nuisance:

I must own, I am quite charmed when I see a sweet young creature […] listening rather than talking. It is possible a girl may have this manner without having a very good understanding. If it should be so, this diffidence prevents her from being troublesome. (Wollstonecraft 20)

11Yet one might also infer a different message from the passage quoted: a less intelligent girl could just pretend to be modest to hide that she does not have much to say. De Lambert quite openly instructs her daughters to use silence to deceive: “we should learn how to listen to other people’s discourse, and not betray an absence of mind either by our eyes or our manner” (182). De Lambert, like her fellow conduct book authors, recommends silent listening to profit from the discourse of the wise. But occasional absent-mindedness to her is forgivable, if hidden behind a polite silence. Patricia Meyer Spacks has argued that for eighteenth-century women seeking privacy “flawless manners provide[d] concealment” (87). Polite silence may have provided just that; concealment, a façade behind which to hide one’s absent-mindedness and one’s private thoughts. So conduct books present silence as both an expressive means of communication for a young woman to show off her exemplary femininity and as an unobtrusive strategy to hide her faults and shortcomings.

12Furthermore, conduct books for young women occasionally recommend modes of silence that go beyond advantageous self-presentation, in that they are to convey quite sophisticated messages, designed to make the receiver react in a specified way. Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind provide the following instruction: “When you are silent, your looks should shew your attention and presence to the company: – a respectful and earnest attention is the most delicate kind of praise and never fails to gratify and please” (2:180). While verbal flattery is generally discouraged in conduct books, this might be read as an instruction on how non-verbally to flatter and to ingratiate oneself with those on whose good opinion one is dependent. Conduct books do indeed occasionally explicitly recommend silence to women as a means to outdo rivals for attention and sympathy. Thomas Gisbourne for example reminds the readers of his Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex not to lament loudly, should they suffer from ill health in their future lives. The reason he gives for this is that “silent resignation” (Gisbourne 2:417) is a much more efficient means to encourage others to provide the sufferer with social support: thus the silent sufferer will not only appear laudably composed and modest, but also excite more compassion and thus get a greater share of attention than her loudly lamenting fellow-sufferers. Certain modes of silence are, as these examples show, considered legitimate means of eliciting specific emotional responses such as pleasure or sympathy.

  • 13  Christina Luckyj provides evidence that the warning against making female silence signify contempt (...)

13So far, all the examples quoted for the different modes of female silence recommended in conduct books have one feature in common: they are meant to express a positive attitude towards the receiver of the non-verbal message, i.e. praise, admiration, respect, a conscience of one’s own inferiority, attentive listening or a desire to ingratiate oneself with, to learn from and to emulate the person one is listening to. However, conduct books also consider silence as a means to demonstrate a negative attitude: criticism, displeasure or contempt. Typically, conduct books advise against “a proud and insulting silence” (182), as de Lambert puts it.13 But in the case of gossips, Pennington considers silence as a socially acceptable way of showing disapproval: “Shew your disapprobation by a silent gravity, and by taking the first opportunity to change the subject” (92). Verbal criticism might provoke the gossips and result in a quarrel, so silence is the well-bred alternative to open disagreement. Still, the marked failure to contribute to the conversation, followed by an attempt to introduce a different discourse topic is undeniably a latently aggressive variety of silence.

14As the passages quoted show, conduct books do not consider female silence in conversation as mere non-communication, as the accidental, not significant failure to contribute. Nor do they recommend it indiscriminately, as a generally laudable habit. On the contrary, they distinguish between desirable kinds of silence and others. Young ladies are expected to choose their mode of silence carefully and to non-verbally communicate the specific reasons for their silence. Their conversational partners for their part are expected to be able to decode the young lady’s non-verbal message, especially if they are “elder and wiser” ([Allen] 90) as well as “people of sense and discernment” (Gregory 12).

15So far I have treated conduct books as one body of texts with a common message. There are good reasons for doing so: they share certain topoi (Bérenguier 65-108), cover a similar curriculum and usually claim that both their rules of conduct and ideal of femininity are timeless. As Vivien Jones has pointed out, the popularity of anthologies with texts originally written at different times by different authors shows that eighteenth-century publishers and presumably readers considered different conduct books “unproblematically compatible with each other” (“Introduction” vii).

16Still, some authors do claim that their opinion on female silence is different than the commonly held wisdom, that they do not agree with the views of the majority of people. So for example, Hester Chapone writes in 1773:

Many are of opinion that a very young woman can hardly be too silent and reserved in company […]. But, […] silence should only be enjoined, when it would be forward and impertinent to talk. – There are many proper opportunities for a girl, young even as you are, to speak in company. (Chapone 2:180)

17Yet Chapone’s opinion might not be as much of a minority position as she claims: her fellow author Fordyce for example, writing at about the same time, takes it as given that a certain degree of female participation in conversation is desirable. So it is a possibility that Chapone just pretends to oppose received opinions to increase the value of her own advice. For, as Nadine Bérenguier has pointed out, warning readers of “a world full of objectionable social practices” (80) highlights the necessity of good advice and therefore justifies the writing of conduct books. Besides Fordyce, who published his Sermons eight years before the publication of Chapone’s Letters, not only agrees with her that girls should not generally be made to sit silent in company, but just like her criticizes supposedly popular opinion:

It is the opinion of some, that girls should never speak before company, when their parents are present; and parents there are, so deficient in understanding, as to make this a rule. How then shall those girls learn to acquit themselves properly in their absence? (Fordyce 1 I: 195-96)

18The main target of Fordyce’s criticism is not fashionable society, though. On the contrary, “the opinion of some” includes some parents’ current educational practice and the traditional conduct-book-wisdom, that it is always best for young women to be silent in the presence of the elder and wiser, voiced for example in The Polite Lady in 1760 (quoted above). And he does give pedagogical reasons for his opinion. He does not just claim to state eternal truths or remind his readers of traditional wisdom. So obviously female taciturnity is not consistently depicted as an eternal ideal in conduct books. It is sometimes presented on the contrary as a controversial issue and as subject to fashion changes. Writing in 1797, Thomas Gisbourne criticizes the view that girls must be silent in the presence of their parents explicitly as old-fashioned and outdated:

Even in times not very distant from those in which we live, it was the custom for girls, when arrived at such an age, as to be fully capable of bearing a part in general conversation, to be condemned to almost perpetual silence in the presence of their parents. […] But to encourage your daughters [...] to an unaffected ease in conversation before you, […] is among the least uncertain methods of rendering your society pleasing and instructive. (Gisbourne 2:380-81)

  • 14  Apprehensions of this kind were frequently expressed in seventeenth-century texts on female silenc (...)

Like Fordyce, Gisbourne objects to girls’ total silence for pedagogical reasons. He questions the value of the traditional demonstration of filial subordination by silence, but not because he worries that what looks like submission might in some cases mask – or even nonverbally express – rebellious thoughts.14 He appears to be sceptical of a family hierarchy too strictly enforced (see footnote 15) and he also may simply want daughters to acquire “unaffected ease” in conversation and wish to recommend learning by doing as the most promising method.

19Was female silence, then, a controversial ideal in the eighteenth century? Are Gisbourne, Fordyce and Chapone right in pointing out that customs are changing, that there is no longer a consensus in favour of female silence? Female silence is a staple topic of conduct books, but usually not treated in great detail. Because of that it is not always possible to exactly compare the advice given in different books. Still, female silence seems to be a topic which allows for more diverse opinions than are usually to be found in this notoriously repetitive genre. This diversity of opinion is evidence for historically changing educational practices: if conduct book authors could no longer simply refer to a widely accepted ideal of female conduct, they would have to make up and justify their own rules. Change will often cause uncertainty, which in turn may generate a demand for relevant advice literature (Heimerdinger, “Alltagsanleitungen” 61). It has been argued, as mentioned above, that the increase in the number of conduct books for young women of the “middling sort” published in the eighteenth century was not just a consequence of the “print revolution” and of the demand for suitable reading matter for girls and young women caused by rising rates of literacy: that it was in fact a reaction to historical change, to the growing importance of the middle ranks of society. It has been further argued that changing views on female education generated a particular demand for advice on female conduct and that conduct books met this demand by providing a model of proper femininity to emulate, the middle class “domestic woman” (Armstrong). Inconspicuousness to the point of near “invisibility” (Armstrong 81) as opposed to the “lavish displays of aristocratic life” (71), is among the preeminent characteristics of the “domestic woman’s” version of femininity. So it seems only logical, that, as I have shown, conduct books also prefer young women to be quiet rather than eloquently communicative in conversation. The female conduct book’s insistence on the value of not speaking is, moreover, in line with theories that link a preference for silence to the increasing need for self-control as part of what Norbert Elias called the “civilizing process,” or even to bourgeois austerity (Burke 138-41). Seen in this light, the conduct book’s appreciation of taciturnity – involving the physical restraint of the tongue – can be interpreted as part of a more general historical process of increasing appreciation of physical self-restraint for the purpose of polite consideration, which is traceable in advice literature over a period of several centuries, starting in the late Middle Ages (Elias). Or, if taciturnity is interpreted not so much as a physical act of self-restraint but rather as the frugal use of language, it may, as Peter Burke (140) has suggested, also be linked to protestant ideals of economy. So, if conduct book authors recommend silence to young women, they might in fact wish young women to use words just as conscientiously and parsimoniously as they should their pin-money, to prepare them for their future role as frugal housewives.

  • 15  The treatment of eighteenth-century conduct books for women as a homogeneous body of texts propaga (...)
  • 16  Who also, as Hayes (58-79) has shown, in some cases were enthusiastic readers of conduct books.

20However, if one compares the advice on female silence in eighteenth-century conduct books to seventeenth-century texts (Brayman Hackel, Lardy), and also considers Chapone’s, Fordyce’s and Gisbourne’s critique of traditional views on female silence, it appears that the eighteenth-century authors neither suggest an entirely new behavioural ideal nor merely echo centuries-old conduct rules but repeat the traditional rules while also commenting on and very slightly changing them: as a long-term development already apparent in the seventeenth century (Lardy), the unconditional appeal to be silent seems to have been gradually replaced by a more complex system of rules which allowed for some more “proper opportunities for a girl […] to speak in company” (Chapone 2:180). It is possible that this change was part of the more general shift in the perception of total silence noted by Claudia Benthien. According to Benthien (16-18) the connotations of “silence” (as a human behaviour) were subject to profound, if very gradual historical change in the European cultural area, mirroring a change in mentality: while positive connotations dominated in the seventeenth century, they were, Benthien argues, gradually replaced by the negative connotations such as loneliness or powerlessness dominant in the twentieth century, a process beginning in the eighteenth century. Thus the eighteenth-century conduct book ideal of female silence, may have also changed subtly as it was reformulated in a growing number of texts throughout the century. Undeniably, it was distinguished by the woman’s conscious effort to use words but sparingly and restrain the supposed “impertinence of a female tongue let loose into boundless loquacity” (Fordyce 1.I: 196). But Gisbourne’s above-quoted remark on “times not so very distant” (380) seems to imply that the traditional ideal of a young woman merely submissively silent, unless spoken to, was supplanted by the ideal of one who, while reticent, is sufficiently accomplished and eloquent to “with an unassuming air […] endeavour to support and enliven the conversation” (Fordyce 1.I: 195). Whether this, towards the end of the century, resulted in newly published conduct books’ greater acceptance of young women’s active participation in conversation or just in a greater diversity of opinion on the subject of female silence in conduct literature, further research (considering a larger sample of the genre) might explore. At any rate, the treatment of female silence plainly shows that eighteenth-century conduct books for young women of the middling sort, as a body of texts, do not present an entirely uniform model of femininity – although they are often read this way in the research literature. However clichéd much of their advice, it is yet apparent that changing behavioural ideals did not only create a need for advice, which was then answered by a reassuringly straightforward set of rules for female conduct in the manuals15: the behavioural ideals themselves, such as the question of the appropriateness of female silence in conversation, were indeed negotiated right in these texts. So parents, guardians or teachers, young women themselves or even their suitors16 could reflect on the appropriateness of female silence by comparing different authors’ views or check if their own views were still up to date. One reason for the popularity of conduct books for young ladies may well have been precisely the need for advice on controversial topics such as female silence.

21Some fictional representations of female conduct in the late eighteenth-century novel certainly convey the impression that a young woman’s conspicuous taciturnity in conversation was no longer indisputably taken to be her way of demonstrating her female excellence but rather thought unusual and perplexing: There is Evelina, in Frances Burney’s 1778 novel of the same title, an inexperienced young woman brought up by a country parson, her guardian. When first attending a private ball and being asked to dance by a stranger, Lord Orville, Evelina feels so frightened by the novelty of the situation that her marked failure to join in the conversation leaves her dancing partner in confused wonder. Her detailed description of the episode in a letter home accentuates her repeated but futile attempts to overcome her extreme bashfulness:

He seemed very desirous of entering into conversion with me; but I was seized with such a panic, that I could hardly speak a word […] I made no answer, but hung my head, like a fool, and looked on my fan […] I had not the presence of mind to say a single word […] I […] listened to him in silent embarrassment […] I was unable to go further than a monosyllable. (Burney I Letter XI: 31-34)

  • 17  The reader is informed that Fordyce’s Sermons form part of the Bennett family’s library (I Chapter (...)

22Her naïvely embarrassed modes of silence, while arguably signalling youthfully reticent femininity to the conservative eighteenth-century reader, clearly fail to convey the same message to her dancing partner, who later complains that if she be an “angel”, she is “‘A silent one […] A poor weak girl!” (I Letter XII: 36-37) Evelina judges her silence on this occasion to be the first in a series of blunders which make her feel in desperate need of “a book, of the laws and customs à-la-mode, presented to all young people, upon their first introduction into public company.” (I Letter XX: 84) – she would make an attentive reader of conduct book advice on female silence. Another fictional representation of female silence in the ballroom in a long eighteenth-century novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), shows how pertinent conduct rules influence more socially experienced young women’s behaviour, and their expectations of their interlocutors’ reactions, even when they decide to break those rules: Just like Evelina, Austen’s young and unmarried Elizabeth Bennett dances for the first time with an attractive aristocrat, who, it will turn out later, will one day ask her to marry him. Unlike Evelina she is familiar with female conduct rules17 as well as with basic ballroom etiquette. Yet she deliberately employs a mode of silence not adequate to place, case and interlocutor, intending to communicate her dislike (based, as it will turn out, on misinformation): “They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it” (I Chapter XVIII: 89-90). After having decided that this is not strong enough a “punishment” (90) – and maybe realising that her partner, Mr. Darcy, does not readily decode the contemptuous message she wishes her silence to convey – Elizabeth proceeds to talk about their failure to talk: “she made some slight observation […] After a pause of some minutes she addressed him a second time with ‘It is your turn to say something now […]. – I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark” (90). Her attempt to ironically draw attention to her own exemplary efforts at suitably light conversation, and to his failure to support her in these, does not have the desired effect of irritating Mr. Darcy, who entertains “a tolerable powerful feeling towards her” (92-93). He rather appears to enjoy the unusual situation of meta-communicatively reflecting on the due proportion of speech to silence in the ballroom while actually dancing. No longer taciturn, he enquires after the importance she attaches to conduct rules for real life: “‘Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?’” (90) and gets as a reply a short summary of the basic rules Evelina had so much trouble to abide by: “‘Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together’” (90). By the end of the dancing scene, Elizabeth finally succeeds in quarrelling with her partner. But before that, she has used female silence both in the literal sense and as a subject for conversation to provoke and attack, has proceeded to meta-communicatively reflect her own conduct with regard to silence, casually show off her knowledge of behavioural rules concerning silence, while at the same time breaking them and moreover appearing – unintentionally – attractively witty to her partner, in spite of announcing her intention to restrict herself to small talk platitudes. Rather than just as a measure of a young woman’s good breeding and a source of misunderstandings and embarrassment for the socially inexperienced, conduct rules on female (and male) silence could, as Austen proves, be read in far more creative ways.

23To sum up: eighteenth-century conduct books addressed to young women of the “middling sort” recommend specific varieties of silence in conversation, such as keeping quiet about secrets, about indecorous topics, avoiding lies and talking little or not at all, depending on the setting and interlocutors. Besides their general appreciation of prudent reticence they consider silence as particularly suitable for, if not natural to inexperienced young women and recommend silent listening as a learning strategy. Silence is presented as a versatile means of communication, suitable to demonstrate exemplary femininity, hide personal shortcomings, trigger specific desirable responses, criticize or attack. Well-bred participants of polite conversation are expected to know how to send and correctly decode such non-verbal messages. There is disagreement among authors on just how silent young women should be and this question is explicitly linked to cultural change. Possible reasons for this perceived need to renegotiate traditional rules on female silence are the growing concern with polite considerateness (as part of what Norbert Elias calls the “civilizing process”), the rising middle classes’ appreciation of industry and frugality (as opposed to idle talk) and corresponding preference for inconspicuous female domesticity (labelled “the domestic woman” by Nancy Armstrong) favoured even stricter rules on female silence, but came into conflict with a general change in attitudes (towards a more negative perception of silence). As far as the question of silence is concerned, conduct books for young women prove a source of detailed and at times divergent “expert’s” opinions, which may in part explain their growing popularity during the eighteenth century. Representations of female silence in the novel show the difficulties with the encoding and decoding of messages which could arise when female silence was treated as a means of non-verbal communication as well as the creative uses to which the silence rules could be put by young women.

24Seen in this light, the defiant verbosity of the Polite Lady’s “still, however, it is certain” (and the modesty of the subsequent request addressed to “young ladies” to be at least “more apt to hear than to speak” rather than entirely silent) appears to mirror the complexity and latently controversial nature of the subject of the eighteenth century’s young woman’s silence.

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1  The page numbers given here refer to the pagination of the 2004 reprint, not to the original pagination of the 1760 edition of The Polite Lady also still visible in the reprint.

2  This is an unacknowledged quote from Diogenes Laertius. Compare: “The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is that we may listen the more and talk the less” (7. 1, 23).

3  It is also, as Heimerdinger (“Gelebter Konjunktiv”) has shown, doubtful whether typical readers of advice literature in general tend to follow the advice given by the authors. Conduct book readers in particular might have, as Vivien Jones (“Seductions” 108) has suggested, read for other purposes than for receiving instruction. On some evidence of readers’ reactions to conduct books see Hayes (58-79), on the depiction of conduct book readers in fiction see Dahmer.

4  Susanne Roeder’s (49-51) study of conduct and courtesy books’ treatment of the rules for speech semiosis and patterns of spoken behaviour briefly discusses conduct book rules for silence. She focuses on three aspects: on listeners’ silence while waiting for turn-taking to occur, on silence as a form of (non-)participation in conversation and on the relationship between status, gender and speaking versus listening time in conversation. Rebecca Rumbo (148-211) explores the association between chastity and silence established in conduct books for eighteenth-century female servants and the influence this had on Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela. Heidi Brayman Hackel (104) briefly outlines the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century conduct book’s position on female silence before moving on to women’s silence as readers of texts in general. Christina Luckyj discusses (35-42) early seventeenth-century conduct books’ instructions on female silence and their relationship to the depiction of female silence in Renaissance drama.

5  Texts addressed specifically to female servants or other professional groups were excluded, as were those exclusively addressed to wives or widows.

6  So for example silence is mentioned in connexion with questions such as how to deal with male silence after the rejection of a marriage proposal (a situation discussed in John Gregory’s conduct book A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters first published in 1774, 40) or how to react when faced with unfair accusations, i.e. whether to keep silent or to explain oneself (a question raised by Sarah Pennington in her conduct book An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to her Absent Daughters, first published in 1761, 62).

7  Johnson’s definition of “social silence” includes a third criterion besides the two named above: “There is no speech at all, and not just the avoidance of some topic. The absence of speech is perceived by those present, or, if they do not perceive it, they behave as if they did.” (14). But I shall include cases in which the absence of speech is not absolute (e.g. only one person is silent, speaks very little, silence is kept regarding certain topics etc.), as they are much more frequently discussed in female conduct books than cases of absolute “social silence” (as defined by Johnson).

8  All the quotations from Sermons to Young Women in this article are taken from a reprint, which was published in 2004 as volume number 1 of Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment. As there are two volumes of the original bound together within this same volume of the reprint, the original volume number is also given (as a Roman numeral) to exactly locate each passage quoted.

9  Obviously, silence in the presence of elders is not just a question of gender but of age: As the young lady gains knowledge and experience, it is implied, there will be more opportunities for her to speak.

10  As most conduct books insist on the usefulness of their advice for women regardless of their social rank, the rules on silence suggested are not normally explicitly linked to class. But occasionally deterrent examples of noisy and talkative lower class femininity are given, such as “the oysterwomen in Billingsgate, or the orange-wenches in Covent-Garden scolding and bawling, in their violent transports of passion” ([Allen]: 263-64) or impertinent female servants “giving their unasked opinion of your person, dress or management” (Pennington: 81), showing that the specific silence behaviour recommended is also meant to distinguish the well-bred and leisured young woman (or the upwardly mobile reader of conduct books). Significantly, Pennington advises the young lady not to speak to her servants to prevent “such impertinence” (81).

11  This peculiarly feminine version of display already had a long tradition in the eighteenth century: Brayman Hackel quotes early seventeenth-century sources. The concept of female silence as associated with female sexual virtue, moreover, does not appear to have been limited to the middle (and upper) ranks of society: Rebecca Rumbo has shown that in eighteenth-century conduct books targeted explicitly at female servants chastity and silence were presented as “of almost sacramental importance” (154) and closely linked. Female loquacity, in contrast, has been shown by Claudia Benthien (31) to be associated with sexual excess in a variety of seventeenth-century texts.

12  Luckyj has shown that in the seventeenth century female silence was subject to male anxieties, as it was suspected of being in some cases just a “seductive strategy” (37) employed to find a husband, hiding unchaste thoughts or even signalling “lascivious acquiescence” (37). Eighteenth-century Conduct books insist that their readers must really possess or acquire the virtues their silence seems to imply – yet readers might come to a different conclusion.

13  Christina Luckyj provides evidence that the warning against making female silence signify contempt, disobedience or rebellion (especially towards husbands) is already prominent in seventeenth-century conduct books.

14  Apprehensions of this kind were frequently expressed in seventeenth-century texts on female silence, according to Luckyj.

15  The treatment of eighteenth-century conduct books for women as a homogeneous body of texts propagating a “particularly unambiguous […] definition of femininity” (Jones, “Seductions” 108) has already been questioned, in other respects, by Vivien Jones and Silvia Mergenthal. Jones focuses on the eighteenth-century female readers’ perspective and suggests that “unexpected, transgressive readings” (112) might have been produced by them. Readers, she suggests, might have read warnings of rakes and advice on how to prevent an unhappy marriage against the grain, reading it as a covert warning of marriage and as an invitation to daydream of attractive rakes. Seen in this light, one may suspect rules on silence could as well have been read against the grain or been applied in ways not intended by the authors of conduct books. I shall later give an example of a fictional character, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett, who uses her knowledge of silence rules for purposes most probably not anticipated by conduct book authors. Mergenthal (35) suggests subdividing eighteenth-century conduct books for young women chronologically into different categories (pre-, while-, post-revolutionary) to emphasise the influence of the French Revolution on questions of female education and the way this is reflected in conduct books. Of the conduct books considered in this article only one (Gisbourne’s Enquiry) was published in/after 1789. Gisbourne, as I have shown, is against enforcing parental authority by overly strict silence rules for daughters and this might indicate scepticism towards strictly hierarchical family relations in general. But further research would be required to answer the question whether significantly more egalitarian views of female silence were expressed in conduct books published from 1789.

16  Who also, as Hayes (58-79) has shown, in some cases were enthusiastic readers of conduct books.

17  The reader is informed that Fordyce’s Sermons form part of the Bennett family’s library (I Chapter XIV: 67).

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Cornelia Dahmer, « Still, however, it is certain that young ladies should be more apt to hear than to speak“: Silence in Eighteenth Century Conduct Books for Young Women »XVII-XVIII, 73 | 2016, 123-145.

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Cornelia Dahmer, « Still, however, it is certain that young ladies should be more apt to hear than to speak“: Silence in Eighteenth Century Conduct Books for Young Women »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 73 | 2016, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2016, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Cornelia Dahmer

Cologne University of Applied Sciences (TH Köln)

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