- Male Oratory and Female Prate:"Then Hush and Be an Angel Quite"
Content not Phoebus' envy'd heights to reach,
Ye claim the dormant privilege of speech!—Morning Post (23 May 1780)
Throughout the eighteenth century, while male rhetoric was almost universally, perhaps unprecedentedly, valued and studied, women's silence was almost universally commended, recommended, and virtually enforced. Who could withstand the combined authority of Aristotle and St. Paul?1 Enjoined silence has always been a primary tool for hegemonic reminders of inferiority. Courtiers and domestic servants, women and children, working people, and subservients of every order were directed to speak only when spoken to. Because transgressors of this rule were so disorderly, comedy made considerable use of the talkative valet or tradesman, the rebelliously vociferous son or daughter, the irrepressibly expressive wife. There had no doubt always been female resistance to a societal decree for silence, but in the eighteenth century, when men were beginning to practice vocal expression in a previously unimaginable universal manner—women made many particular efforts to be heard, domestically, socially, and publicly, in a struggle against the male view that women's speech was insurrectional, irrational, either prate or termagency, and should be put down or at least [End Page 23] ignored. And as women's repression in general was contingent on their keeping silence, their speech became a forerunner of revolution. Although there were always rebels, English women, perhaps, like the Irish, sympathizing with the American colonists, and newly alive to the possibility of revolt, enjoyed a particular period of insurrection in the years between the American Rebellion and the crushing of rebellious spirit in England after the excesses of the French Terror.2
Throughout the century, though, most women who wished to marry maintained a tactical silence. One could compile hundreds, perhaps thousands, of illustrations of this tenet. In that model of instruction, The Tatler, for instance, in 1709 the second number carried verses, "The Medecine," by William Harrison, describing a woman who had ceased to attract her husband sexually, but who regains his attentions when she follows the doctor's instruction to be silent: "Be silent, and complying, you'll soon find, / Sir John, without a medicine will be kind."3 The threat of losing the chance of marriage or the love and fidelity of one's husband was the conventional stick for enjoining woman's silence.
Christopher Smart's work is a locus of this theme. Women who speak are his ever-consistent target. His twin poems "The Silent Fair" and "The Talkative Fair" are comic, prescriptive—and indicative of womanly insurrection. He addresses Celia:
From morn to night, from day to day, At all times and at every place, You scold, repeat, and sing, and say, Nor are there hopes you'll ever cease.(ll. 1–4)4
"Your tongue's more killing than your eyes," he writes. "Your tongue's a traytor to your face" (ll. 8–9).
Your silence wou'd acquire more praise, Than all you say, or all I write; One look ten thousand charms displays; Then hush—and be an angel quite.(ll. 13–16)
On the other hand,
From all her fair loquacious kind, So different is my Rosalind(ll. 1–2), [End Page 24]
that the poet can't even elicit from her a word of encouragement. For this very reason he adores. And in his fable "Madam and the Magpie," though
Ye thunders roll, ye oceans roar, And wake the rough resounding shore; Ye guns in smoke and flames engage, And shake the ramparts with your rage,(ll. 1–4)
women's voices outsound them all.
Thunder is the common metaphor for a woman's unrestrained speech, indicating that such speech was regarded as seriously dangerous, to be restrained at all cost. The Ladies' Magazine (9 February 1751) carried verses, "How a Woman's Tongue may be said to be a Thunder":
The Thunder is in my Wife's Tongue too common, No Thunder like the Thundring of a Woman.5
But the voice of Smart's Sylvia outsounds thunder, oceans, guns. The magpie her husband has brought home refuses to remain there and observes,
For such sour verjuice...