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  • Parroting and the Periodical: Women’s Speech, Haywood’s Parrot, and Its Antecedents
  • Manushag N. Powell (bio)

In July 1709, the Female Tatler, a gossipy and moralizing periodical, ran the following notice:

A very agreeable young Lady at Epsom, having made Complaint that an impudent Parrot, on Clay-hill, whenever she happens to pass by, is always bawling, When did you see Captain Thumper, Oh! the dear Captain, the pretty, pretty Captain, till she was forc’d to remove her Lodgings, tho she knows not, nor ever heard of any such Captain. The Gentleman believes the Parrot meant her no Affront, humbly begs her Pardon, and henceforward, Poll shall have less Victuals than formerly, that he may not be so very Pert, and be hung next to the Garden instead of the Street.1

Although the gentleman owner faults the parrot, the reader might well conclude either that the “very agreeable young Lady” is really a bit of a fool for not comprehending the aimlessness of the parrot’s blather, or that one of the humans involved protests too much.2 It is not, and probably cannot, be known whether this is indeed a genuine apology from a reader of the Female Tatler, or whether it is simply a humorous composition by the periodical’s author, a figure styled under the persona of “Phoebe Crackenthorpe, a lady that knows everything.”3 The notice is thus plausible to the modern reader both as a credible vignette of eighteenth-century life, and as a literary creation whose main thrust is not very complimentary to women.4 Furthermore, the parrot in the notice, though belonging to a man, is aligned with women’s speech in its ceaseless repetition of a potentially damaging piece of gossip.

This “parrot note” demonstrates a number of connections among women, speech, periodicals, and parrots. Two issues stand opposed to each other: women, as publishers, authors, and readers, were indispensable contributors to the periodical scene in eighteenth-century England.5 However, professional authorship was nonetheless imagined to be a matter for men, at least at its best. Therefore, when the feminine is invoked in discourses of periodical authorship, it is most often a vehicle for complaint: the idea is that periodicals are so proliferate and so vapid as to mimic women’s speech, with gossip masquerading as didacticism. A graphic 1752 reference to “those Menstrual Eruptions from the Press, called Magazines” showcases [End Page 63] this unfortunate link, particularly since it appears in a work purportedly written by one man against another.6 Periodicals, which frequently figure themselves (if not their competitors) as literary endeavors, tend often to associate women with speech that is low, nonedifying, rhetorically unsophisticated, gossipy—the sort of thing, in short, one expects from a parrot.

Valued for its beauty as well as ability, the parrot was renowned for speaking articulately, but without sense or discrimination, and for this reason became a common deprecatory metaphor for threatening figures of alterity like social climbers, racial “others,” and women who speak out or write improperly. Although obviously an exotic pet, the talking parrot, rather like the woman author, was by no means an unheard-of phenomenon in either life or literature of eighteenth-century England. Of course, challenges were occasionally mounted against this long-standing connection. Eliza Haywood’s periodical, the Parrot, with a Compendium of the Times,7 is an exception to the misogynistic parrot tradition, wherein she cleverly invokes the talking parrot in a genre that is already specifically enabled by the metaphor of the female voice. Although hampered by social conventions that increasingly treated certain kinds of speech (political, for example, not to mention public) as outside the natural province of women, feminine speech (tattling, prattling, prating, babbling) was, paradoxically enough, often invoked in the periodicals that admonished and shaped that society. As a modern critic notices, “Rhetorically feminine periodicals employ women personae, or eidolons, symbolically to represent both generic affiliation and the relationship between publication and the public sphere” (Osell, p. 283).8 The existence of this posture of rhetorical (artificial) femininity is what allows the seeming contradiction that, in Rachel Carnell’s words, “Eliza Haywood advised women, in her conduct books, to...