George Justice, Editor

Austen’s Women Are From Mars and Venus

Speaking Volumes: Women, Reading, and Speech in the Age of Austen

By Patricia Howell Michaelson.
Stanford University Press, 2002. xiv + 261 pages.
5 B/W illustrations. Hardcover. $55.00

Reviewed by Kathleen Anderson.

I have long felt that Jane Austen must be read aloud to be fully understood and appreciated. It is wonderful to witness even my most staunchly Austen-resistant students fall into a charmed trance upon hearing her witty dialogue delivered well. No one can help being drawn into the conversations of Austen’s characters, and many of us sense that especially the female characters may be playing tricks on their auditors.

Patricia Howell Michaelson’s Speaking Volumes: Women, Reading, and Speech in the Age of Austen offers an intriguing interdisciplinary analysis of particular women’s speaking methods and of the ways in which literature facilitated women readers’ strategic linguistic self-representations in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Michaelson argues that “in this period, text and speech were conceived of as closely intertwined” and cites a variety of textual sources from genres as diverse as conversation manuals, letters, and novels, which all “both reflect and teach the social norms at stake.”

In the introduction and first chapter, the author establishes a thorough, informative context for her claims about women’s manipulation of patriarchal stereotypes of their linguistic inferiority and loquacity. She reviews feminist scholarship on voice and silence as concepts and metaphors, as well as on sociolinguistics more broadly. She then describes how gender ideologies, such as the notion of “separate spheres,” assumed and taught women’s homogeneity and the corresponding homogeneity of their supposed speaking style. Michaelson praises Austen for her “masterful use of woman’s language, and often in fun,” as she challenges and complicates the stereotypes that define woman’s language as such. For example, both Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse display a foolish volubility, but both merit one’s tolerance and even compassion. Meanwhile, “neither plain sincerity nor polite civility is an absolute good” (for example, both Isabella Thorpe’s and Frank Churchill’s “civility” mask hypocrisy).

The second and third chapters examine the speech practices of individual women: Amelia Opie and Sarah Siddons, respectively. Opie converted to Quakerism and her mode of communication became a blend of conventional gendered society language with Quaker plain speaking. A celebrity actress, Siddons struggled to harmonize her “majestic stage persona” and private domestic persona (and failed, according to Michaelson; many people found her dignified silences threatening and interpreted them as prideful). Accounts of family reading are analyzed in the fourth chapter, with particular attention to the reading habits of Frances Burney’s family. Descriptions of reading aloud within a family demonstrated the performer’s and the listeners’ gender roles and familial relationships.

Collectively, the specific textual examples of women’s speech and silence, reading and listening, divergently reinforce Michaelson’s point that portrayals of both women’s and men’s speech acts undermine stereotypes of a monolithic feminine speaking style. Although references to Austen novels appear throughout the book, the fifth chapter, “Reading Austen, Practicing Speech,” includes the most developed analysis of her works. Lauding Austen’s “preference for female voices,” Michaelson juxtaposes Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, showing how “Anne represents the sense of a ‘true’ character, existing independent of and prior to speech; Elizabeth is constructed in speech.” In a culture in which speaking could be dangerous and silence could reap strategic benefits for women, “Austen offers us good and bad speech, good and bad silence.” She forces characters and readers alike to recognize the rich complexity for all human beings of representing a self in words. Thus, Austen avoids the simplistic “feminist binary” of representing women as either victims of mandated silence or triumphant harbingers of female self-assertion. So does the author of this book.

Kathleen Anderson is an associate professor of English, Palm Beach Atlantic University. She is the Regional Co-coordinator of the South Florida Region and sits on the JASNA Board of Directors.

JASNA News v.19, no. 2, Summer 2003, p. 15

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