PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.24, NO.1 (Winter 2003)

The Creation of Rhetorical Conversation

Tammy Powley


Tammy Powley (email: is from Port St. Lucie, Florida.  She currently works part-time as a reference librarian and freelance writer specializing in trade publications and is pursuing her Ph.D. in Text and Technology at the University of Central Florida.


reading novels has always been a form of escapism for me. As a teenager, I had a passion for reading but no guidance, so I often left my local library with a stack of paperback romance novels that I would devour like candy, one piece a day.  It wasn’t until I entered college that I discovered pioneers of the genre such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I also discovered a new depth to reading and escaping.  Sitting on the couch with an afghan over my legs, a cat or two curled up next to me, and a good novel to read, which usually includes a strong, intelligent heroine, allows me even today to enter this other world.  As someone who now studies as well as escapes through novels, I try to peel back the many layers that make up this sometimes academically dismissed form of writing.


One layer of the female novel that I uncovered appeared to me by chance while reading Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy:


A great gap in our understanding of the influence of women on literary genre and style could be bridged or closed through attention to the orality-literacy-print shift . . .  [E]arly women novelists and other women writers generally worked from outside the oral tradition because of the simple fact that women were not commonly subjected to the orally based rhetorical training that boys got in school. . . . Certainly, non-rhetorical styles congenial to women writers helped make the novel what it is: more like a conversation than a platform performance. (159-60)


Because Ong suggests that an alternative, conversational form of rhetoric came from the efforts of early female novelists, I begin my examination with Samuel Richardson, who is responsible for transforming the reputation of the novel.  Jane Austen is my next puzzle piece since she creates humor from the established roles imposed on both men and women.  Following Austen, the Brontë sisters lived and wrote about the limited experiences of women during the nineteenth century.  Finally, Virginia Woolf provides insight into how the British female novel of the nineteenth century crossed over into a type of female-rhetorical genre.  In her own writing, Woolf brings up many of the questions I would like to explore concerning how and why women became drawn to the novel, eventually using the female narrative voice to expose their views on the treatment of women, and thus, creating their own unique form of feminist rhetoric:


The question is one not merely of literature, but to a large extent of social history.  What, for example, was the origin of the extraordinary outburst in the eighteenth century of novel writing by women?  Why did it begin then, and not in the time of Elizabethan renaissance?  Was the motive which finally determined them to write a desire to correct the current view of their sex expressed in so many volumes and for so many ages by male writers? (“Women Novelists” 14)


In order to consider some of these questions, I begin with Ong’s notion that this group was barred from following traditional forms of rhetoric.  As a result, they created their own rhetorical voice to fit their abilities, and this is when we begin to see the development of the female novelist.


During the eighteenth century, the social stigma surrounding the novel started to change and, surprisingly enough, it began with a male writer, Samuel Richardson.  In his novel Pamela, Richardson “demonstrated how fiction could deploy strategies that reorganized the country house around a woman who had nothing but a gendered form of literacy to offer” (Armstrong 98).  While I believe Richardson’s gender excludes him from writing feminist rhetoric novels, I think his part in the development of this genre is important because he is credited with making the novel respectable, and the eventual result allowed more women to write novels.  One way he accomplished this was by adhering to conventions outlined in conduct books, which were very popular at the time.  By attempting to shape women in order that they follow predefined social roles, conduct books preached the importance of a limited female education, insisting that the fine arts and classical traditions be exclusive to the male sex (Armstrong 99-103).  Richardson’s Pamela was a mixture of both conduct book and female narrative.


More changes came to the novel and the female voice in the nineteenth century, and though a man is credited with altering the novel from a “vulgar form of writing” to a “safe” and “polite” form of fiction (Armstrong 96-97), the female novel made the final transition into what I consider true feminist rhetoric when women started to dominate this form of writing.  Jane Austen is one author who is responsible for this transformation, for “placed as she is historically, [Austen] is perhaps most often seen as a pivotal figure, looking both backward and forward” (Morrison).  She was raised on the restricting theory encouraged by conduct writings.  Consequently, many of the themes in her novels understandably revolve around the socially assigned roles of men and women.


While I cannot prove Austen intentionally infused her writing with feminist ideas, the social parody she creates in such novels as Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion may be the result of prescriptions imposed through conduct books.  Women were indoctrinated with advice on a wide variety of matters from how to spend their spare time to how they should care for the male members of their family, be they brother, father, or husband. Conduct writing advocated that “a woman’s social environment presented her with too many forms of activity that smacked of amusement,” and it was not considered appropriate for women to work, so “authors of conduct books generally insisted that the activities comprising the domestic arts—and therefore a women’s duty—had to be carefully supervised” (Armstrong 99-100).  Austen’s female heroines participate in many socially approved domestic activities.  They are intelligent and well read but not overly bookish, even admitting to enjoying a scandalous novel such as The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Accomplished at least at one form of the leisure arts such as drawing, needlework, or music, her heroines can play the piano, stitch a piece of fancy work, or sketch a portrait, but they are not showy with their talents.  Austen’s characters are in accordance with the standards described in conduct writings and fit the role of the stereotypical female, but Austen also subtly comments on these stereotypes through characterization and direct narrative.  Virginia Woolf discusses Austen’s use of characterization in her essay “Jane Austen,” suggesting that there is a “much deeper emotion than appears upon the surface,” and though the “life scenes” that are so much a part of Austen’s novels may seem “outwardly trivial,” “always the stress is laid upon character” (139).


One of her strongest female characters is Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice.  In most respects, Elizabeth fits the typical role of the English gentlewoman of the time, but she is by no means a passive female, nor is she shy about voicing her opinions whether or not they fit in with the social restrictions placed upon her.  Pressured to marry well, Elizabeth, with decided frankness, turns down two offers of marriage from adequately suitable gentlemen.  Austen exposes the non-conformist nature of Elizabeth by contrasting her to the character of Caroline Bingley, who like Elizabeth is of the gentry class but is her superior economically.  On more than one occasion, both characters verbally spar or comment to other characters about one another’s actions, which helps Austen create her subtle statements concerning the women’s socially defined roles.


Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of the novel, but Austen also uses her sisters and mother in a similar fashion.  Mrs. Bennet, for example, is described as a “woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” (5).  As with most women in her position, her goal is to make sure that all her daughters marry, and while it would be nice if they marry someone they love, this requirement is not of primary importance.  Mrs. Bennet’s character contrasts with Elizabeth’s, and Austen uses their differences to develop the ironic humor of the novel.  She creates the characters to be “her fools, her prigs, her worldings” for “no excuse is found for them and no mercy shown them” (“Jane Austen” 140).  Paula Marantz Cohen believes that “Austen responded to prevailing ideas concerning sexual stereotyping in a highly controlled and consistent fashion,” so her humor is purposefully exercised.  This is most evident when it seems as if Jane will not be married to Mr. Bingley as expected, and instead of consoling her daughter, Mrs. Bennet comforts herself with the idea that “‘Jane will die of a broken heart, and then he will be sorry for what he has done’” (228).  Again, this is not “the kind of explicit message that we associate with more modern feminist writers” (Cohen), but the message is still evident.  Austen plays with the roles of men and women, and this allows her to express her views about the limitations imposed on both sexes.


Characterization works in unison with narrative for “emergence of what can be called” Austen’s “feminist perspective” (Cohen).  Following the trend of most women novelists of the nineteenth century, Austen’s narrative is akin to conversation.  This connects back to the idea of women’s limited exposure to formal rhetoric, and consequently, their experiences were based more in an oral rather than a literary culture (Ong 149), unlike that of men who had been sent away to school and had a wider range of life experiences.  A woman’s life was centered around the home, and due to her sex, she was “excluded . . . from certain kinds of experience.  Even their emotional life was strictly regulated by law and custom” (“Women and Fiction” 1258).  Virginia Woolf goes on to explain that the result of this limited life experience is a uniquely feminine narrative voice.  Authors such as Jane Austen were able to find their own style, which does not try to copy or impose a traditional, masculine structure (“Women and Fiction” 1258).  Like someone who is sitting in a drawing room talking to her readers, Austen’s direct narrative approach is combined with social satire.


Jane Austen introduced the nineteenth century to this genre, and the Brontës continued into the middle part of the century, becoming bolder with their portrayal of the plight of women in novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.  They often interwove personal experiences into their writing, and like their heroines, these authors were constrained economically and socially due to their gender.  Like most women of their class, the Brontës spent their lives primarily at home in their father’s parsonage.  However, they managed to receive some exposure to the outside world through the reading materials, including books and newspapers, which filtered through their home.  The only other way to experience life outside the home for the Brontës and many of their heroines was through employment as a governess, and while Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre is best known as the tale of a young girl who is pushed out into the world to make her living through hard means, I believe Anne Brontë’s novel Agnes Grey is more autobiographically close to the Brontës’ true experiences.


One method used by Anne Brontë to create the appearance of autobiography rather than fiction is by directly addressing the reader in the opening paragraph:


All true stories contain instruction; though in some, the treasure may be hard to find. . . . Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself: shielded by my own obscurity, and the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend. (1)


Will Hale describes the style of narrative in Agnes Grey as lacking artistry but also insists that it “does seem real” and provides “all the actuality of a transcription of Anne’s own life.”  To a certain extent, I believe Hale accurately describes Anne Brontë’s intentions because she admits in the text that her purpose is to provide information rather than judgment.  The details are culled from Anne Brontë’s own horrible experiences.  In order to inform the public about the pervasive abuse of women who must work as governesses, Anne Brontë creates a fictional adaptation of the events from her own life (Hale).  Informal narrative and autobiography again relate to the notions put forth by Ong and Woolf: women of this century developed their own style of story telling, and due to the limited sphere they lived in, they often used incidents from their own lives.


Anne Brontë’s character, Agnes Grey, is much like herself.  She is the youngest child, daughter of a clergyman, and educated at home.  Her family is considered middle class, despite the fact that they have little money, and this is one reason Agnes decides to become a governess.  Also, like the Brontës, she wants the opportunity to explore more of the world because she has been exposed only to her immediate family and a few neighbors, rarely venturing more than a few miles from her home.  Rather than be “made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings,” she wants “to wander free over the world” (Woolf A Room 73).


As one of three women in the Grey household, Agnes’s role is strictly defined.  The Grey women are to run the house and support the patriarch of the home, Mr. Grey. Though well-meaning, Mr. Grey is responsible for the financial difficulties forced upon the women because he loses the small fortune he originally possesses.  While this change in circumstance greatly impacts the women of the house, their priority is to ensure that life for Mr. Grey is comfortable and stress-free.  For example, they are reduced to eating meals “simplified to an unprecedented degree,” but their father’s “favorite dishes” still remain (Brontë 66).  Where before they had a small number of servants to help run the house, they are eventually reduced to one maid and required to attend to the majority of the domestic duties including gardening and cooking.  They economize on coal and candles, when their father is away or ill in bed, instead “scraping the perishing embers together from time to time” (Brontë 66).  Anne Brontë’s emphasis on the sacrifices endured by Agnes and the other women of the Grey house “show[s] the ways that she defines herself as submissive,” and “she relates this submissiveness to Agnes’s sense of daughterly duty” (Frawley).


Further evidence of the hardships imposed on Agnes due to her gender is illustrated through the treatment she receives as a governess, particularly from males.  While employed with the Bloomfields, Uncle Robson, a regular family visitor, treats Agnes as if she is invisible.  She describes him as “the scorner of the female sex” because he ignores her “with a certain supercilious insolence of tone and manner” (Brontë 102).  Even Tom, the male child of the Bloomfields and one of two children Agnes is supposed to supervise, dominates Agnes and bullies his sister.  The only male in the schoolroom, Tom views his position as one of authority over the females, no matter that one is his teacher.  Later, while Agnes works for the Murrays, her invisibility returns when the rector, Mr. Hatfield, is so involved in fawning over Miss Murray that he often acts as if Agnes is not even present.  At one point, he escorts the Murray ladies to their carriage and closes the door before Agnes can manage to get inside.  According to Maria Frawley, this sense of invisibility and “voicelessness . . . enables Brontë to explore through her representation of Agnes . . . the unempowered position of middle-class women.”  Men of all social statuses, whether they are children, wealthy gentlemen, or a simple rector, exert their power over Agnes, who is forced into a submissive role due in part to the fact that she is woman—and a governess.


Now, I wish to return to questions raised by Virginia Woolf as to how and why this mixture of fiction and female rhetoric occurred.  The voiceless, submissive, invisible female novelist is a primary subject of much of Woolf’s work, especially in her book A Room of One’s Own and her essay “Women and Fiction.”  As with most of her investigative rhetoric, Woolf begins with questions of “why,” and as she picks up books off her shelf and wanders through the grounds of the Oxbridge men’s college, she finds many answers to her questions.  Why did it take so long to establish a female form of literature?  Woolf begins searching for answers to this question by examining history as early as the fifteenth century.  She soon realizes that just as Agnes Grey was invisible, history considered women “insignificant,” and though “some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips,” a woman “in real life . . . could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (A Room 44).


Like Woolf, I wonder why, after taking so long for women to develop into authors, did so many choose the novel over other forms of writing?  Woolf’s examination provides a number of reasons beginning with the authors’ limited spheres.  Since women rarely left their homes, they did not have the same life experiences that were available to men.  They wrote of what they knew, and this was often autobiographical.  Furthermore, since their duties and lives revolved around domesticity, their employment never ended.  It was their duty to provide familial services seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day.  Novels could be picked up and put down when necessary (A Room 50).


But now it is time to attempt an answer to a question of my own: Given that so many female authors of the nineteenth century selected the genre of the novel, and it is evident that they interwove feminist notions throughout their writing, could it be possible that this was a conscious act?  Or, perhaps a better question is: how could it not be?  Elizabeth Bennet does marry a wealthy man, but she also refuses to be invisible or submissive.  Agnes Grey finally finds her lover, Mr. Weston, as she strolls hopelessly along the beach; however, before she is allowed this happy ending, she must first submit to countless forms of injustice.  Even Virginia Woolf would agree with me: “One of the motives that led them to write was the desire to expose their own suffering, to plead their own cause” (“Women and Fiction” 1259).  So, I will let myself believe that Jane Austen and Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë wrote about themselves but also wrote for their female audience.  They crafted an entertaining narrative, and at the time, they couldn’t help but let their feminist views slip into the story.  As they slid their manuscript under a desk blotter so they could help make dinner or amuse a guest at tea, they were thinking of the next event in their narrative and maybe how their story might empower another woman, a woman in their world of the nineteenth century and possibly a woman from the future who lives in a world they could only imagine.



Works Cited


Armstrong, Nancy.  Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel.  New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Brontë, Anne.  Agnes Grey.  New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Cohen, Paula Marantz.  “Austen’s Rejection of Rousseau: A Novelist and Feminist Initiation.”  Papers on Language & Literature 1994: 215-35.  EBSC.  St. Lucie County Library.  16 March 2003.

Frawley, Maria H.  “An Alien Among Strangers: The Governess as Narrator in Agnes Grey.”  Anne Brontë 1996: 82-116.  Gale.  Indian River Community College.  20 Oct 2001.

Hale, Will T.  “Anne Brontë: Her Life and Writings.”  Indiana University Studies 1929: 3-44.  Gale.  St. Lucie County Library.  16 March 2003.

Morrison, Sarah R.  “Of Woman Borne: Male Experience and Feminine Truth in Jane Austen’s Novels.”   Studies in the Novel 1994: 337-50.  EBSCO St. Lucie County Library.  16 March 2003.

Ong, Walter J.  Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World.  New York: Routledge, 1982.

Woolf, Virginia.  A Room of One’s Own.  New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1981.

_____.  “Jane Austen.”  The Common Reader.  Ed. Andrew McNeillie.  New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1984. 134-45.

_____.  “Women and Fiction.” The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present.  Ed.Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg.  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2001.  1256-60.

_____.  “Women Novelists.”  Killing the Angel in the House: Seven Essays.  London: Penguin Books, 1993.  13-18.


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