Jane Austen’s lifetime saw the development of the Bluestockings, originally a group of men and women who gathered to discuss intellectual topics. As Sylvia Myers outlines, ‘to be a bluestocking meant to be an impeccable member of an intellectual community which included both men and women.’ Hannah More’s poem, ‘Bas Bleu, or Conversation,’ which became the signature piece for this salon, makes the connection between education and conversation, with the exclamation, ‘Hail, Conversation, heavenly fair,’ and continues, ‘Our intellectual ore must shine, / Not slumber, idly in the mine. / Let Education’s moral mint / The noblest images imprint.’ Hannah More’s poem suggests that conversation, ‘calls forth,’ and preserves knowledge, catalysing morality, and thereby ensuring the progress of civilisation. Gary Kelly observes that the Bluestockings significantly contributed to the, ‘creation of and dialectic between what came to be considered private and public spheres.’ In the eighteenth-century itself, this creation of separate spheres, or the ‘rise of civil society,’ saw an acknowledgement of the distinction between the social domains of civility in the domestic sphere, and the public, institutional arena of politics and the state. Tony Tanner draws attention to the fact that this acknowledgement of separate spheres coincides with a new emphasis on the need for good morals among members of the propertied class. John Bowdler’s Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! written in 1798, registers this need for good morals as a social and political necessity that is essential to the maintenance of order in society. Tanner uses the term ‘propriety,’ to refer to decorum, morality, and good manners, stating that, for Jane Austen, ‘”society,” ultimately depended on a genuine understanding of, and commitment to, propriety; not simply a propriety expressed in a code of etiquette, or signalled by rank, or manifest in property.’ Tanner continues, arguing that the, ‘ultimate propriety on which all other proprieties depended was a true propriety of language, and all that implied.’ Jane Austen’s focus upon the ‘true propriety of language,’ enables her to dramatise the difficulty, as well as the necessity, of using language to its proper ends. She scrutinises any possible deviance from, or neglect of, true propriety, demonstrating how a thoughtless use of language can be the most insidious destroyer of character, just as a responsible use of language, and at times silence, has the power and strength of salvation.
In Jane Austen’s novels, Bharat Tandon argues, conversation is not simply, ‘a vehicle for abstract content, nor is it just an appropriate morally objective ground against which a character can be judged.’ In a period deeply conscious of the relationship between conversation and propriety, conversation came to form less a technique than a constitutive atmosphere of Austen’s writing. Alberto Manguel uses this notion of the semi-private domestic sphere in relation to polite conversation to focus upon the very act of reading. Austen was writing at a time in which reading fiction aloud to small circles was still a common practice. Like conversation, reading could be an insistently social and collaborative act, as Manguel observes, commenting on the Austen family reading aloud to one another at Steventon Rectory:
Reading out loud is not a private act, the choice of reading material must be socially acceptable to both the reader and the audience. Being read to for instruction or to grant the sounds supremacy over the sense, both enrich and diminish the act of reading.
In contrast to this ceremonial act of reading, Eric Griffiths notes that the early nineteenth-century also increasingly began to imply a silent communion of reader with text, in which the act of voicing was not abandoned but rather internalised. Griffiths labels this internalisation the, ‘printed voice,’ which:
Does not give conclusive evidence of a voice; it raises doubts about what we hear in writing but it also gives an essential pleasure of reading, for as we meet the demand a text makes on us for our voices, we are engaged in an activity which is delicately and thoroughly reciprocal.
It is this double appeal of the ‘printed voice,’ that offers Austen the possibility to construct conversation as the constitutive atmosphere of her work, involving her reader in interpretative processes and puzzles, to imagine how conversations sound, and to question their true meaning.
In 1821, just four years after Austen’s death, Richard Whately proclaimed Jane Austen to be, ‘a thorough mistress in the knowledge of human character; how it is acted upon by education and circumstance, and how it shows itself through every hour of every day, and in every speech of every person.’ As Whately implies, education impacted upon, and was inextricably linked to, the speech of the characters within Austen’s novels. For Jane Austen, education relates to, as Tanner proposes, ‘the ultimate propriety which was a true propriety of language,’ rather than any range of skills or information. This contrast between education as a, ‘true propriety of language,’ and education as a range of skills or information, is most clearly embodied in the character of Jane Fairfax in Emma. Jane Fairfax is described as receiving, ‘an excellent education,’ through the kindness of the Campbells, the family who sought charge of the child after her own father’s death. The Campbells planned that Jane Fairfax should be, ‘brought up for educating others,’ which, by the age of, ‘eighteen or nineteen she was, as far as such an early age can be qualified for the care of children, fully competent to the office of instruction herself.’ One of her only outbursts in the novel occurs as a result of this planned future for her to be a governess. When Mrs. Elton insists on aiding Jane in finding a governess position, Jane responds, ‘I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect!’ A shocked Mrs. Elton interprets her reference to ‘human flesh,’ as an aligning of the governess trade to the slave trade, to which Jane can only reply:
Governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different, certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.
In this scene between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton, Austen consciously warns her reader against the very real ‘danger’ of girls, ‘coming back prodigies’ from their schooling, a position which leads Austen to present Jane Fairfax as both muted and marginalised by society.
The ‘excellent education,’ that Jane Fairfax receives as a result of the Campbells’ care contributes to her marginalisation by Emma Woodhouse, which Mr. Knightley attributes to Emma’s jealousy, stating that, ‘it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself.’ This is an accusation that Emma openly denies, yet she acknowledges to herself that, ‘there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.’ Emma is as resentful of Jane Fairfax’s superior talents as she is of her silences and cold caution, as Emma muses, ‘there was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved.’ However, the outing to Box Hill is one such occasion upon which Jane finds herself forced to maintain her silent reserve whilst being surrounded by the noise of duplicitous talk and behaviour. Emma and Frank Churchill in particular indulge in a word-puzzle game, a game that Mr. Knightley interprets as, ‘child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part.’ The basis of Frank’s ‘deeper game,’ lies in his full knowledge that Jane cannot speak. He cruelly prepares the word ‘Dixon,’ for Emma, having previously encouraged Emma to believe that Jane holds an attachment to Mr. Dixon, despite his secret engagement to Jane. Frank proceeds to pass the word to Jane, whose, ‘comprehension was certainly more equal to the covert meaning, the superior intelligence, of those five letters so arranged. In this scene, Austen conveys the idea that Jane Fairfax’s, ‘excellent education,’ contributes to her marginalised position in society, whilst simultaneously showing that it forms the basis for this, ‘true propriety of language,’ in which her silences become a symbol of morality and virtue.
Almost four decades before Austen’s Mansfield Park was written in 1814, the evangelical writer, Hannah More, had herself written on the virtue of female silence. She observes:
How easily and effectually may a well-bred woman promote the most useful and elegant conversation, almost without speaking a word! For the modes of speech are scarcely more viable than the modes of silence… A woman, in a company where she has the least influence, may promote any subject by a profound and invariable attention, which shews that she is pleased with it, and by an illuminated countenance, which proves she understands it.
The idea that a woman may, ‘promote the most useful and elegant conversation, almost without speaking a word,’ corresponds with Austen’s construction of Jane Fairfax, whose ‘excellent education,’ forms the basis for her virtuous silence, which in turn contributes to a, ‘true propriety of language’. This idea is supported in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, as he states that, ‘Tis Virtue then, direct Virtue, which is the hard and valuable part to be aimed at in Education; and not a forward Pertness, or any little Arts of shifting.’ He asserts from the outset that, ‘of all the men we meet with, Nine Parts of Ten are what they are, Good or Evil, useful or not, by their Education.’ Like Austen, Locke’s definition of education applies to the internal qualities rather than the external, material attributes of a character. He emphasises that young minds should be, ‘principled with inward Civility’; in order to instil, ‘the Principles of good Nature and Kindness the Ornaments of Conversation, and the out-side of fashionable Manners, will come in their due time.’ However, Locke also refers to the ‘Dangers of Conversation,’ warning young people against the temptation, ‘to cultivate an ostentatious display of factitious brilliance,’ and a superficial cleverness.
The ‘Dangers of Conversation,’ that Locke alludes to find their clearest representative in the character of Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. Through the character of Miss Bingley, Austen demonstrates how a neglect of true propriety, and a thoughtless use of language, can be the most insidious destroyer of character. Miss Bingley is described as addressing Mrs. Bennet with, ‘cold civility,’ as Bingley insists on Jane Bennet remaining at Netherfield during her illness. Austen portrays Miss Bingley’s sense of decorum to be merely a performance, as an attempt to expose to Mr. Darcy the propriety that she believes Elizabeth Bennet lacks. This is demonstrated at Netherfield, when the party has finished dinner and Elizabeth has returned directly to Jane, when Miss Bingley begins, ‘abusing her as soon as she was out of the room.’ She passes judgement on Elizabeth’s character, pronouncing, ‘her manners to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no style, no taste, no beauty.’ Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst then proceed to discuss the nature of Elizabeth’s arrival at Netherfield, labelling it an ‘exhibition,’ as Miss Bingley muses:
To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.
Miss Bingley’s motives for highlighting Elizabeth’s, ‘country-town indifference to decorum,’ become clear as she tells Mr. Darcy, ‘I am afraid that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her eyes.’ Furthermore, in one of her most significant attacks upon Elizabeth Bennet, she declares that she is:
One of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.
Mr. Darcy only responds, ‘undoubtedly, there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.’ Miss Bingley’s employment of language is therefore itself, ‘a paltry device, a very mean art.’ As Austen demonstrates, her sense of decorum is merely a façade, a position from which she may carry out her hypocritical condemnations of Elizabeth Bennet in an abuse of the, ‘true propriety of language.’
Austen’s focus upon the ‘true propriety of language,’ simultaneously enables her to expose the emptiness of polite forms of conversation, piercing the hollowness of social exchange. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen uses the private dance at Netherfield, a key moment of narrative tension between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, to demonstrate this emptiness of conversation, as Elizabeth addresses Mr. Darcy:
It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together and yet for the advantage of some, conversation about to be so arranged, as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as possible.
Elizabeth voicing that she thinks it, ‘would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together,’ suggests that like the dance itself, social exchange can be merely performance. Elizabeth tries to read the fellow guests’ reactions to her partnership with Mr. Darcy, as Austen writes, ‘Elizabeth took her place in the set, amazed at the dignity to which she was arrived in being allowed to stand opposite to Mr Darcy, and reading in her neighbours’ looks their equal amazement in beholding it.’ The performativity of dance and conversation is encapsulated in Sir William’s comment to Mr. Darcy, as he says, ‘there is nothing like dancing after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’ To which Mr. Darcy, responds, ‘certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance.’ Austen here demonstrates the interdependent relationship between dance and conversation. Dance has its own spectrum of values, ranging from the savage to the civilised, just as conversation may be the, ‘true propriety of language,’ or the most insidious destroyer of a character.
In Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s, ‘power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself,’ can also lead to a deviance from the, ‘true propriety of language’. Austen does permit her reader to laugh at Emma’s comic imitation of Miss Bates, as she imagines the ‘evils’ of a marriage between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax. Emma says to Mrs. Weston:
If it would be good to her I am sure it would be evil to himself – a very shameful and degrading connection. How would he bear to have Miss Bates belonging to him? To have her haunting the Abbey, and thanking him all day long for his great kindness in marrying Jane? “So very kind and obliging! But he always had been such a very kind neighbour.” And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat. “Not that it was such a very old petticoat either – for still it would last a great while – and, indeed, she must thankfully say that their petticoats were all very strong.”
However, unlike this private joke with Mrs. Weston, Emma’s public attack upon Miss Bates at Box Hill does real harm, once again highlighting how a thoughtless use of language can be a destroyer of character. Whilst Emma complains that Miss Bates, ‘never holds her tongue,’ she herself cannot resist a personal attack upon Miss Bates. When Miss Bates announces to the group, ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth,’ Emma retorts, ‘Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number – only three at once.’ Mr. Knightley alludes to Emma’s abuse of her position, as he rebukes Emma for her poor treatment of Miss Bates:
Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance; I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation – but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.
This rebuke effectively renders Emma’s, ‘tongue motionless,’ as she is unable to respond to Mr. Knightley, and consequently feels, ‘the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home.’ Austen portrays Emma’s silence to be both an acknowledgement of her poor behaviour, as she feels, ‘at her heart,’ the cruelty of her speech to Miss Bates, and a revolution of the mind that forms the basis for her moral education.
In The Education of Emma Woodhouse, R. E. Hughes calls attention to the integral link between the moral education of Emma and the irony of the novel itself, arguing that, ‘the underlying theme of the novel is the education of Emma Woodhouse, and the recurrent irony is that Emma, who must become pupil, insists on acting as teacher.’ Emma, ‘initially insists on acting as teacher,’ in her relationship with Harriet Smith, as Austen writes, she has the:
View of improving her little friend’s mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on tomorrow. It was much easier to chat.
As Austen here implies, and Juliet McMaster remarks, ‘conversation, unlike mere talk, must go somewhere, it must, through a process of verbal exchange and enlargement, refine on a topic and advance it.’ The idea that conversation must ‘refine on a topic and advance it,’ relates back to the development of the Bluestockings, which in Jane Austen’s lifetime was originally a group of men and women who gathered to converse on intellectual topics. Hannah More’s poem, ‘Bas Bleu, or Conversation,’ which became the signature piece for this salon, begins with the exclamation, ‘Hail, Conversation, heavenly fair,’ which, ‘Calls forth the long-forgotten knowledge / Of school, of travel, and of college!’ Like Austen’s differentiation in Emma between ‘conversation’ and mere ‘talk,’ Hannah More’s poem suggests that conversation both, ‘calls-forth’ and preserves knowledge, which catalyses morality, and provides the basis for a stable and orderly society.
The distinction between asking and telling is a more particular instance of the difference in speech categories between conversation and mere talk. It is this distinction that Emma must learn in the process of her moral education. In the events leading to Mr. Knightley’s proposal to Emma, which Austen describes as a ‘conversation,’ he declares to her that he, ‘must tell,’ that which Emma, ‘will not ask, though I may wish it unsaid the next moment.’ Emma grapples with the distinction between asking and telling, stating that it is only as a friend that Mr. Knightley may ask for Emma’s, ‘opinion of anything that you may have in contemplation – as a friend, indeed, you may command me. I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think.’ Emma’s referral to herself as a friend prompts Mr Knightley’s proposal, a question which silences Emma, and Mr. Knightley can only exclaim, ‘you are silent, absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.’ As Bruce Stovel argues:
Telling is easy and asking is hard, because telling is a one-way communication, a transmission of opinion and fact, whilst question-and-answer is a two way exchange. Question-and-answer is thus the core element in conversation, which is, precisely, an exchange, a mutual creation by two or more people.
This explanation of the elements of conversation reflects Samuel Johnson’s definition of the word ‘converse’ in his Dictionary of the English Language of 1755, which he describes as meaning, ‘to convey the thoughts reciprocally in talk.’ Austen’s portrayal of the differences in speech categories emphasises that Emma Woodhouse’s education, with Mr. Knightley as her mentor, lies in her learning to ask rather than tell – and thus learning to converse – which will lead to a crystallisation of morality.