Oh, Do Tone It Down, Ladies


Arts & Culture

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride, 1866. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Docile quietude has long been wielded by conduct books as a specifically feminine virtue. In 1946, the magazine Photoplay published the article “That Romantic Look,” an instructional piece for women who were aiding their soldier husbands in acclimating to civilian life after World War II. The paramount goal was to minister to one’s head of household without injuring his proud masculinity:

Listen to your laughter too. Let it come easily, especially when you’re with boys who had little to laugh at for too long. Laugh at the silly things you used to do together. Laugh for the sweet sake of laughter. And if you hear your laugh sound hysterical, giddy, or loud, tone it down, oh do tone it down!

Easy enough to say, “Speak gently. Laugh softly,” I know. The tone of our voice and laughter generates within us. When we’re worried or rushed, it’s in our voice and laughter that hysteria will manifest itself … Serenity is the very wellspring of a romantic look. In it you have the beginning of the smooth brow, the easy carriage, the low voice, the gentle smile. This Christmas with our men home, surely we should know serenity. So let us look happy and contented and starry-eyed.

Historical context aside, these directives might have come from a Victorian lady’s etiquette book. Midcentury America draws liberally upon the rhetoric of hysteria in admonishing its women to cultivate placid demeanors and soft, dulcet tones. And yet, with a more modern and progressive approach, this conversation—how to aid someone in the transition from a violent, traumatic context to the routines of daily life—would be a productive one. It would not be until the Vietnam War that we began even to discuss how to engage with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder: these early efforts to soothe those who had recently endured the unthinkable are well intentioned but, unsurprisingly, entrenched in gender-normative philosophies regarding femininity and distribution of emotional labor. Oh, do tone it down, ladies.

As for nineteenth-century etiquette books, their positions on women’s voices and general dispositions are what you might suppose: if, as the old chestnut goes, children were to be seen and not heard, women’s guidelines hardly differed. Feminine exuberance would have been received as unseemly at best when so much as opening one’s mouth demanded special care and modulation. As in all other topics, Ella Adelia Fletcher’s The Woman Beautiful takes a maniacally specific approach to addressing how a woman should speak without afflicting the genteel ears of those present. After instructing her readers in how to beautify their mouths and lips, Fletcher proceeds to tackle voice:

Naturally, the beautiful mouth and coral lips should be fittingly completed by a lovely voice; but, too often, this harmonious trinity is violated by a discordant, rasping, badly-placed voice. It is usually the result, not of any physical defect, but of careless habits: careless habits of breathing, of thinking, and of speaking. The commonest defect in a woman’s voice is pitching it too high; and often this is accompanied by a nervous tension which holds the muscles of the throat taut and strained; and by short, hurried breathing which cuts the vibrations, destroys the overtones, and imparts an unpleasant rasping, dead, or shrill timbre to the voice.

Based on her account, it seems that Fletcher keeps close company with a hoard of verbal zombies, such is the purported ghastliness of women’s faulty speaking habits. It’s unclear how Fletcher has arrived at her conclusions regarding the ways that one might butcher her tone of voice—her description doesn’t strike me as especially scientific—but her paramount motivation is not educating her readers on the mechanics of vocal cords and breath. Rather, the primary object is to render women more hesitant before they speak, less eager to pipe up in conversation, and more inclined to focus their efforts on adopting speech patterns that, while likely difficult to maintain, ensure that Victorian women uphold their foremost public role: emollient decoration. As Fletcher has made eminently clear, there is no aspect of one’s person that cannot be chiseled and squeezed and pressed upon until it obliges masculine sensibilities of female beauty and, above all, does not agitate a man’s amour propre. A woman should arrange herself so that she serves as a complement to bolder, brasher masculinity:

Train your ear to notice pleasant, agreeable voices, and listen to your own critically. In the seclusion of your own room, try the pitch of your voice until you discover its most melodious one, that upon which you can develop the fullest and sweetest timbre, —the tone which you determine shall be known by your friends as your voice.

It’s a wonder that anyone could proffer an argument for essentialist gender types, when literature like this makes no bones that femininity arises from an assemblage of learned behaviors and traits. Although Fletcher does not directly address relations with men, the issue looms large on every page, with the implicit argument that if one liturgically adheres to her lessons, she will be the sort of woman who is pleasing to men and will therefore attract their attention, as opposed to her imagined “rasping, dead”-voiced competition.

While Fletcher was dispensing her advice across the pond, Mrs. C. E. “Madge” Humphry, one of the first female journalists in Great Britain, was also publishing etiquette manuals for men and women alike. In 1898, she released A Word to Women, which followed her popular 1897 volume Manners for Women. Her advice, rooted snugly in fin-de-siècle gender politics, acknowledges women’s increased, but tenuous, presence in the public sphere while adhering to the enduring philosophy of the “Angel in the House”—in other words, the Victorian argument that a woman’s rightful place was the domestic sphere, which she should cultivate as a place of pacific harmony, a palliative contrast to the rough-and-tumble of male-dominated public life.

Humphry reiterates the necessity of maintaining tranquility in the home, but moreover directs women to wield this influence in whatever social context they may inhabit. In her chapter titled “Golden Silence” she posits that a woman should limit her chatter without becoming tedious company:

The lesson of quiet composure has to be learned soon or late, and it is generally soon in the higher classes of society. In fact the quality of reticence, and even stoicism, is so early implanted in the daughters of the cultivated classes that a rather trying monotony is sometimes the result. After a while the girls outgrow it, learning how to exercise the acquired habit of self-control without losing the charm of individuality. When maturity is reached, one of the most useful and delightful of social qualities is sometimes attained—not always—that of silently passing over much that, if noticed, would make for discord. Truth to tell, there is often far too much talking going on.

Humphry’s lessons are evidently aimed at “the cultivated classes” in English society, not surprising in such a trenchantly hierarchical arrangement. And as she vigorously indicates, one mark of good breeding is striking the balance between boring one’s company and not allowing the “charm of individuality” to unravel into dreaded loquaciousness. A woman, she insinuates, ought to be a peacemaker; that is to say, she should not address comments that are upsetting or inappropriate; after all, this would introduce “discord” into the atmosphere. Instead, one must suppress one’s more ardent impulses to ensure smoother discourse. Being oneself was welcomed so long as that self was stringently groomed with the paramount goal of appealing to everybody and offending no one.

For, as Humphry elucidates in a later chapter, “Lightheartedness,” it is not sufficient for a woman to monitor the quality and effect of her conversation; she must perform these feats with a smile. Unsurprisingly, the infuriating habit perpetuated by so many men—“Give me a smile, baby”—has firm roots in Victorian expectations of women to ameliorate every social environment, to transform their surroundings into pleasant, cheery contexts through the performance of good humor:

Men are always telling women that it is the duty of the less-burdened sex to meet their lords and masters with cheerful faces; and if any doubt were felt as to the value of the acquirement—for cheerfulness often has to be acquired and cultivated like any other marketable accomplishment—shall we not find a mass of evidence in the advertisement columns of the daily papers? Do not all the lady-housekeepers and companions describe themselves as “cheerful”? Lone, lorn women could scarcely be successes in either capacity, and cheerfulness is a distinct qualification for either post.

Humphry’s chain of rhetorical questions is telling. For a late Victorian woman, what men desire—to be greeted as kings of their castles by beaming, beatific faces—demands attention and supplication (for sanity’s sake, we’ll pass over the suggestion that women are “the less-burdened sex”). “Well, ’tis our duty to be cheerful,” Humphry concludes, soon after these remarks. For that matter, she treats her commentary regarding the necessity of “cheerfulness” in service positions as something of an afterthought; the greatest sign of “the value of the acquirement” lies in male pleasure. But in mentioning the necessity of a sunny disposition in “lady-housekeepers and companions,” two positions in which a woman joins a household as an inferior member, Humphry lays bare a larger truth: that all women must be at the service of their so-called male betters, and that they must quash their own uglier sentiments so that they may ensure they do not detract from the social atmosphere. Humphry is not so naive to overlook the “marketability” of this quality: by drawing a comparison between good breeding and business transactions, she insinuates that women are always, to some extent, selling themselves as welcome members of polite company. But in this case, that which is “marketable” happens to be inextricable from ironbound duty.

And yet Humphry resists the perspective that a woman’s purpose is exclusively to serve as a decorative vessel. Overlooking the extent to which women’s education has been obstructed and regarded as unnecessary, she censures her readers in a chapter aptly named “Deadly Dulness” (sic) for failing to elevate their minds beyond more trivial pursuits. “Ninety out of every hundred women bury their minds alive,” she declares. “They do not live, they merely exist.” But the fault, she maintains, rests with women, for being inclined to indulge in less intellectual activities, for occupying themselves with fashionable trends rather than, say, reading the newspaper:

The great world and its doings go on unheeded by us, in our absorption in matters infinitesimally small. We fish for minnows and neglect our coral reefs … And yet the news of the universe, the latest discoveries in science, the newest tales of searchings among the stars, to say nothing of the doings of our own fellow creatures in the life of every day, should be of interest. But we think more of the party over the way, and the wedding round the corner. Is it not true, oh sisters?

On the one hand, it’s not undesirable for a Victorian woman with some influence to encourage reading and self-education. But clearly she’s referring to her “sisters” in equal or loftier socioeconomic classes: Humphry, like so many other Victorians, evinces little interest in empowering women of the working class. What’s more, women were often condemned for acclimating to their prisons: while certainly intellectual curiosity varied—not every Victorian woman was a Brontë sister or George Eliot—it was a vastly uphill battle for women to procure the sort of education so readily available to men of a certain economic or social stature.

It was also not uncommon for intellectual women to accuse others among their ranks of silliness. In 1856, George Eliot penned the scathing essay “Silly Novels By Lady Novelists,” wherein she derides—with gusto—the sort of literature written by her female contemporaries, arguing that it is frivolous, detached from reality, and altogether an indication of what the novel should not be. Jane Austen delighted in the ridiculous social manners of men and women, although her critiques of women, in light of their often circumscribed opportunities, sometimes blistered with especial cruelty. And in this case, Mrs. Humphry castigates women of means for frittering away their days with dresses, parties, and wouldn’t you know—fiddling novels. Women, it seems, were enthusiastic about the wrong things precisely because they were coded as undeniably feminine. To edify oneself, according to Humphry, requires one to consider more sober goings-on. Not a deleterious endeavor on its own, but its purpose here is to teach women to behave so that they will be taken seriously by men, or shall we say, as serious as ever a man might have taken a woman in 1898 British high society.

Perhaps, buried within the coils of internalized sexism, is Humphry’s genuine desire for women to navigate a world that regards them as subordinate and foolish. Three decades prior, the American etiquette writer Florence Hartley undertook a different task, one that resembles Ella Adelia Fletcher’s scrupulous methodology of behavioral micromanagement. In The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness (1860), Hartley reminds women readers through every possible avenue that their primary object in all things is “true politeness.” And in the chapter “Polite Deportment, and Good Habits,” she delineates how politeness should manifest in a woman’s every gesture, admonishing especially against exuberance and volume:

Many ladies, moving, too, in good society, will affect a forward, bold manner, very disagreeable to persons of sense. They will tell of their wondrous feats, when engaged in pursuits only suited for men; they will converse in a loud, boisterous tone; laugh loudly; sing comic songs, or dashing bravuras in a style only fit for the stage or a gentleman’s after-dinner party … It may be encouraged, admired, in their presence, by gentlemen, and imitated by younger ladies, but, be sure, it is looked upon with contempt, and disapproval by every one of good sense, and that to persons of real refinement it is absolutely disgusting.

Hartley’s rhetorical maneuvers in this passage lean heavily on emotional manipulation. You may believe that others enjoy your company, that you are a social success, but everyone who matters, everyone whose approval you should crave, finds you “absolutely disgusting.” For, as she insinuates, this “loud, boisterous” behavior only suits women of questionable virtue, the so-called fallen women who often made their livings catering to rich men in after-hours. What we now refer to as slut-shaming Hartley deploys as a tactic of dissuasion: it’s best to pipe down or else everyone will think you loose and skanky.

But rather than merely dispense this warning against unwomanly conduct, Hartley offers guidelines that demand the most punishing regimens of self-monitoring. It is not enough to keep one’s voice soft; every muscle must be trained to enact genial docility:

Never gesticulate when conversing; it looks theatrical, and is ill-bred; so are all contortions of the features, shrugging of shoulders, raising of the eyebrows, or hands.

When you open a conversation, do so with a slight bow and smile, but be careful not to simper, and not to smile too often, if the conversation becomes serious.

Never point. It is excessively ill-bred.

Avoid exclamations; they are in excessively bad taste, and are apt to be vulgar words. A lady may express as much polite surprise or concern by a few simple, earnest words, or in her manner, as she can by exclaiming “Good gracious!” “Mercy!” or “Dear me!”

Avoid a muttering, mouthing, stuttering, droning, guttural, nasal, or lisping, pronunciation.

The list continues in a similarly—and obsessively—fastidious manner. At base, Hartley, Humphry, and Fletcher share a common assumption: women should not gab so much that these exacting rules for discourse are difficult to follow. Being “cheerful” as Humphry directs is by no means a state to be confused with an easy, relaxed attitude; although, if one practices the appearance of it enough, perhaps verisimilitude will suffice. Nineteenth-century women generally understood the constrictions of their milieu: they would not be regarded as men’s equals no matter their accomplishments or character. Women of privilege, those born to families with wealth and status, knew that, at best, they could distinguish themselves as examples of genteel femininity. But to achieve this distinction demanded an unyielding suppression of too muchness—of brash opinions and political fervor and heated emotions. After all, Victorian literary heroines like Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke were beloved for their gentle, not dispassionate, but certainly refined demeanors. Maggie Tulliver, from The Mill on the Floss, and the most famous of chatterboxes, Anne Shirley, learn to lower their voices and quench their confabulation as they grow older. Most of Victorian literature’s notoriously headstrong heroines, like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Margaret Hale or Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley Keeldar, could hardly be described as bombastic, though Shirley Keeldar, who is proud and difficult and sometimes deliciously rude, perhaps comes closest. To seize the tatters of respect and tolerance has always meant whittling ourselves into shapes that are legible and, above all, the easiest to swallow. And indeed: we’ve been swallowed whole, consumed for centuries in our most palatable, pleasing forms. To live authentically, and thereby refuse this protracted social annihilation—that’s the aim.


Rachel Vorona Cote publishes frequently in such outlets as The New Republic, Longreads, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Literary Hub, Catapult, the Poetry Foundation, Hazlitt, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, where her essay on Taylor Swift and Victorian female friendship was one of the site’s most popular essays in 2015. She was also previously a contributing writer at Jezebel. Rachel holds a B.A. from the College of William and Mary and was A.B.D. in a doctoral program in English at the University of Maryland, studying and teaching the literature of the Victorian period. She and her husband live in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

Excerpted from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.