"How sweetly sounds the voice of a good woman!
It is so seldom heard that, when it speaks,
It ravishes all senses."
MASSINGER, Old Law, iv. 2.
ALTHOUGH a well-known proverb tells us that "a silent woman is always more admired than a noisy one," the Chinese have a favourite saying to the effect that "a woman's tongue is her sword, and she does not let it rust;" with which may be compared the Hindustani proverb, "For talk I'm best, for work my elder brother-in-law's wife;" which has its counterpart in this country, where it is said, "A woman's strength is in her tongue," and in Wales the adage runs thus:--
"Be she old, or be she young,
A woman's strength is in her tongue."
But proverbial literature has generally held that whatever a woman says must be received with caution; and, according to an African adage, "If a woman speaks two words take one and leave the other," with which may be compared an Eastern, saying, "A woman's talk heat from grass"--that is, worthless.
But, granted the effective use frequently made by this weapon, the teachers of old were of opinion that "Silence is the best ornament of a woman;" or, as another version expresses it, "Silence is a fine jewel for a woman, but it is little worn."
In days gone by a singular sign--a very favourite one with oil painters--was "The Good Woman," originally expressive of a female saint, a holy or good woman, who had met her death by the loss of her head, and how by the waggery of after ages the good woman came to be converted into the Silent Woman, as if it were a matter of necessity, is thus explained--
"A silent woman, Sir! you said;
Pray, was she painted without a head?
Yes, Sir, she was! You never read of
A silent woman with her head on.
Besides, you know, there's nought but speaking
Can keep a woman's heart from breaking!"
And M. W. Praed, in his tale of "Lillian," by an ingenious metaphor of a beautiful idiot would explain a headless woman--
"And hence the story had ever run,
That the fairest of dames was a headless one."
But proverbial wisdom is generally agreed that "there never was in any age such a wonder to be found as a dumb woman," and the Germans say, "when a woman has no answer the sea is empty of water."
In the old Scotch ballad of "The Dumb Wife of Aberdour," the husband is represented (writes Mr. W. A. Clouston in Notes and Queries, 6th Series, i. 272) as meeting with "a great grim man"--the devil, in fact--to whom he complains of his misfortune in having a wife who was dumb; upon which the Arch-fiend says to him
"Tak no disdain,
And I sall find remeid,
Gif thou wilt counsel keep,
And learn well what I say:
This night, in her first sleep,
Under her tongue then lay
Of quaking aspen leaf.
The whilk betokens wind,
And she shall have relief
Of speaking, thou shalt find,
What kind of tale, withouten fail,
That thou of her requires.
She shall speak out, have thou nae doubt,
And mair than thou desires."
To make sure work, the husband lays three leaves under her tongue; and when she awoke in the morning she at once began to speak to him--with a vengeance. He afterwards consults with the fiend about making her dumb again, but quoth Satan:--
"The least devil in hell
Can give a wife her tongue;
The greatest, I you tell,
Can never make her dumb."
The Satanic device of placing an aspen leaf in a woman's mouth to make her speak, he adds, is alluded to in an old English book entitled "The Praise of All Women, called Mulierum Pean. Very fruitful and delectable to all the Readers--
"'Look and read who can,
This work is praise to each woman.'"
The author, Edward Gosynhill, thus accounts for the origin of woman's tongue:--
"Some say, the woman had no tongue
After that God did her create,
Until the man took leaves long
And put them under her palate;
An aspen leaf of the devil he gat,
And for it moveth with every wind,
They say women's tongues be of like kind."
On the principle that "Speech is silver, silence is gold," it was formerly held that "One tongue is enough for two women"--an adage, we are told, which is "no less applicable to stormy Shrews than adverse to learned women who have the command of many tongues." It should be remembered, also, that the rhyme, which with a slight alteration is often uttered as a warning to children over-talking their elders, ran in former times thus:--
"Maidens should be mild and meek,
Swift to hear and slow to speak."
Another version slightly different is this: "Maids should be seen and not heard," which occurs in "The Maids' Complaint against the Bachelors" (1675, p. 3), where it is called "a musty proverb"; and among further maxims, it is said, "Silence is a fine jewel for a woman but little worn," and "Silence is the best ornament of a woman."
The persistency of a woman's tongue has been made the subject of frequent comment in our proverbial lore, experience, having long proved that "a woman's tongue wags like a lamb's tall," or, as it is said in France, "Foxes are all tail, and women are all tongue." And, according to an Alsatian proverb, "If you would make a pair of good shoes, take for the sole the tongue of a woman--it never wears out." A Welsh proverb says "Arthur could not tame a woman's tongue," which is not surprising if there be any truth in the maxim that "A woman will scold the devil out of a haunted house," which reminds us of an amusing little anecdote told of Tom Hood, who, on hearing the piety of a very loquacious lady spoken of, humorously said, "Yes, she is well known for her mag-piety;" and there is the German proverb, "Women are never at a loss for words." An amusing couplet, which is proverbial in the neighbourhood of Salisbury, thus speaks of a woman's tongue:--
"Nature, regardless of the babbling race,
Planted no beard upon a woman's face;
Not Freddy Keene's razors, though the very best,
Could shave a chin that never is at rest."
And as, from time immemorial, women have been accused of gossiping, it is not surprising that this fault should have been made the subject of legal penalties, as at St. Helena, where, among the ordinances promulgated in the year 1789, we find the following:--"Whereas several idle, gossiping women, made it their business to go from house to house, about this island, inventing and spreading false and scandalous reports of the good people thereof, and thereby sow discord and debate among neighbours, and often between men and their wives, to the great grief and trouble of all good and quiet people, and to the utter extinguishing of all friendship, amity, and good neighbourhood; for the punishment and suppression thereof, and to the intent that all strife may be ended, we do order that if any women, from henceforth, shall be convicted of tale-hearing, mischief-making, scolding, or any other notorious vices, they shall be punished by ducking, or whipping, or such other punishment as their crimes or transgressions shall deserve, or the Governor and Council shall think fit."
According to an Italian saying, "three women and three geese make a market," which is also found among Hindustani proverbs, "Madame Slut and two farmers' wives make a fair," a version of which has long been current in this country, where it is said, "three women make a market, four a fair," as they are sure to attract notice, and to make themselves heard. This piece of proverbial lore is alluded to in "Love's Labour's Lost" (act iii. sc. 1.):--
"Thus came your argument in;
Then the boy's fat l'envoy, the goose that you bought."
And in an old work entitled "Marriage of Wit and Wisdom," published about the year 1570, we find the proverbial phrase, "She can cackle like a cadowe," i.e., a jackdaw, with which may be compared the adage, "She's a wagtail." An early MS. of the fifteenth century contains this version:
"A young wife and a harvest goose,
Much cackle will both;
A man that hath them in his clos [possession],
He shall rest wroth."
And we may compare with the above the following from the old nursery rhyme:--
"Misses One, Two, and Three, could never agree,
While they gossiped round a tea-caddy."
A woman's tongue, again, it is said, must not be always trusted, for "a honey tongue, a heart of gall," or, as another version puts it, "Too much courtesy, too much craft." Similarly, an African proverb says, "Trust not a woman, she will tell thee what she has just told her companion;" and a Turkish adage tells us not to "trust the promise of the great, the calm of the sea, the evening twilight, the word of a woman, or the courage of the horse." Nothing, too, is more derogatory to a woman than coarse or bad language, and hence she is warned that "Bad words make a woman worse:" words which call to mind Martial's epigram:--
"Fair, rich, and young! How rare is her perfection,
Were it not mingled with one foul infection;
So proud a heart, so cursed a tongue,
As makes her seem nor rich, nor fair, nor young."
And a popular maxim attributed to Tasso tells us that "Women have tongues of craft, and hearts of guile;" and, on this account, we are told that "he who listens to the words of a woman will be accounted worthless," as, not only lacking common sense, but as acting on her advice which can bring him no good.
Although proverbial wisdom is agreed that, to quote a German adage, "A woman has never spoiled anything through silence," her fondness of talking is further exemplified in such proverbs as "Her tongue steals away all the time from her hands," and "All women are good Lutherans," they say in Denmark, "because they would rather preach than hear Mass;" whereas the old English saying enjoins, "Let women spin and not preach." One of Heywood's proverbs tells us that "Husbands are in heaven whose wives scold not," which is similar to the well-known adage:--
"It is a good horse that never stumbles,
And a good wife that never grumbles;"
for, as it is commonly said throughout Scotland, "A house wi' a reek and a wife with a reerd will make a man rin to the door," a dictum which has its equivalent in Spain--
"Smoke, a dripping roof, and a scolding wife,
Are enough to drive a man out of his life."
a version of which was formerly current in the North of England:--
"Smoke, rain, and a very curst wife,
Make a man weary of house and life;"
and we may compare the Hindustani proverb which, describing a woman who is quarrelsome beyond endurance, says, "She quarrels with the breeze." Disagreeable as such tongues may be, equally to be avoided is "a groaning wife," for as the Scotch peasantry tell us, "a grunting horse and a graneing wife seldom fail their master," implying that women who are constantly in the habit of complaining how ill they are, generally contrive to live as long as their neighbours.
Closely allied with the proverbial lore associated with a woman's tongue may be mentioned the strong antipathy to a woman whistling about a house or even out of doors, for, according to a well-known proverb, of which there are several versions:--
"A whistling woman and a crowing hen,
Are neither fit for God nor men;"
or, as they say in the West of England, "A whistling woman and a crowing hen are two of the unluckiest things under the sun." Why there should be this deep-rooted prejudice it is difficult to decide, unless we accept the explanation in the subjoined couplet:--
"A whistling wife and a crowing hen,
Will call the old gentleman out of his den;"
or, as the peasantry say in Cheshire, "Will fear the old lad out of his den." There are numerous versions of this popular piece of folk-lore, one warning us that--
"Whistling girls and crowing hens,
Always come to some bad end;"
"A whistling wife and a crowing hen,
Will come to God, but God knows when;"
and we may compare the Sinhalese proverb, "It is said that even the hen reared by a talkative woman crows." This superstition, too, is largely shared by the seafaring community, and, some years ago when a party of ladies were going on board a vessel at Scarborough, the captain declined to allow one to enter, exclaiming, " Not that young lady, she whistles." Curiously enough the vessel was wrecked on her next vovage, so had the young lady set foot on it, the catastrophe would have been attributed to her. A correspondent of Notes and Queries tells us that, one day after trying to induce his dog to come into the house, his wife essayed to whistle, when she was suddenly interrupted by a servant--a Roman Catholic--who apologetically said, "If you please, ma'am, don't whistle. Every time a woman whistles, the heart of the Blessed Virgin bleeds." Another legend informs us that the superstition originated in the circumstance that a woman stood by and whistled as she watched the nails for the cross being forged. The French have a similar prejudice, their proverb running as follows:--"Une poule qui chante le coq, et une fille qui jiffle, portent malheur dans la maison," a variation of which runs thus:--
"La maison est misérable et méchante
Ou la poule plus haut que le coq chant."
("That house doth everday more wretched grow,
Where the hen louder than the cock doth crow");
and another popular adage warns us that--
"La poule ne doit pas chanter devant le coq,"
a translation of which is sometimes heard in our own country:--
"Ill fares the hapless family that shows,
A cock that's silent, and a hen that crows."
This superstition, too, is not confined to Europe, for there is a Chinese proverb to the same effect:--
"A bustling woman and crowing hen,
Are neither fit for gods nor men."
It is an injunction of the priesthood, writes a correspondent of Notes and Queries (4th Series, xi. 475), "and a carefully observed household custom, to kill immediately every hen that crows, as a preventive against the misfortune which the circumstance is supposed to indicate;" and the same practice, he adds, prevails throughout many parts of the United States. The Japanese tells us that "when the hen crows the house goes to ruin," with which may be compared the Russian adage, "It never goes well when the hen crows," whilst the Persian proverb puts the matter sensibly thus:--"If you be a cock, crow; if a hen, lay eggs;" and there is the Portuguese maxim with a similar meaning, "It is a silly flock where the ewe bears the bell;" a further proverb telling us that "a house is in a bad case where the distaff commands the sword;" and the Italians go still further, for they say that "when a woman reigns the devil frowns," to which may be added the Indian adage, "What trust is there in a crowing hen?"
From the numerous instances recorded of this piece of folk-lore we may quote an amusing extract from one of Walpole's letters to Lady Ossory, January 8, 1772, wherein after informing her Ladyship of the damage done to his castle by the explosion of the Hounslow Powder Mills, he humorously writes:--
"Margaret [his housekeeper] sits by the waters of Babylon and weeps over Jerusalem. Yet she was not taken quite unprepared, for one of the Bantam hens had crowed on Sunday morning, and the chandler's wife told her three weeks ago, when the Barn was blown down, that ill-luck never came single. She is, however, very thankful that the china-room has escaped, and says God has always been the best creature in the world to her."
But a talkative, as well as a whistling, woman is, in German lore, equally warned against making an undue use of her tongue, for "a glaring sunny morning, a woman that talks Latin, and a child reared on wine never come to a good end;" or, as another adage has it, "A woman and a hen are soon lost in gadding"; and according to another warning, whereas "a gossiping woman talks of every one, every one talks of her." The most remarkable thing, as the Japanese say, is that, although "a woman's tongue is only three inches long, it can kill a man six feet high;" but the Chinese have a common proverb to the effect that, whereas "a man's words are like an arrow close to the mark, a woman's is like a broken fan." A further way, also, in which woman is occasionally able to use her tongue to advantage is in the art of dissimulation when love is concerned, a piece of craft which, skilfully devised, has deceived many a lover, for, as the Spanish adage goes--
"He that speaks me fair and loves me not,
I'll speak him fair and love him not;"
with which may be compared the Hindustani proverb, "A shrill tongue and a false hand."
But, after all, it must not be forgotten that even "the whisper of a beautiful woman can be heard further than the loudest call of duty;" and again, "A sweet tongue will conquer the whole world, and a crooked one will estrange it."