Henry James, mysogynist?

This may not be news to you, but I’m shocked. Still, I’d have to look back carefully to decide how much his vile opinions went beyond voice. And it is very likely that they did, though there’s some controversy.

The quote is from a wonderful article by Mary Beard, an open access article in the LRB. It’s raising a question that this blog, among many others, has been vigorously pursuing.

but in his essays James makes it clear where he stood; for he wrote about the polluting, and socially destructive effect of women’s voices, in words that could easily have come from the pen of some second-century AD Roman (and were almost certainly in part derived from classical sources). Under American women’s influence, he insisted, language risks becoming a ‘generalised mumble or jumble, a tongueless slobber or snarl or whine’; it will sound like ‘the moo of the cow, the bray of the ass, and the bark of the dog’. (Note the echo of the tongueless Philomela, the moo of Io, and the barking of the female orator in the Roman Forum.) James was one among many. In what amounted to a crusade at the time for proper standards in American speech, other prominent contemporaries praised the sweet domestic singing of the female voice, while entirely opposing its use in the wider world. And there was plenty of thundering about the ‘thin nasal tones’ of women’s public speech, about their ‘twangs, whiffles, snuffles, whines and whinnies’. ‘In the names of our homes, our children, of our future, our national honour,’ James said again, ‘don’t let us have women like that!’

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