Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Ellen Bayuk Rosenman


Turning Their Talk investigates the pressures placed upon female characters’ communication styles as they enter the heterosexual market in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. The title of this dissertation derives from a phrase found in each the six novels I examine--“she turned the conversation”—to suggest the subtle control female characters exercise through speech that allows them to achieve tangible forms of social agency. My dissertation argues that novelistic representations of speech mirror the paradoxical roles women historically faced as they balanced societal ideals for feminine conduct, the companionate marriage, and the increasingly popular principles attached to liberal individualism. By identifying the historical norms of speech imposed upon women of the nineteenth-century and applying that information to the dialogue of female characters to examine the ways in which they follow, challenge, subvert, and constitute those norms in specific contexts within the novel, my work illustrates how speech, as a cultural resource and practice, enacts social action and personal authority. In each chapter, I identify the most statistically distinct forms of speech assigned to female characters—forms substantiated through corpus linguistic methodology. These patterns reveal how fictional identities become constructed, power is translated into relationships, and gender ideology takes shape through spoken words. This project breaks away from a long-standing tradition in women’s literary criticism that equates one’s “voice” with individual power and, instead, demonstrates how different female characters similarly work within a system of language subject to institutional and ideological constraints to socially maneuver without upending the normative rules governing gender difference.