Long before Joan Harris worked her red hair and awesome curves to a partnership in Sterling-Cooper, women moved into the world of business as typewriter girls. Alison Atlee’s novel, The Typewriter Girl, paints a vivid picture of the opportunities , limitations and prejudices the women of the late 1800s faced throughout the process of becoming working women. But protagonist Betsey Dobson’s life was never easy.
Within the opening pages of the novel, a particularly nasty supervisor outlines the basic attitude and problem for Betsey and her compatriots:
“Ah, Miss Dobson, what I think you, and a great many others of your sex, misunderstand is the risk a business runs simply in taking you on. You’re an unknown quality, so to speak, you young . . . ladies . . . in an establishment like this, or like that pier company you mean to go to. Extracted from your feminine sphere, you create a precarious unnaturalness with your presence …”
Ah yes, that ol’ taking the unknown quality out of the feminine sphere and placing it right into the fire diversionary tactic. I’m not ruining the plot to say that shortly after the vile Mr. Wofford elucidates his viewpoint, Miss Dobson is out of work and hoping a promised position at a British holiday spot, Idensea, will come through.
Atlee begins each chapter with a quotation from the very real book entitled “How to Become an Expert in Type-writing,” written by Mrs. Arthur J. Barnes and published in 1890. She uses this tips to sometimes hilariously preview the awkward love affair Betsey Dobson launches with her supervisor at the seaside resort. For example, “Exact rules cannot be given for every emergency in life.”
Grand parties on pavilions, mistakes in choosing mates, and several office romances march the pace forward with the staccato notes of an IBM Selectric. It’s a fun, but not too serious, look into another time and place. And it serves as a reminder to me, and most likely other women who take their opportunities in the workforce for granted, that our opportunities were there only because of the steps taken by our predecessors.
Should you choose to read The Typewriter Girl, I suggest the following menu inspired by culinary descriptions and locations in the book:
Oysters on the half shell
Victorian Tea including sugared almonds, cucumber finger sandwiches, sandwiches of butter on homemade bread, dainty candies.
A genuine recipe from Godey’s Lady’s Book of 1863: Apple Snow Balls
About now, I would be craving something more substantial, so I would add a soup or peanut butter finger sandwiches.
Homemade vanilla ice cream
Lemonade: 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 1 cup lemonade (AND VODKA!)
Make a simple sugar by heating the sugar in the water in a small pan until the sugar is dissolved. Extract the juice from the lemons. Add the lemon juice and the simple syrup to a pitcher and add 3-4 cups of water, and a 1/2 cup of vodka, more or less to the desired strength. Place in the refrigerator and allow to sit and chill for 30 minutes. Serve in large iced tea glasses with mint stems.