The Henry James Review 22.3 (2001) 297-306
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Class Ghosting "In the Cage"
Jill Galvan, University of California, Los Angeles
The turn of the century witnessed the establishment of a new breed of industrial vocation: women's communications channeling. The predominantly female secretary of today has her roots in this hiring trend launched in late-Victorian times when women began to assume in large numbers the function of communications go-between, mediating the writing and speech of separated parties. All such employment--typing, telephone operating, telegraph operating--reserved for women workers a measure of white-collar prestige: it occurred indoors, was cleaner than factory labor, and required some education and a learned skill. 1 For women in telegraphy, however, the issue of class status could be complicated by a condition particular to their business: their frequent interaction with strangers--and strange men specifically--at the public telegraph office. In questions of social respectability, the female telegrapher faced a moral concern less pressing for the wholly enclosed, sexually segregated typist or telephone operator (and all but irrelevant to men in her own line of work). The fact of the telegrapher's publicized body made it easier to view her along a continuum with the prostitute, effectively debasing her to a lower class position than her profession in and of itself should have earned her. 2
"Here, indeed," affirmed an 1883 contributor to the Pall Mall Gazette, on the subject of switchboard operating, "is an occupation to which no 'heavy father' could object; and the result is that a higher class of young women can be obtained for the secluded career of a telephonist as compared with that which follows the more barmaid-like occupation of a telegraph clerk" (qtd. in Young 27). As if in direct response to this association with the wanton mingling of the tavern worker, the narrator of James's "In the Cage" (1898) states of the telegrapher-heroine that "if there was a thing in the world no one could charge her with it was being the kind of low barmaid person who rinsed tumblers and bandied slang" (204). This statement, which appears in a discussion of the heroine's attraction to Captain Everard, sheds some light on her self-estimation: while realizing "the picture of [End Page 297] servitude and promiscuity" she presents to the public, "so boxed up with her young men" (194), she yet retains a sense of honorable difference from the working-class woman and that figure's putative sexual easiness. Several critics have observed the telegrapher's potential alignment with the prostitute, especially in her dealings with Everard. 3 My argument here starts off by underscoring the heroine's deliberate rejection of this identification. Rather than countenance selling her body (seemingly the only way for a woman of her rank, as Jennifer Wicke puts it, "to ensnare the aristocratic into [her life]" ), she significantly shifts in her own mind the dimensions of her relations to the aristocracy, from a physical to non-physical, even spiritual, plane of connection. More exactly, the heroine styles herself as akin to a spirit medium--yet another common species of the female communications channel at this time 4 --in her ability to read psychically the reflections and emotions of the rich folk she encounters through the cage. 5 For a time, this occultist notion furthers the telegrapher's fantasy of a magical bond with her social betters, a bond that transcends the two material determinants of her lowly class standing--her economic privation and her provocatively exposed body.
When Lady Bradeen first drops in to Cocker's grocery, we hear from the narrator that the "apparition was very young, but certainly married [. . .]" (181). This word "apparition" crops up again later, in the context of the floral arranger Mrs. Jordan's vaunting discussion of her customers, in which the telegrapher feigns only partial interest: "There was something in our young lady that could still stay her from asking for a personal description of these apparitions; that showed too starved a state" (193). On both these occasions, "apparition" denotes those...