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  • Secretarial Fiction:Gender and Genre in Four Novels, 1897–1898
  • Lawrence Rainey

The years 1897 and 1898 saw the publication of four British novels, not often read today, that shared a common trait: their heroine was a typist or secretary. That did not entail that their plots unfold along identical lines or end with a common conclusion. (Only one, for example, closes with a comic or romantic ending in which the heroine receives a proposal of marriage.) Nor did it entail that they address an identical corpus of readers. (One's subtitle proclaims it A Story for Girls of To-day, clearly invoking teenage girls, while the others contain literary and topical allusions presuming readers with general knowledge far beyond that of adolescents.) The four also vary in narrative style: one sparkles with comic insouciance (The Type-Writer Girl), while another is weighted with sober realism (A Bachelor Girl in London); one is barbed with arch authorial comments (The Crook of the Bough), while another drones with didacticism (Miss Secretary Ethel). Yet despite these differences, the novels share a second trait, again pertaining to the secretary-heroine: she is an orphan. At first glance this is perplexing, even counterintuitive. We cannot explain it by recourse to the lives of secretaries in the real world, of whom only a tiny percentage can have been orphans. We must assume it is a convention that fulfills a function, enabling these novels to do fictional work they could not otherwise perform. (The task of specifying that work can be deferred till later.) For now we need only underscore how loose, how tenuous is the linkage that binds a set of traits in the heroine (an occupational category, orphanhood) to a broad field of possible actions and events. Is this linkage of the same sort that typifies those exemplary genres of popular culture, the mystery (or detective fiction) with its detective hero, and the Western with its cowpuncher protagonist? Both those genres were being consolidated at roughly the same time: the short stories about Sherlock Holmes that were published in the Strand between 1891 and 1893 defined the detective genre for years to [End Page 308] come, while Owen Wister's classic novel The Virginian (1902) reshaped and consolidated the cowboy story. Do our four novels from 1897–1898 constitute a comparable type or genre, call it secretarial fiction, taking form in the same decade? Or were they merely variants of another type of novel extensively studied in recent years, the New Woman novel of the 1890s? To ask how we go about typing or classifying these four novels, it seems, entails glancing at related questions about popular genres and their constitution, about the changing status of women and their fictional representation, and about the connections that bind together world and text, social realities and fictional conventions.

The Type-Writer Girl

The first-person narrator of The Type-Writer Girl is Juliet Appleton, a twenty-two-year-old graduate of Girton College, the Cambridge college for women that first opened in 1869.1 Her father, an American who nevertheless served as a colonel in the British army, has died some four months before the novel opens. Shortly before his death he had refused to carry out an order that was against his conscience and been forced to resign, and as a result has left no pension for his daughter. Juliet must now find work to support herself. From one incidental comment ("I had been reared in the country") we learn that she grew up in a village or market town; from another ("I had never known mine") that her mother died in childbirth.2 But little more.

This lack of biographical depth corresponds with the novel's emphasis on the frothy surface of Juliet's narrative, her quicksilver responses to everything that comes her way. An analogous lack of depth is found in the book's narrative structure: it marshals no overarching plot that unfolds from beginning to end, and instead recounts an episodic series of adventures, each capped by a conspicuous non-ending that tacitly rejects more conventional expectations of closure. This preference for episodic variety over narrative continuity is voiced by Juliet from...