The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee; published 2013 by Gallery Books
I really enjoyed this quick, fun read. Betsey Dobson is a modern spirit in Victorian London. When we meet her, she is a typewriter girl in London—the highest position a girl can acquire before she gets married. But Betsey has no intentions of marrying; instead, she takes a job at a pier company in Idensea, a seaside resort where the earliest version of an amusement park is being built by Mr. John Jones. Jones is a Welshman determined to make a name for himself and raise himself from his family’s poverty—preferably by an advantageous marriage to a wealthy aristocrat’s daughter.
Betsey is everything John should not want: she lived with a man that she was not married to, she failed to provide a decent reference letter because she left her typewriting job on bad terms, she curses, and she is poor. The book reveals its feminist theme when Betsey is consistently described as exceedingly tall (like a man) and dressing in a uniform. Yet John is drawn to her “unwomanly” traits. The two become close as she coordinates tours for groups of wealthy tourists and he continues to build the pleasure train and other amusements at the pier. But Betsey, although she allows him to become physically close, does not allow them to become emotionally attached. A fire at the pier ruins much of John’s work and kills a dear friend. In the wake of his hurt, he decides to run to London and take a new job. Of course, he can’t get Betsey out of his head. Although for a few days he entertains the thought of marrying his old sweetheart—the kind of girl he always thought he should like—he realizes that he would not be happy without Betsey.
It’s a story of a woman’s fierce determination to prove herself in a time when all of society is against her. She succeeds, and manages to win the heart of a good man as well. The only complaint I had was that I feel the book’s theme could have been developed further. Betsey is fired from (or quits) her job and marries John. The rest of her days are spent in the happiness of being married, which is certainly a happy thing, but her self-sufficiency seems to become less important. She seems to feel satisfied that she has proven she can do a job that not many women are allowed to do, and then resigns.
One discussion I did appreciate was that of a woman’s reputation. Of course, because Betsey lived with a man not her husband, she is considered ruined. And although she and John also sleep together before they marry, John is not considered ruined at all. The double standard of the Victorian era (which still persists in many ways today). Betsey cannot help but internalize the world’s view of her:
“Because she was already ruined. No one would dispute it. And what was that like, to be ruined, to live in ruin rather than with it? To know it couldn’t be overcome because forever it was part of you?
“So she believed of herself. And though it was fact, there in the dark, John felt he would like to change her mind about that. …It felt like the noblest thing he could attempt, to show Elisabeth Dobson that ruined was not what she was.” (185)
It’s so true that women—and men, too—internalize their sin, believing that it defines them. Thankfully, that is not the case, and although the book does not have a Christian theme in any way, I appreciated the fact that it made this point.
The blurb on the back of the cover says, “This eloquent debut novel is a story of firm propriety barely restraining intense passion, in the tradition of Kate Morton, Helen Simonsen, and television’s Downton Abbey.” You know how I love Downton Abbey. I look forward to the book’s release in 2013! Click on the link above to pre-order.