REVIEW: The Typewriter Girl by Alison Atlee
Dear Ms. Atlee:
Janine actually turned me on to this, your debut novel. I now owe her a big present, because I hate to think that this story would otherwise have escaped my attention. The book is marketed as historical fiction rather than romance, but I will go out on a limb and say that even though it’s only January, The Typewriter Girl is easily one of the most romantic books I’ll read all year.
The story begins with Betsey Dobson, a young woman working in a typing pool in Victorian London. She’s got plans to move on (and hopefully up), though, and to do so she needs a character letter from her employer. Knowing one will not be forthcoming (she’s rebuffed her boss’ advances), Betsey forges one and is caught. The incident ends with her slamming a door on her lecherous supervisor’s fingers and more or less fleeing before she can face arrest for assault.
Betsey is a tough cookie, smart and capable and looking to better herself. She finds herself stymied, as no doubt many working women in Victorian England were, by the lack of opportunities and the lack of protection a young single woman was faced with. She’s risen from a maid’s position (one she was fired from after her employer’s son seduced her) and she is capable of rising still further, if only someone will give her a chance. She thought she’d found that when she’d met John (nee Iefan, in his native Welsh) Jones while taking notes at a meeting he’d attended.
John perceived Betsey’s intelligence and drive (and found something familiar in them, for he too came from poor circumstances) at that first meeting, and impulsively offered her a job at the hotel he works for in the resort town of Idensea. Betsey is to manage outings for hotel guests, an opportunity beyond any she could find in London. But now she’s without the character she was told she must have and short the train fare she needs to get to Idensea. She gets on the train anyway, having nowhere else to go. Thus she arrives in disgrace, all of her worldly possessions (a small valise and a caged bird) with her and in real danger of being jailed as a fare jumper. Luckily, Mr. Jones is at the train station (awaiting the arrival of a young woman he’s courting and her family) and takes pity on Betsey, paying her fare and smoothing things over with the stationmaster.
Betsey is sure that after this latest humiliation, her dream of getting the hotel job is definitely dead. But Mr. Jones decides that he still wants to take a chance on her. In doing so, he opens up a whole new world for Betsey.
Idensea is a far cry from gritty London. The hotel is sumptuous, but Jones has plans to make the quaint seaside town a real destination with the pier and pleasure railroad he’s constructing. He has encountered resistance from Sir Alton Dunning, who is on the resort’s Board of Directors and who fears an influx of the common folk should Idensea become a destination for “day trippers.” Jones believes in his vision; he’s also simply anxious to finish up his work on the railway and be gone, onto the next project. Like Betsey, John is eager to get ahead in the world.
One of the pleasures of The Typewriter Girl is seeing Betsey come into her own as tour manager. She represents untold smart young women of her era, who only needed to be given the opportunity to actually do a job that utilized their brains and assets. Betsey quickly comes up with ways to make the tour operation more profitable, though these put her into further opposition to Sir Alton. John backs her us, as does Tobias Seiler, the kind and wise hotel manager who acts as something of a mentor to Betsey.
Each chapter opens with a brief passage from How to Become Expert in Typewriting, which apparently was an actual book published in 1890. The quotes are usually at least subtly relevant to the goings-on in the story at the moment, or sometimes simply ironically amusing:
None but clean fingers should ever touch even the margin of the paper. (Alas! that it is necessary to say this.)
Sit in an erect and comfortable position close to the machine.
Never fail to use Mr., Esq. or some other title when addressing a gentleman.
The issue of Betsey’s sexual experience and John’s relative lack of same is dealt with in an interesting way. John has learned the hard way to be wary of his carnal appetites. Betsey’s romantic adventures have not always ended well (her latest paramour keeps cropping up and causing trouble), but the lesson she’s learned from that is to take her pleasure on her own terms and no one else’s. She won’t allow herself be “had”; she is an active participant in her own sex life, which seems like it would have been a rarity, at least for a single woman, in Victorian England.
At first the romance feels a little unbalanced; John is far from a cad but he’s so focused on his own idea of success – which includes marrying up (ideally, to a lovely but rather shallow girl named Lillian Gilbey) – that he doesn’t really consider Betsey as a long-term romantic prospect, for all that he’s drawn to her. Betsey falls in love with John more quickly (who wouldn’t? he is eminently lovable), but knowing they have no future makes her wary and, at times, prickly.
Idensea is painted in idyllic terms, particularly as seen through the gaze of those, like Betsey, unused to fresh air and clear vistas. But beneath the beauty, life is still going on, with all its joy and sorrow. A tragedy occurs a bit past the midway point of the book, and it cast the slightest pall over the rest of the story for me. What came after was bittersweet, though the book does have an HEA.
The Typewriter Girl is brimming with interesting and well-nuanced characters: not only are John and Betsey compelling and worth rooting for, but so are the friends Betsey makes, such as Sarah, the owner of the boardinghouse where Betsey finds a home and Sarah’s adolescent son Charlie, who develops a crush on her. Even the “villain” of the piece, Sir Alton Dunning, is painted in shades of gray rather than stark black. An ex-composer, he earned his title through his musical contributions and his fortune through his wealthy wife. But nothing seems to make him very happy, and he seems intent on making those around him similarly unhappy; notably, his son, Noel, who wants to be a musician himself. As John astutely notes, Sir Alton “dreads…risk” and his decisions “come from fear.” Somehow knowing these things made me feel a bit for Sir Alton, even as he tries to manipulate John via Betsey.
Reading this, I was reminded a bit of some of the books of Eva Ibbotson; not in all aspects (most of Ibbotson’s heroines were a good deal more naive than Betsey), but in the lyrical prose, the slightly magical feel of the setting and the warm depictions of the characters. I can hardly think of a higher compliment in my book. My grade for The Typewriter Girl is (a high) A-.
Full disclosure: I recused myself from reviewing this book because the author and I have an email correspondence and met up at RWA last summer. I consider her a friend.
With that said, I wasn’t expecting to love this book as much as I did. I hoped I would like it, but it blew me away. After clearing it with Jane, I emailed Jennie and Robin to recommend the book to them. They don’t, as far as I know, have any kind of personal relationship with the author, who is not on the DA loop.
I’m glad my rec worked out for you, Jennie. I can see the similarity to Ibbotson once you point it out, but the author I thought of most was Judith Ivory. I was reminded of her Judy Cuevas novel, Bliss, because both books have heroines who are hardworking, ambitious, and sexually experienced at a time when a woman’s reputation was important, and sexual experience could be seen as a significant blemish.
I think my favorite thing about the The Typewriter Girl was Betsey’s ambition to better her circumstances. I also loved her refreshing attitude toward sex, which she did not equate with love. I loved that she was more experienced in the bedroom than John, too.
Beyond that, I thought the Victorian seaside resort town setting came to life, and all the characters were portrayed with a kind of clear-eyed compassion that I love. With the exception of Betsey’s work supervisor at her first (typewriting) job, even the characters who presented an obstacle to Betsey and John’s happiness were multidimensional.
I agree with that. Also, the flash-forward at the very end made me want to know if Betsey had realized her professional ambitions in that far future. The book was as much about Betsey’s work life as about the romance, so it seemed like an important question to answer if the book was going to skip years ahead for the closing paragraph. Overall though, for me these were minor flaws in an impressive debut.
Because of DA reviews, I’m starting to associate Simon and Schuster imprints with historical fiction with strong romantic elements. Pocket Star (publisher of His Very Own Girl by Carrie Lofty) and Gallery Books (publisher of The Typewriter Girl) are both S&S.
Oh wow, this sounds absolutely fantastic. Thank you for the review.
Are there any excerpts available online? I’ve searched for quite a while and can’t find one. Is the word “railroad” used in the text of the novel itself?
Laura, you can read an excerpt here: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Typewriter-Girl/Alison-Atlee/9781451673258/excerpt. In general, the novel uses “railway” rather than “railroad,” but I can’t swear that it never appears. (I’m the book’s editor, by the way…and thrilled at the warm review Betsey–and Alison–are receiving here!) I acquired the book because I loved Betsey’s pluck and determination, as well as her fierce independence…and Janine, you’re right, it was perhaps an omission not to show Betsey at work in the end. But I like to believe she and Mr. Jones are managing a B&B in California.
I just downloaded this one and can’t wait to start reading it. Can I ask for your collective assistance with something though? I’m almost certain that I read a review on DA sometime in the past couple of months about a similar historical romance that took place somewhere in New England. The heroine (Lydia, maybe?) was sent to an orphanage as a young girl after her parents and younger sibling disappeared out at sea while she was in school one day. She couldn’t speak English very well, so she didn’t really understand what was happening around her, etc. Flash forward a decade or two and, I believe, she’s a gifted accountant working in a naval office with a mysterious/irritating colleague of sorts who is her love interest. I had a sample on my Kindle app, but technology has turned against me and all my samples have disappeared.
I don’t mean to hijack another wonderful-sounding book’s spotlight, but this has been driving me crazy for a few hours now. I’ve looked at DA reviews going back until August and couldn’t spot, so any help would be very greatly appreciated!
@Janine: I can see the comparison to Ivory, as well. I think there’s a similarity in the way that light and heavy subjects are balanced; or rather, the characters have a certain lightness (and charm) to them even though the things they are going through are quite serious at times.
I *really* loved the setting. It came alive in a way that historical settings don’t often do. I think it helped that it was something different, but I think it’s mostly due to Atlee’s skill with prose.
@Abby Zidle: Thanks for noting the distinction between “railway” and “railroad”. I’m bad with technical terms; we’re lucky I didn’t call it a “train carrying thingie.”
@Maegan: Sorry, I’ve no idea, but it sounds interesting. I hope someone else knows!
I looked this one up after seeing Janine mention it on Twitter. Unfortunately it is geo restricted at Amazon so I shall have to wait for the time being to read it.
I do have a question though. I’m just a tiny bit put off by the comparison to Judith Ivory. I haven’t read Bliss, but I did read Black Silk and I cannot say I understand the love for it that many people have (I know, I know, I’m a Philistine). I found BS to be long, slow and boring and it drove me up the wall that for a book marketed as romance it (seemed to me to be) not very romantic at all; the couple first kiss something like 2/3 of the way through and I wasn’t convinced they even liked each other or were interested in each other most of the time. So, given that is my opinion of Black Silk, would I be better off passing on this one or are the things I found troubling in BS not issues here?
Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden – it’s an inspirational from Bethany House. I really liked it.
@Laura Vivanco: I searched my kindle copy, and there is one instance of the word “railroad” and forty instances where the word “railway” occurred.
@Kaetrin: I had the same problems with Black Silk when I reread it a few years ago (though the first time I read it, back in 2001, I loved it. Incidentally, Judith Ivory’s books originally published under the Ivory name are tighter than the Cuevas books so if the pacing and the development of the romance are your main concerns, you may want to try one of her later works sometime).
My attention span has shortened in the years since Ivory’s early Cuevas works (of which Black Silk is one) were published, and for that reason I’m not sure if Bliss and Dance would work as well for me today as they once did either. I have not read them in years. Starlit Surrender never did work for me — it was a DNF even back in the day.
On the other hand, I read The Typewriter Girl just a few months ago, and I had no issue with the pacing. I wouldn’t call it super fast paced but I wouldn’t call it slow and boring either.
In any case, I was not comparing Atlee’s book to Ivory’s works in regard to the pacing (or the language either, for that matter). I’m mostly reminded of Ivory due to the depth and specificity of the characterizations. There is also a certain large-hearted worldview that The Typewriter Girl possesses and that reminds me a bit of Ivory. And I agree with what Jennie said about the balance between light and dark.
Maybe someone else can answer this question better though. I hope Jennie and others who have read both books weigh in.
I snagged an e-ARC last summer after hearing about this book around this time last year, and was not disappointed one bit! Betsey reminded me of Sarah from Upstairs Downstairs–plucky, lusty, honest, and pugnacious, with the pragmatism of a lower-middle class working girl of the late Victorian era. There aren’t any dukes sweeping typists off their feet in this book–The Typewriter Girl is firmly grounded in the reality of its time period, which made the beautiful ending all the more enjoyable. I can’t think of any current authors I’d compare the writing to, but the construction of the sentences and characterization were spot on the dozens novels I’ve read that were published in the 1890s & 1900s (but with a modern edge, of course), so if you’re looking for a book that will immerse you in the setting from prose to character to description, this is it.
@&$%# geo restrictions! Was dying to read this after such a great review, but now for the no doubt loooong wait. >.<
Thanks, Janine, for searching for “railroad,” and thanks, Abby, for directing me to an excerpt.
Having read the excerpt, I found that I kept being pulled up short by the language. I know the author is deliberately trying to make it sound a little archaic but I’ve read plenty of Victorian novels so it’s not that which is causing me problems. It’s phrases like “patted-down accent.” What is a “patted-down accent”? Either this is a metaphor which doesn’t work for me or it’s a usage of “pat down” I’ve never come across, because as far as I’m concerned “patting down” means “to frisk” (e.g. something security personnel do at airports).
I’m also bemused by “He was something vain of this treasure.” I don’t recognise this usage of “vain” and I’d expect to see “somewhat” instead of “something.”
I wonder if this sounds better to Americans than it does to me as a speaker of British-English: “Word had gone round not long after her hire at the insurance firm”? I would expect that to read “not long after she had been hired by.” Similarly, to me it feels as though there’s a word missing from “She had to have rail fare to Idensea”: maybe a “her” after “have.” And re “With some hope in candor and decency” I’d have hope “of” but “place trust in.”
I know you can “pull a fast one” but “to pull some dodgy deed” doesn’t sound quite right to me. Similarly, I know that you can “hand in your notice” but “I’ve but three days left to my notice” doesn’t sound right to me.
Unfortunately I don’t think this is “lyrical prose” which works for me.
@Colette: Yesterday a reader told me it is available on Books on Board where geo-restrictions can be gotten around.
No. At least not to me. All the phrases/words you were bothered by jumped out at me too when I tried the sample last night. I was going to spend some time at the OED site this morning, but haven’t got round to it yet.
@Janine Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that or I would. I refuse to pirate, but would happily circumvent geo restrictions as everyone still gets paid. Can you point me in the right direction?
@Colette: Let me look into it and I’ll get back to you.
@Colette: My reader friend says you would need to list a US address with Books on Board. Then, using Paypal, buy yourself a Books on Board gift card sufficient to cover your entire purchase. After you’ve done that, in a separate transaction, use the Books on Board gift card to purchase the book.
My friend states that you need to use the gift card for your entire purchase. She also adds that The Typewriter Girl is currently on a special deal at Books on Board for $7.65.
@Laura Vivanco: I will say that some of John’s speech patterns struck me as potentially inauthentic, but I don’t know enough about turn-of-the-2oth century Welsh speech to say whether they were or not. (I don’t know *anything* about turn-of-the-2oth century Welsh speech, actually.)
It didn’t bother me, but it might bother someone who does know more, or who is more bothered by such a thing. I can be a stickler for realism, but in this case, the book’s other virtues and the vaguely magical feel it had for me made me less concerned about such things. Still, that’s probably one of the minor niggling reasons it didn’t get a straight A from me.
@Janine Thank you! You are a star! :)))
If you buy from amazon you can get round geo restrictions by changing your account to US by adding a valid US postal address (I use a shop in New York). There is no need to change credit card or anything, you purchase as normal then change your address back to the correct one.
I’ve done this lots of times and its never been a problem, although I’ve stopped unless its a book I’m desperate to read – I’d prefer publishers just did something to resolve the problem.