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Office Girls in Turn-of-the-Century Fiction: Work, Technology and Everyday Modernity

Gray, Jessica Vivien (2019) Office Girls in Turn-of-the-Century Fiction: Work, Technology and Everyday Modernity. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (KAR id:76623)

Language: English

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This thesis offers a fresh perspective on the New Woman by examining the representation of the character of the 'office girl' in fiction published between 1890 and 1925. This time period aligns with the era in which certain office jobs, including typing and telegraph clerking, became feminised. Specifically, I reveal how the office girl can be considered a version of the New Woman, but contend that as her work is more mundane she departs from the type in being represented as a less aspirational figure than the New Woman; the office girl's experience of modernity is steeped in the everyday, the habitual and the routine. I extend and nuance existing critical readings of the office girl by offering three key points of context through which this character type can be read: Certeau's concept of la perruque; the idea of emotional labour; and the tension between the individual and the collective that is present in representations of the office girl and her colleagues. This thesis proposes that office girls typically wish to escape their mundane work, even if temporarily: they often do so, I argue, through daydream and distraction. Examining this through Henry James's 'In the Cage' (1898) and Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage (1915-67), I note that characters are able to elude the mandates of the workday through their wandering minds in a manner akin to la perruque. I intervene in prior discussions of the office girl's romantic life through introducing to analysis of this character theories of emotional labour. Conducting caring duties is a necessary part of the office girl's work; in Dracula (1897) the typist character's emotional labour enables the formation of the vampire-hunting group. But such emotional labour can, I argue, alienate emotion and thus distort the office girl's relationships out of the office, as seen in texts such as Rebecca West's The Judge (1922). This thesis reveals the importance of analysing the office girl's relationships with other typists: I note that in journals such as The Typist's Gazette (1896-7) the hope for a collective is expressed. However, in novels such as The Odd Women (1893), Grant Allen's The Type-writer Girl (1897), and Ivy Low's The Questing Beast (1914) while there is a desire expressed regarding the mass advancement of women's position in society, there is often a tension between the exceptional individual and the mass of typists. This exceptionality is a recurring feature of office girl protagonists which leads to a sense within these novels that meaningful work may not be available to all. Additionally, the characterisation of the mass of typists seen in such texts leads to the development of a stereotype of the office girl: this, I argue, is made use of by James Joyce in 'The Boarding House' (1914) and Ulysses (1922). This stereotyping is shown in Joyce to be a function of urban modernity, in which interpreting and recognising others fully or in a complex manner becomes difficult in the crowded city environment. My project intervenes in ongoing discussions regarding the continuities between late Victorian and modernist literature, contributing to recent critical efforts which have worked to contravene the conventional notion of there being a deep divide between these two literary periods. The office girl traverses this perceived divide, and is a figure who offers ways of thinking through issues of feminine identity and its relationship to work, technology, and everyday modernity.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Parkins, Wendy
Thesis advisor: Waters, Catherine
Uncontrolled keywords: Feminism, technology, everyday studies, work, secretary, office, Victorian, Modernist, Edwardian
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Funders: Organisations -1 not found.
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 23 Sep 2019 09:59 UTC
Last Modified: 01 Jul 2022 23:00 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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