Betsey Dobson stands out from the get-go, and not just because she's "alarmingly tall." Having been fired from her job as a typist at a London insurance firm after she's caught writing herself a fake reference, she boards a train to the coast where a new start awaits her, or so she hopes.
A Welshman named John Jones has decided to employ her as the manager of the new excursions scheme for the Idensea Pier & Seaside Pleasure Building Company; he sees something in her that nobody else has. She needs this opportunity, since with no means of support or even sufficient travel fare, it's the only thing she has left.
Betsey may be inexperienced, but she's smart, bold, and good with numbers. Her self-assurance sometimes fades, though, when she discovers all the obstacles she's up against. Already dubious about opening his upscale venue to day-trippers on corporate outings, resort owner Sir Alton Dunning is baffled by females in the workplace, especially this particular "manageress" (a term Betsey hates). At one point, she must give a presentation defending the value of the excursions program before members of the all-male board — who don't know what to make of a "woman without a tray." Her frustration is palpable.
This debut novel is literary fiction of a unique sort, one in which social issues and tough female characters combine with elegant turns of phrase and angsty romance. Betsey and John form an alliance that develops into mutual lust, or maybe even love, but she sees no future for them. John wants to "marry up," and rich and snobby hotel guest Miss Lillian Gilbey is his best chance to do so. For her part, Betsey is too proud to settle for a dalliance, despite her sexual history. She's had other lovers and once lived with another man, and shocks John by revealing that fact.
The text is rich in period details, much like an exquisitely designed turn-of-the-century scrapbook. At times it feels a bit overstuffed, and the pacing can be correspondingly slow in places, but Atlee's characters have many layers, and it's worth the time getting to know them. Turn the pages too quickly, and you might miss something important. The dialogue feels consistently fresh and real. Betsey has a mouth on her, letting drop the occasional curse, and it's impossible not to cheer on a character whose personality doesn't fit with stiff Victorian propriety. John doesn't come from an exalted background either, which becomes another link drawing them together.
The romantic tension between them has an intense emotional pull, and his belief in her allows her to "dream wildly, without boundaries." Isn't that a terrific way of putting things? In this uncompromising era, a penniless woman like Betsey shouldn't expect anything good to come her way, but she charts her own future regardless. The ending, while satisfying, leaves a question or two unanswered, just a slight false note in this enjoyable novel of a determined woman who refuses to sell herself short.
The Typewriter Girl was published by Gallery/Simon & Schuster in February ($15.00/C$17.00, trade paperback, 367pp).