10 Fictional Working Women Texts from the Turn of the Century

By Elizabeth DiEmanuele 

With the emergence of technology and work opportunities at the end of the 19th century, women began to occupy more space in the public sphere; but, this change was met with great apprehension. Those who held traditional values, and in particular, those who held significant privilege, were deeply opposed to women’s movement out of the home. Embodying this tension, these texts collectively capture the struggle, exploitation, and survival of working women from the 19th to 20th century turn.

1. Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) – Thomas Hardy

tess

In Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess works as a poultry keeper for the d’Urberville estate to help with her family’s financial struggles. One night at the estate, Mrs. d’Urberville’s son rapes her while she is sleeping. Undergoing a series of tragedies after this assault, Tess works to support herself. Tess of the d’Urbervilles troubles Victorian conventions and preeminently depicts the obstacles of the modernist working woman.

2. The Odd Women (1893) – George Gissing

Gissing Odd Women

“It was the first time in her life that she had spoken with a woman daring enough to think and act for herself.”

Addressing the increased movement of women from the private to public sphere, The Odd Women explores the lives of overworked, underpaid women. Most notably of the group is Rhoda Nunn, whose job requires her to train others to work in the office sphere. Exploring the masculine expectations of women to marry and remain in the home, Gissing exposes the complex gender dynamics of the period.

3. The Type-Writer Girl (1897) – Grant Allen

TypeWriter Girl

In Grant Allen’s The Type-Writer Girl, Juliet seeks employment after her father’s death. She is an active and vocal character, who explores type-writing, anarchy, rides a bicycle, counters masculine authorities, and even supports her own living. Allen’s comedic novel affirms and complicates social perceptions of working women.

4. In the Cage (1898) – Henry James

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An unnamed telegraphist enjoys deciphering the messages between well-known society people. Through her labour, she discovers the details of a passionate affair. While In the Cage is a form of detective fiction, it also conveys the secrecy and the entrapment of the female worker, particularly through the requirement of the unnamed narrator to remain hidden in her “cage.”

5. Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1902) – George Bernard Shaw

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“Everybody has choices, Mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between rag-picking and flower-selling, according to her taste. People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.”

Shaw’s play focuses on the relationship between Mrs. Warren and her daughter, Vivie. With goals to learn about her mother, Vivie comes home for the first time. Vivie learns that Mrs. Warren was once a prostitute and runs a collection of active brothels and must come to terms with her mother’s history. Overall, this play challenges masculine expectations, privilege and perceptions of prostitution.

6. The Girl Behind the Keys (Broadview Encore Editions)

Tom Gallon

Tom Gallon

 

Bella Thorn is a confident and self-sufficient female typist. To keep her job, Bella uses her knowledge and technological skills to uncover and thwart the plans of con artists. Unlike earlier detective fiction, The Girl Behind the Keys features an intelligent woman as the ‘detective figure’ of the story.

7. Suffragette Sally (1911) – Getrude Colmore

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Featuring three female protagonists, the story accounts various obstacles faced by working women, including unwanted advances in the office and social condemnation. An informative, and at times, hopeful story for women seeking the vote and equal rights, this novel is an essential ‘working woman’.

8. No Surrender (1911) – Constance Maud

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“The interminable jolting drive in Black Maria, under such airless crowded conditions as had caused two women to faint, had landed them at last at the grim gates of the old prison, where one by one they had been unpacked and passed in. After going through the preliminary ceremonies of inscribing their names and ages, and aiding in recording a prosaic description of eyes, hair, height, and other personal details, they had then been driven, cattle-wise, into these narrow pens, there to wait for many a weary hour the doctor’s summons. After this would come the bath and the donning of the prison garments, and finally, at some hour far into the night – for there had been many convictions on this occasion – rest on the hard prison bed.”

Opposing politicians, men, and other women, Jenny and Mary are suffragettes in London. They experience many obstacles, including the loss of their jobs and prison. Challenging the perception that suffragettes were unworthy, hysterical, and irrational, Jenny and Mary’s story captures the struggle of those fighting for rights during the period.

9. Me: A Book of Remembrance (1915) – Winnifred Eaton

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The protagonist, Nora, seeks work out of necessity and travels from Canada, to Jamaica, to the United States. Throughout her journey, she works as a hand-writing stenographer and later becomes a typist. Detailing her struggling for capital and social acceptance, Me: A Book of Remembrance documents the exploitation of the working (and in this case, mixed-race) woman.

10. Voyage in the Dark (1934) – Jean Rhys

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Without any support, Anna Morgan must take care of herself in England. She works as a chorus girl and, after many conflicts, becomes a prostitute in order to make enough money to survive. Anna’s story reveals the lack of choice and opportunities for women during the time, as well as the way in which men reduced their individual worth.

4 thoughts on “10 Fictional Working Women Texts from the Turn of the Century

  1. I loved The Odd Women! I’ve been wanting to read something by Grant Allen and The Type-Writer Girl sounds perfect. Some other good choices to explore too. Thank you!

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