Ever wonder what those secretaries on Mad Men are tapping out on their tanklike typewriters? I'm sure it's mostly letters and reports dictated by their bourbon-swilling, fanny-patting bosses, but I'll bet you there's at least one who is working on a novel or a tell-all book about Madison Avenue.
I'll further wager that, when both boss and secretarial supervisor are looking the other direction, this same creative genius pulls out her manuscript and does a little of her own work on the company clock. After all, writing on the job is a time-honored tradition, as these three novels by and about secretaries with literary ambitions will attest .
Like her creator, the engaging heroine of Stevie Smith's 1936 Novel on Yellow Paper works as a private secretary. But at heart she is a poet who dreams of publication. In the meantime Pompey (born Patience, and called Patty by her irritating mother) offsets the "orgy of boredom" that is her day job by typing on yellow paper, the better to distinguish her work from her boss's correspondence, which goes out on blue letterhead. Her Novel comprises poetry scraps, a running narrative of her turbulent love life and observations on everything from Nazism to sex education to women's magazines — it's a mix that will be familiar to anyone who penned a journal when she was in her 20s.
Winifred Watson's first secretarial job was so slow that she spent much of her time reading bad novels. When her brother-in-law challenged her declaration that she could do better, Watson wrote her entire first book at work. Her third novel was the delightful Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. The book's heroine is a governess, not a secretary, but Miss Pettigrew's unwavering allegiance to her boss-for-the-day, not to mention her willingness to both cook and make coffee, is applauded by the flamboyant but kindhearted Miss LaFosse. These skills also come in handy as Miss Pettigrew hobnobs with high society, even seeing the inside of a nightclub for the first time. What temp worker hasn't dreamed of an assignment this glamorous?
In Muriel Spark's novel Loitering with Intent, it's 1949 and Fleur Talbot is too busy typing for the Autobiographical Association that employs her as its secretary to get much of her novel actually written on the job. Indeed, the memoirs are so dull that Fleur takes it upon herself to liven them up. A suggestive scene involving a nanny, a butler and a rocking horse adds spice to the writing of a timid merchant, for example. It's all grist for the mill as "the ideas of the day ... reassemble themselves" becoming characters in Fleur's own book. The line between reality and literature blurs when her completed manuscript goes missing and the lives of the members of the Autobiographical Association start to resemble scenes in Fleur's novel.
Much about the office has changed since these books were written. Computers long ago replaced typewriters, just as the title "secretary" was supplanted by "administrative assistant." But one thing remains guaranteed. As long as there are office workers with manuscripts, they'll try to write during business hours. Except me, of course — if you're listening, dear boss.
Lynn Peril is a secretary and the author ofSwimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office. She lives in Oakland, Calif.
Three Books...is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.