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Department of English Studies


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Staff and Postgraduate Research Seminar: 'Sensational Secretaries, Melodramatic Modernity: Edna, Belle and Estelle,' by Professor Lawrence Rainey (University of York)

15th October 2008, 16:30 to 16:30, Seminar Room, Hallgarth House

Nothing did more to transform the lives of twentieth-century women than the development of modern office culture. Hitherto restricted to careers in teaching or nursing, women could now achieve a new, if precarious independence, and for the first time they found themselves working alongside male colleagues. Almost overnight, Victorian conventions regulating contact between the sexes were rendered obsolete, and even the appearance of that basic unit of urban life, the street, was wholly transformed. "Not many years ago," wrote one observer of New York in 1894, "it was rather an uncommon thing to see girls or women employed in business offices. . . . Today . . . the great industrial army that morning and evening throngs the streets on its way to and from the workshops and offices, is largely composed of women."

The sudden ubiquity of the secretary or typist formed part of what business historians have called "a veritable revolution in communication technology" which took place between roughly 1890 and 1910, a revolution that transformed the office into a nexus of formal communication flows sustained by an interlocking grid of new communication and storage-and-retrieval technologies--typewriters, telephones, dictaphones, adding machines, duplicators, loose-leaf ledgers, carbon copy papers, card indexes, and vertical filing systems. The typist stood at the centre of that grid--modernity incarnate, a demotic counterpart to those more exotic and celebrated contemporaries, the aviator and the automobile racer, figures who embodied all the allure and danger of modern freedom. But while the cultural discourses that surrounded these male figures have been extensively studied, scholars have scarcely acknowledged the vast quantity of novels and films that have a secretary as their central protagonist. This study assesses novels and films produced in America, Britain, France, and Germany between 1890 and 1940, mapping what can only be described as a lost continent of modern consciousness.

Lawrence Rainey is Professor of English at the University of York. He is the author of Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1991); A Poem Containing History: Textual Studies in the Cantos of Ezra Pound (University of Michigan Press, 1997); Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (Yale UP, 1998); Modernism and the New Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 2000); Modernism: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2005); Revisiting the Waste Land (Yale UP, 2005) and Futurism: a Reader and Visual Repertoire (Yale UP, 2008). He is also the editor of the journal, Modernism/Modernity. He is currently writing Office Politics: the Secretary in Film and Fiction, 1890-1940 (America, Britain, France, and Germany).

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