Sunday, February 10, 2008

Romance Novels and the Working Girl

At the turn of the twentieth century, London, Paris, and New York attracted dreamers and bohemians. Young suburban women who, when finished with as much school as their parents deemed necessary, shuffled into big cities in search of employment. Excited by stories of girls making the munificent sum of $8 per week, young women went from milliner to florist, factory to laundry-room in search of the ideal job and the ideal wage.

The Industrial Revolution set more than just machines in motion. Working-class women were thrust into close proximity to men on a continual basis in every part of their lives. Girls were allowed to walk city streets, to dine with men in certain establishments, and to date without supervision without suffering much in the way of tarnished reputations. In many ways, the working-class woman enjoyed more freedom than the lady of fashion.

With literacy on the rise, romance lived in the dress factories and sweatshops, where the hopeful young employees read books during breaks, hoping for better lives. In The Long Day by Dorothy Richardson, the narrator considers the role of fiction in the lives of working girls of her era, New York City in 1905:

Promptly at half-past twelve the awakening machinery called us back to the workaday world. Story-books were tucked away, and their entranced readers dragged themselves back to the machines and steaming paste-pots, to dream and talk as they worked, not of their own fellows of last night’s masquerade, but of bankers and mill-owners who in fiction have wooed and won and honorably wedded just such poor toilers as they themselves.
This entertaining discourse over the daily task of box-making follows:


Don't you never read no story-books?" Mrs. Smith asked, stirring the paste-pot preparatory to the afternoon's work. She looked at me curiously out of her shrewd, snapping dark eyes as she awaited my answer. I was conscious that Mrs. Smith didn't like me for some reason or other, and I was anxious to propitiate her. I was pretty certain she thought me a boresome prig, and I determined I'd prove I wasn't. My confession of an omnivorous appetite for all sorts of story-books had the desired effect; and when I confessed further, that I liked best of all a real, tender, sentimental love-story, she asked amiably:

"How do you like 'Little Rosebud's Lovers'?"

"I've never read that," I replied. "Is it good?"

"It's fine," interposed Phoebe; "but I like 'Woven on Fate's Loom' better--don't you?" The last addressed to Mrs. Smith.

"No, I can't say that's my impinion," returned our vis-à-vis, with a judicious tipping of the head to one side as she soused her dripping paste-brush over the strips. "Not but what 'Woven on Fate's Loom' is a good story in its way, either, for them that likes that sort of story. But I think 'Little Rosebud's Lovers' is more int'resting, besides being better wrote."

"And that's just what I don't like about it," retorted Phoebe, her fingers traveling like lightning up and down the corners of the boxes. "You like this hot-air talk, and I don't; and the way them fellows and girls shoot hot-air at each other in that there 'Little Rosebud's Lovers' is enough to beat the street-cars!"
Phoebe goes on to tell the story of 'Little Rosebud's Lovers,' which is complete with an exotic setting (South Carolina), two lovely sisters (but only Rosebud had a demeanor to match her physical beauty; the other, Maud was jealous and spiteful), and Harvard-grad lover (who turned out to be 'a villain of the deepest dye'). The story-book fans go on to discuss the plot holes in a way that would fit well on a current-day lit forum:

"Where did she get the money to come to New York with?" interrupted the practical Phoebe. "That's something I don't understand. If she didn't have no money to hire a room at a hotel down in South Carolina for overnight, I'd like to know where she got the money for a railroad ticket."

"Well, that's just all you know about them swells," retorted Mrs. Smith. "I suppose a rich man's daughter like that can travel around all over the country on a pass."
The banter continues for a chapter, and gives us a great look into the origins of romance, while the book glimpses how average girls fit courtship and passion into otherwise taxing lives. Write on, romance authors!


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