This reading group guide for The Typewriter Girl includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Alison Atlee. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Betsey Dobson is a typewriter girl, bound and determined to earn her own living in Victorian London, even if one can barely call it a living. When she’s offered a job as excursions manager at a seaside resort, Betsey seizes the chance for a better position and a different life. In order to succeed and realize her dreams of independence, Betsey must prove not only the worth of the project, but of herself. When Betsey’s friendship with John Jones, her boss, turns to something more, she must decide whether romance and ambition can coexist, and whether her fiercely sought independence is worth sacrificing. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What does the first scene of the novel reveal about Betsey’s character? How do her actions and attitude set her apart from the other typewriter girls? In what ways is she unconventional for a woman in the 1890s?
2. During her last night with Avery, Betsey wonders if “she wanted the wrong thing, this job that could end with the turn of a season, this life in a place she’d never seen” (page 23). Why is she eager to leave London and take the position as excursions manager in Idensea? If she hadn’t accepted the position, what might her future have held?
3. What does John Jones see in Betsey that inspires his confidence in her? What does his interest in Betsey reveal about his own character? Why does he continue to support her after her inauspicious arrival?
4. Lillian believes that she has her suitors in hand and that she’s on schedule to be married. What makes her so confident? How does she mishandle her relationships with John and Noel Dunning? What proves to be her undoing?
5. What does John mean when he says that Betsey is not for him? What do Betsey and Lillian each represent to him? What are John’s ambitions and what does he see as the steps to realize them?
6. What do John’s reminiscences of his family reveal about him? Why is he keen to bring his brother, Owen, to live with him?
7. Each chapter opens with a quote from How to Become Expert in Type-writing
. How did these quotes shape your reading?
8. Why does John take Betsey to the Sultan’s Road the night of Lillian’s musicale? How does Betsey feel when she realizes what he wants from her? Why doesn’t she yield to him?
9. Betsey’s sexual freedom is unusual for her time, a time when “in all the ways a man could meet ruin, there was one way in which he could not, one especial way reserved only for woman” (page 184). What motivates Betsey to live as freely as she does? Why is it so essential that she “choose”? Why is she intent on remaining unmarried?
10. How would you describe Betsey’s general attitude toward men? What events have shaped it? In what instances does her independent streak inspire admiration or condemnation from the men she works with?
11. What natural talents does Betsey use to her advantage to make the excursions scheme successful and to win the respect of her employers? What does she learn from John and Mr. Seiler about business and managing the board of directors?
12. What sort of man is Sir Alton? What does his treatment of Betsey reveal about his prejudices? In what ways does he undermine John, despite admiring and relying upon him?
13. When Betsey says she “wanted only to be safe and not owe anyone anything” (page 192), do you believe she’s being honest with herself? How do her plans for the excursion scheme prove otherwise?
14. The night after the fire, when John tells Betsey he wants to marry her, why does she refuse? Why does she tell him that she doesn’t trust him?
15. Discuss the ramifications of class in the novel. In what instances does it stand in John and Betsey’s ways and to what lengths do they go to overcome it? What part does it play in their romance? How does it affect the development of Idensea and the Swan Park Hotel?
16. At times, Betsey speaks bluntly and her language is coarse. Did this surprise you? Is there a pattern in the circumstances in which she speaks this way? Why do you think she expresses herself as she does? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Has your book group read other historical or romance novels? How did The Typewriter Girl
compare? Discuss with your book club members.
2. Betsey resents the indignities and lack of opportunity at her office job. Have members of your group held office jobs? Were they similar to Betsey’s? Discuss how entry-level jobs for women today are similar or different from Betsey’s.
3. Put your typewriting skills to the test! Have each member in you group type out a favorite passage from the novel. Time each member and see if you can adhere to the instructions from How to Become Expert in Type-writing
. If you don’t have a typewriter, use a computer instead. Do you think you could make it as a typewriter girl?
4. Wish you could go to Idensea? Bring in vacation photos, postcards, or brochures from local tourist attractions. Discuss anything that reminds you of Idensea, as well as how tourist spots and seaside vacations have changed in the past century or so. A Conversation with Alison Atlee What inspired you to write the novel? How long did it take you to write?
A year or so for the basic story, but then the novel underwent so many revisions that I’d question my sanity if I counted them up. The initial seed of inspiration was an old postcard of the switchback ride on Folkestone’s seashore. I came across it during research for a different book, but when I saw it, I knew I had a setting for my next story. Did you do background research? What about this time period interested you?
The clothes! Elegant lawn parties! Telegrams! To my childhood self, this period seemed like the perfect blend of the modern and the old-fashioned, a place where I could have lived very happily. As long as I had plenty of money, of course. Like the clothes, what’s underneath all that beauty is often restrictive and complicated, but that interests me, too, and it means I do lots of research. Betsey seems a very unconventional woman for her time. Did many women in this period have the ambitions she did? How did her character take shape?
A good part of Betsey’s character comes from how difficult it was for women to achieve nontraditional ambitions, especially education. Schools for working-class women like the one Betsey attends did exist, but, as The Typewriter Girl
suggests, the courses could be watered-down versions of what men were offered. Plus, with the lower wages women earned and the need to be at work six or more days a week, you really had to sacrifice for it. I connected Betsey’s situation to the single parents I know, trying to get a degree in the midst of holding down another job or two and caring for their families. It can be done, but it takes grit, and plenty of it. Betsey’s sexual history also makes her somewhat unconventional. What inspired this portrayal? Was it important that she not be your typical romantic heroine?
The first time I wrote about Betsey’s London flat, I recall being surprised that she lived with a man. Other than that, I’m not sure what inspired this part of her character. But Betsey’s sexual values make her even more of an outsider in this upper-middle-class world she enters—I’d say emphasizing that contrast was more in my mind than creating an atypical heroine. For Betsey, career and the means for independence are more important than love or marriage. Do you think the two were mutually exclusive at the time?
Not necesarily, but it’s always a tough balance, isn’t it? Tougher then, no doubt. Could you tell us a little more about the setting? Was there a particular seaside resort after which you modeled Idensea and the Swan Park Hotel?
References in the novel put Idensea near Bournemouth, but it’s definitely fictional, created from research and my travels on Britain’s coasts. One of my favorite places is Abbotsbury, and the name for Sir Alton’s hotel came from the swannery there. You interview authors for a romance novel website; what attracts you to this genre? What do you look for in a good romance? What is your favorite love story?
Personally, I often feel most creative when I’m working “with one hand tied behind my back”—meaning I’m restricted in some way, without endless possibilities or resources, and still have to figure it out. So that aspect of romance or any genre fiction appeals to me. I love for authors to surprise me, to do something unexpected within the parameters of the genre.
I also want the “indelible moment” in a love story, the one that sticks after you finish the book, the one that reveals what’s at stake, all the hope and all the potential for heart-crushing failure (see chapter 24 of Laura Kinsale’s he Shadow and the Star
). I’m terrible at narrowing down favorites, but the first time I recall being intensely invested in the outcome of a love story was at age eleven or twelve, when I read L. M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon series. When was the last time you typed on a typewriter?
Recently! I have my grandmother’s manual Remington, and play on it once in a while. I also used it to type the letter Betsey composes in chapter 35, going as fast as possible to see what mistakes occurred (far more than Betsey would make on her worst day, which is kind of what’s happening in chapter 35). Do you enjoy reading historical fiction as well as writing it? If so, what are some of your favorite books or authors?
Taking a quick glance at the bookshelf in front of me right now: Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks, The March
by E. L. Doctorow, Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood, The Illuminator
by Brenda Rickman Vantrease, Agincourt
by Bernard Cornwell, Octavian Nothing
by M. T. Anderson . . . More shelves, more favorites, but I’ll stop there. What should readers know about you? If you were interviewing a favorite author, what would you want to know about them?
I’m always curious about writers’ routines or rituals. Me, I like to have something nearby to keep my hands busy when I stop to think or daydream or just feel stuck. I make a lot of sticky note collages and tiny sculptures from foil candy wrappers. What are you working on next?
A couple of historicals are in the works, one in a timeline similar to The Typewriter Girl
, another much removed.