November 14, 2010

Anthony Trollope and the telegraph girls

"The Young Women at the London Telegraph Office"
from Good Words, June 1877

Details of the girls' employment used as background info. for Trollope's short story "The Telegraph Girl." 

The impression that comes out is that these young women are lucky to enjoy a position in the Civil Service and all the benefits that accrue.  At this point in time, this is perhaps one of only a few rare occasions where a woman could work in a male/middle-class dominated domain.

Trollope states outright that he is not really interested in the technical side of the girls' work; he is looking for a human-interest story.  He is more concerned with the social aspects of their occupation - what brought them to work at the telegraph office, what is their behaviour like, do they flirt with the the few boys that work in the same room, and so on.  He poses many rhetorical questions of this nature but provides no answers.  I get the impression that what answers he does provide of a social nature, are based on supposition.  He presumably had a guided tour (ordinarily, members of the public are not allowed in, nor are the girls allowed visitors) and his guide would have provided the basics: wages, hours of work, pension scheme.  For the rest, modesty prevented him from questioning the girls about personal matters.

The office is a 'half-way house' and the girls re-transmit telegrams coming from other offices that are destined for elsewhere.  "They live secluded and apart, in a world of their own, harassed by no interruptions from without."  In other words, there is no contact with the public, which makes this job respectable enough for girls from good, respectable families.  Taking their lunch in the company canteen protects them further from public gaze in the high street tea room.

In addition to the entrance exams that test reading, writing and maths, the applicant has to provide three character references.

Lateness is not tolerated and records are kept of late arrival.  A girl who arrives late for work could mean the delayed dispatch of an important telegram.  Trollope's example shocked me: supposing a gentleman wanted his horse brought round so he could go fox hunting and this message didn't get through in time?  He would miss the hounds!!!  Couldn't Trollope have found a less vain example, something to do with, say, closing a business deal, or notice of a sickness/death?

Generally, I am highly suspicious of texts written by authors of fiction, even when they purport to be documentary.  Trollope may present 'facts' but he does so with an eye to a good read and we can never be sure what his true agenda is.

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