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Passing of the secretary-wives’ era

November 15, 2012

BEFORE her death last week at the age of 86, Valerie Eliot had spent the previous half-century forbidding impertinent journalists and scholars from accessing her late husband T.S. Eliot’s private papers.

Even his published work was out of bounds, leaving biographers like Peter Ackroyd obliged to get creative with paraphrase rather than being able to quote directly. It was, said Mrs Eliot firmly, what Tom would have wanted.

Valerie was able to say so not because she had been his wife — their late marriage lasted only eight years before Eliot’s death in 1965 — but because she had been his secretary.

From 1949 to 1956, Valerie Fletcher had worked as Eliot’s typist, filing clerk and tea-maker at Faber & Faber. She was not so much the poet’s right hand as his other self, the executive ballast to his creative brain. So when Eliot died, Valerie was able to carry on as before, acting as secretary to a celestial poet, rather than an earthbound one.

The devoted female secretary to an older literary man might seem like an archetype, but in fact her reign (or period of sterling service) lasted less than 100 years. It was not until the very end of the 19th century that new technologies — the typewriter, adding machine and telephone — turned secretarial work from the preserve of young cultured males to that of less well-educated girls.

Henry James, for instance, had started out dictating his novels to a male amanuensis (his preferred word) but switched mid-career to young women.

The first of these, showed a disappointing lack of artistic sympathy — she used to crochet during the long pauses in dictation.

Her replacement, Theodora Bosanquet, however, proved to be a founding model of what a literary secretary should be. It wasn’t so much Bosanquet’s quick-fingered mastery of the Remington that enthralled James so much as the fact that, as we would say today, she ‘got’ him.

“Among the faults of my previous amanuenses ... was their apparent lack of comprehension of what I was driving at,” explained James.

In an uncanny prefiguring of the Eliot match, Sonia Brownwell, a secretary on the literary magazine Horizon, married George Orwell three months before his death in 1950.

The next 30 years were spent as a ferocious gatekeeper, allowing only a very few favoured scholars access to the archives, and then berating them when they did not write exactly what she wanted.

It was to eliminate just this kind of dissenting view that Sonia Orwell and Valerie Eliot spent their long widowhoods editing their husbands’ work, putting out authorised versions of the men they had both worked for and married.

Technology may have made the secretary but it also destroyed her. With the coming of word processors in the 1990s, there was no need to employ young women to transfer older men’s words on to paper.

And anyway, who would do such work? Girls had good degrees now, bold ideas about their own economic and intellectual status, and were unlikely to want to sublimate their own identity to someone else’s, no matter how revolutionary his prose style.

This is a good thing, of course, although there is one downside. With the passing of the last of the great literary secretary-wives, who will there be to tend the great archives of the future?

What hope is there that they won’t be lost, torn to pieces or simply frittered away before biographers, historians and critics are finally allowed to get to work? — The Guardian, London