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Lawrence Rainey



Lawrence Rainey has written extensively on the classic works of Anglo-American modernism, including monographs on Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. In 2005 he published two books on Eliot, Revisiting "The Waste Land" and The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Both were jointly awarded the Robert Motherwell Book Prize for 2006 for an outstanding publication in the criticism of modernism in the arts. Modernism: An Anthology was also published in 2005.

More recently he has completed Futurism: An Anthology (2009), the most comprehensive collection of manifestos and creative writings by the Italian Futurists, running from 1909 to 1944, to be found in English.

He is currently at work on a cultural history of the typist, secretary, or stenographer as depicted in film and fiction from 1890 to 1940, a study that examines nearly three hundred films and novels.



Office Affairs: Secretaries in the Modern Imagination

Office Affairs is the story of the modern woman, a figure who was first established in popular consciousness as the secretary, typist, or stenographer. Previously women had been restricted to careers in teaching or nursing, positions that effectively segregated them from public spaces. Beginning in the 1890s, they swept into a burgeoning office culture, for the first time worked alongside male colleagues, and suddenly became a conspicuous feature in the public eye. Their appearance was electrifying, as one observer noted in 1894:

One of the most striking features of the industrial life of New York to-day is the conspicuous part played in it by the female sex. Not many years ago it was rather an uncommon thing to see girls or women employed in business offices . . . To-day women workers are everywhere. . . . With the invention of the typewriting machine a vast new field was opened to wage-earners of the gentler sex.

Their sudden ubiquity was linked to what business historians have called "a veritable revolution in communications technology". Between roughly 1890 and 1910, a host of new devices--typewriters, telephones, Dictaphones, adding machines, duplicators, loose-leaf ledgers, card indexes, vertical filing systems--coalesced to make an interlocking grid of communications and storage-and-retrieval technologies, a gigantic machine for producing, collating, and marshalling information. That machine, in turn, was increasingly nestled within another, still larger machine, the commercial high-rise building or "skyscraper". Everywhere in these new office buildings one saw that novel figure: the female clerical worker, more commonly described as secretary, typist, or stenographer, a figure so indelibly associated with the typewriter that contemporaries between 1890 and 1920 routinely referred to both with the same term, "typewriter".

As if to re-introduce a distinction between the machine and its operator, novelists and journalists of the day often adopted the sobriquet, "pretty typewriter". Estelle, the Prettiest Typewriter in New York and Edna, the Pretty Typewriter are two representative novels. The moniker even featured in newspaper headlines:

Pretty Typewriters on the Limited (1890)
Eloped with His Pretty Typewriter (1891)
Did Not Kill Herself: Investigating the Death of the Pretty Typewriter (1894)
Suicide of a Pretty Typewriter (1894)
Rescue Pretty Typewriter (1899)

The "pretty typewriter" was only one of many terms ultimately assigned to this fascinating figure--secretary, typist, office girl, business girl, bachelor girl--but all pointed to the same phenomenon, the modern woman and the cultural mythology that sprang up around her. In subsequent years she became the protagonist in hundreds of novels and films, heroine of comic strips, cartoons, and postcards, the subject matter of worried office manuals and anxious conduct books, the enigmatic muse of poetry and popular song. The result was a mythology as sprawling and complex as the metropolis that was its setting. Already by 1898, a whole new popular genre had sprung up, secretarial fiction, one that was a female counterpart to those other two popular, male genres that arose at the same time: detective fiction, first codified in the stories that Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Strand between 1892 and 1894, and the Western, famously consolidated by Owen Wister in The Virginian in 1902. Just as the Western relentlessly, even obsessively pursued a single subject, the making of a man, so secretarial fiction (and later cinema) probed the making of a woman, and specifically a modern woman. Office Affairs is the first book ever to trace this vast mythology. It is more than just a chronicle of an occupational category that has largely disappeared. It recovers a vanished continent of modern fiction and modern consciousness. It recovers the history of ourselves.

Organized as a love story, Office Affairs has three parts: (1) "First Impressions", (2), "Falling", and (3) "It’s Over". Part One, which covers the period 1890-1915, has eleven chapters, and their titles suffice to give a sense of their scope, but here are paired with very brief descriptions:

  1. Inventing the Pretty Typewriter (the invention of the machine)
  2. Pretty Typewriters, Melodramatic Metropolis (early novels, plays, about the "p.t.")
  3. Odd Women--in Britain (the earliest fiction in Britain)
  4. A Star is Born (establishment of a genre)
  5. Foiled by a Girl (secretaries becoming detectives)
  6. Sneak Preview (in films prior to 1905)
  7. Running the Show (secretaries who take over)
  8. Getting the Man (earliest romantic comedies)
  9. Escaping the Boss (sexual harassment)
  10. In Paris and Berlin (the view from the Continent)
  11. The Woman Hater (cinema 1905-1915)

Lavishly illustrated with hundreds of pictures from books, films, postcards, posters, fashion magazines, and popular ephemera, it gives us office life--and the modern woman who made it--as we’ve never seen them before.

Available PhD research projects

Lawrence Rainey has recently supervised theses on a range of issues in modern poetry, covering authors such as T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery. Others have taken up questions connected with modern fiction: James Joyce and medical culture, the crowd in modernist writing, the question of shame and modernism. He would welcome applications from candidates on any topic related to his research interests.

External activities

Editorial duties

Lawrence Rainey is the founding editor of Modernism/Modernity, the foremost journal in its field and most recently the winner of a Phoenix Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals.

He also edits a series of William McBride Studies in Modernism for Yale University Press.

Contact details

Professor Lawrence Rainey
Department of English and Related Literature
University of York
Y010 5DD

Tel: 44 1904 324716