Though nothing on the cover of The Typewriter’s Tale declares it (except perhaps Zoe Wicomb’s endorsement), Michiel Heyns is a South African author with a number of novels to his credit, though only his first, The Children’s Day, has previously appeared in the UK. In fact, Heyns seems to have been published outside of South Africa largely as a translator – of Marlene van Nierkerk’s Agaat and Eben Venter’s Wolf, Wolf among others. To be fair, nothing within the covers of The Typewriter’s Tale suggests a South African origin either: set squarely in England between 1907 and 1909, it tells the story of Henry James’ (fictional) typist Frieda Wroth.
Frieda is the typewriter of the title (the word typist having presumably not yet come into use), hired by James as he prepares the revised New York edition of his works. Her career is an attempt at independence, and in particular an escape from “the chronic regard of Mr Dodds, whose placid but persistent courtship she had been fleeing in betaking herself to this small seaside town so far from Bayswater.” It is in James’ employment she meets Morton Fullerton, an old friend of James who pays a brief visit on his return journey from America to Paris. She agrees to meet Fullerton at the Burlington Hotel – which in the 1900s is apparently on a par with sexting pictures of your genitals – and in return for seducing her, he asks a favour: that she recover letters he has sent to James and either return or destroy them:
“You see, I have been accustomed, in the eighteen years I have known Mr James, to confide in him many of not all of the indiscretions that a young man on his own in a foreign country is tempted into.”
Heyns portrays James sympathetically, but also humorously. Much is made of his Fletcherising (chewing food excessively) which all but prevents conversation at the dinner table, and his generally fragile health. Particularly amusing are the exchanges which take place (inside Frieda’s head) during the pauses in his dictation:
“As if revitalised by the interruption…he now dictated more briskly: ‘And as she took it all in, comma, as it spread to a flood, comma, with great lumps and masses of truth it was floating, comma, she knew…she knew…inevitable…inevitable…’
‘…inevitable submission, comma, not to say…not to say…’
Although it is a long time since I read any of James novels (a love of James’ work is certainly not necessary to enjoy this novel), I couldn’t help but feel that Heyns was using Frieda as a counterpoint to James’ female characters. Superficially her story seems dangerously close to that of a woman used by a man (Fullerton) both to satisfy his sexual desires and to gain access to something he wishes to retrieve. Yet Frieda never feels used: from the moment she decides to train as a typist she is seen to be making choices. Heyns portrayal of Frieda and Fullerton’s second sexual encounter is particularly interesting in this regard. Not only does she insist that he undresses completely, but:
“…she felt no compunction about directing his actions, controlling his movements by her own, increasing the intensity of the experience by pressing him into her, at first adjusting her movements to his thrusting and then gradually luring him into a slower, more rhythmical movement.”
Fulllerton’s reaction is revealing: “May I ask who taught you?”
Frieda’s occupation as a typewriter (the use of a word synonymous with the object seems more deliberate now) can be seen to represent the way women are made complicit with male narrative, and struggle to write their own stories. Frieda also uses her typewriter to ‘channel’ (appropriately over the Channel) Fullerton’s thoughts, opening up a dialogue with him as if she were a medium contacting the dead (spiritualism was, of course, popular around this time). Ultimately Frieda must break free from these male voices and find her own.
If this makes the novel feel very worthy, nothing could be further from the truth: in tone it is light-hearted and entertaining. Heyns not only has fun with James and his family, but with a series of guest stars like Hugh Walpole, and Edith Wharton, who sweeps through the novel like a force of nature at regular points. I can only imagine that Heyns’ novel has taken ten years to reach the UK as it had the great misfortune to be published around the same time as Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say we can’t have too many novels about Henry James, I am certainly glad we now have this one too.