Thursday, 26 February 2009

Pimps, Prostitutes and Lady Typists: A New Source for The Waste Land?

'The Fire Sermon', the third part of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), famously describes an assignation between a 'typist' and a 'young man carbuncular' who comes to her home as the 'expected guest':

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.

After her 'lover' has departed, the typist expresses her relief: '"Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over."'

Lawrence Rainey, in his invaluable annotated edition, points out how rarely typists featured in 'serious' poems prior to The Waste Land, although he goes on to identify seven realist novels between 1910 and 1922 which explored this new subject. In four of them, he notes, 'the heroine engages in what would now be termed consensual premarital sex'.

Even so, the fact that sex in 'The Fire Sermon' is premarital and consensual remains subsidiary to a more important consideration which complements the poem's larger patterning of motifs: sex (at least for the typist) seems utterly devoid of joy. What is her motivation, what the quid pro quo for making herself available to 'Exploring hands'? Regarding that mystery, Rainey's typist-novels (which he offers as parallels, not sources) are silent.

The poem's description of the 'departed lover' is, of course, ironic: the transaction between typist and young man carbuncular has nothing to do with love. The manuscripts of The Waste Land reveal that originally the poem had opened with a brothel scene in which Myrtle, the procuress, tells the male narrator that he is too drunk to have one of her girls. Prostitution, then, lurks in the peripheries, alongside various kinds of sexual violence, barrenness and dysfunction. The poem does not state that the typist receives money for her services, but her absence of sexual pleasure causes the reader to wonder in what ways she is compensated. We are not told that she is a prostitute; nor are we told that she is not.

A previously unnoticed source for this most musical and allusive (and musically allusive) of poems brings typist and prostitute into comic relation: the Great War song, 'I Don't Want To Be a Soldier'.

I Don't Want To Be a Soldier

I don't want to be a soldier,
I don't want to go to war,
I'd rather stay at home,
Around the streets to roam,
And live on the earnings of a lady typist.
I don't want a bayonet in my belly,
I don't want my bollocks shot away,
I'd rather stay in England,
In merry, merry England,
And fornicate my bleeding life away.

The phrase which stands out is 'lady typist'. Rhythms, rhyme patterns, and the logic of the sense require something else: something which rhymes with 'war'... What could be purer than a 'typist'? A 'lady typist'. And yet the phrase is a comic substitution for 'whore'. (Another version of the song refers, just as knowingly, to living off the earnings of a 'high-class lady'.) Even living off immoral earnings is better than going to war. See Gurney's 1917 poem 'Servitude': 'To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor / Of filthiest hovels, were noble to compare / With this brass-cleaning life [soldiering]'.

The lady typist, like her successor in The Waste Land, both is and is not a prostitute. She is the substitute, and simultaneously the equivalent. Eliot chose his protagonist's career wisely: we know her as (wink, wink!) a 'typist'.


  1. Isn't the comic effect of the song that the 'lady typist' is the opposite of the 'whore' that the rhyme leads us to expect?
    On the other hand, the poem and song maybe reveal a male insecurity about the women who were increasingly taking over clerical work (a process accelerated by the war). “Lady” is an important word. Office workers could retain a social status denied to female manual workers, while enjoying more independence than women in more traditional ladylike jobs such as governess.
    I suspect that the sexual availability of lady typists may have been more a matter of male fantasy than of social fact.

  2. I agree, George, but I argue that the relationship between 'typist' and 'whore' is not only oppositional. 'Lady typist' is used in the song both as the comic opposite of 'whore' AND as a euphemism for 'whore'. When you hear 'lady typist', you expect to hear 'whore', so that subsequently, one makes you think of the other. She's a (snigger!)'lady typist'... and The Waste Land knows what that amounts to.

  3. “Lady typist” was the version in “Oh What a Lovely War”, but other versions of the song have “high-born lady”. Is that a euphemism for prostitute as well?
    I wonder what Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton’s source was for “lady typist.” Is that the version in Brophy and Partridge’s “Songs and Slang”?
    Brophy is someone I’d like to research. His novel “Bitter End” (1928) was a precursor of the disillusioned war books that mostly came out after 1929. I wonder how far his attitude to the war guided his choice of songs when he made his selection. Were there really so few songs expressing dislike of the Germans? Were there none expressing scorn for other regiments? A.G.Macdonnell writes of “General von Kluck, that gift to the amateur rhymer.” I don’t have a copy to hand, but did von Kluck get even a mention in Brophy and Partridge?

  4. It's a parody of 'On Sunday I walk out with a soldier'. Here's Palmer's version (in What a Lovely War: British Soldiers' Songs).

    I don't want to join the army,
    I don't want to go to war.
    I'd rather hang around Piccadilly underground,
    Living off the earnings of a lady typist.
    I don't want a bayonet in my belly,
    I don't want my bollocks shot away.
    I'd rather stay in England, in merry merry England,
    And fornicate this bleeding life away.

    Palmer says that that 'On Sunday..' was 'A song from The Passing Show of 1914, a revue at the London Hippodrome, seized on and parodied by soldiers of the First World War.'

    Another version, claimed by some to date back to the Peninsular war, goes as follows:

    I don't want the Sergeant's shilling,
    I don't want to be shot down;
    I'm really much more willing
    To make myself a killing,
    Living off the pickings of the Ladies of the Town;
    Don't want a bullet up my bumhole,
    Don't want my cobblers minced with ball;
    For if I have to lose 'em
    Then let it be with Susan
    Or Meg or Peg or any whore at all.

    Brian Murdoch, in Fighting Songs and Warring Words, reports that (in the version I quoted in my original post) 'The last words are either "lady typist" or (making the avoidance of the real rhyme word even more narrow) "high-born lady".' As I mentioned in my post, I've heard 'high-class lady' before. Walter gives the uneuphemised 'well-born whore' in his Penguin anthology.

    I'm not going to convince you about Eliot's typist! But I do think that 'typist' is specific enough to be a euphemism for 'whore', in a way that 'high-born lady' isn't. You expect to hear 'high-class whore' and instead hear 'lady typist'. I think that Eliot is exploiting that fact.

    I'd be intrigued to know of any anti-German songs. My suspicion is that there really aren't any (or many). I think of Gurney to Marion Scott: 'In the mind of all the English soldiers I have met, there is absolutely no hate for the Germans, but a kind of brotherly though slightly contemptuous kindness – as to men who are going through a bad time as well as themselves’.

    There's a thesis to be written on trench-song variants. I'm very interested in the countless versions of 'Mademoiselle from Armentieres'/'Three German Officers'. I knew the song as 'Inky Pinky Parleyvoo', in a not too bawdy version, when I was still at primary school.

    Brophy and Partridge report that von Kluck was known as 'Old One O'Clock' -- which seems like an opportunity missed...

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. I've looked in Brophy and Partridge, and their version is:
    And live on the earnings of a well-paid whore.

    So no euphemism there. But they make the last line:
    And _____________ my bloody life away.

    So they were willing to write "whore", but not "fornicate".

  6. I think that it's because they're blanking a word which isn't 'fornicate' but which does begin with f. Walter's Penguin Book has that version.

  7. Do you think it's possible that Eliot gained this information (lady typist/ whore) from Vivienne's brother Maurice, as he did the reference to 'rats' alley'? and the song about Mrs Porter and the soda water?

  8. The so-called "Peninsular" version of the song sounds to my ear very much like a modern pastiche.

  9. I don't think the missing word in the somg can be "fuck"; surely the rhythm requires three syllables; "well-paid whore" also doesn't fit- the rhythm predicts "whore" alone.

    The relations between the typist and the "young man carbuncular" aren't romantic, but there's no suggestion that they are mercenary either. Eliot seems to be suggesting that their behaviour is mechanical and meaningless, in which case the fact that the typist and her skills were a kind of extension of the machine was probably reason enough to choose her as an example. The fact that usually female typists had begun to replace usually male clerks and that it was a comparatively well-paid job for a woman and the skills were easily tranferrable meant that they could be regarded as an example of modern independent women and is probably why novelists associated them with sexual liberty. WWI had increased the demand for typists as clerks were called up so that would also be a reason to associate typists with contemporaneity and post-war changes in society and the lives of women.

  10. In fact, womantypists were seen as harbingers of modernism and a changein sexual attitudes long before WWI. See Clarissa J.Suranyi's introduction to Grant Allen's The Type-writer Girl at,%22%22grant+allen%22&source=bl&ots=EqsXMAWHAv&sig=EhfR0YNkgxhvH5voSCdz-Sm_xOs&hl=en&ei=SwUJTPrBEoju0wSqp8Vb&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

  11. Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard, seems to have been a fan of typists too. On a visit to London in the 1920s he was "full of lofty enthusiasm for Gothic churches and for cheeses, for Catholicism and for typists".

  12. i am only 16 and my english teacher almost read this then she realized what some of the words were so indtead she freaked an said that if it was ok with our parents to go home and read this and i did and i think it is what most of our soldiers think while they are overseas.