'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'.