Women’s Epistolary Novels of the ’30s’: “Business As Usual” and “I Lost My Girlish Laughter”

Last week I serendipitously came across two 1930’s women’s epistolary novels. The two books, Business As Usual (1933), by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford, and I Lost My Girlish Laughter (1938), by Jane Allen, are charming and riotously funny.

Business As Usual will delight every bookstore enthusiast. Told in the form of letters, telegrams, memos, and charming illustrations, it relates the struggles of Hilary, an out-of-work librarian who moves to London to find a job. Her parents in Edinburgh worry, and her stuffy fiancé, Basil, objects to the idea of women’s work, let alone in London. But she assures them that all is fine, even when it is not fine.

After a few weeks of job-hunting, she is no closer to finding work. She has answered ads (many of them scams) and visited numerous employment agencies, where no one is impressed by her education and training. Can she cook? Can she type?

Hilary writes,

I asked if there weren’t any other sort of places, and they looked me up and down and said darkly that it all depended. They had placed twenty people from Wales last week, but I was more difficult. (I hadn’t the courage to ask why.) At last somebody had an idea. They suggested that I might be a Good Saleswoman. And what about a Bookshop? A degree, they said, would matter less there. It might almost cease to be a disadvantage.

And so she becomes an office clerk for the book department of Everymans, a large department store. The job is far from glamorous–she writes labels all day, and sometimes puts cards in order. It is frustrating, because she would be more qualified to work in the bookstore itself, or the store’s lending library. I felt sympathetic, because at one of my first jobs, I was set to work photocopying all day. My education was a disadvantage until I found a professional job! And I’ll bet you have been there, done that, too.

Hilary is self-confident but miserable. The nine-to-six routine is grueling, and she barely has enough money to keep herself in stockings. Eventually her boss, Mr. Grant, whom she refers to as one of the Olympians, notices her talent and intelligence and promotes her. After that, life becomes much more bearable. She has more money, more energy, and no longer spends weekends reading in bed!

This charming novel is illustrated by adorable drawings of Hilary in her daily adventures. By the way, the two authors met while working at the Times Book Club in London, and collaborated on several novels. Jane Oliver was the pen name of Helen Christina Easson Rees, and Ann Stafford was the pen name of Anne Isabel Stafford Pedler.

Set in Hollywood, Jane Allen’s I Lost My Girlish Laughter is another hilarious epistolary novel. It has the appealing tone of the great humor books by Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, and Betty MacDonald. The narrator, Madge Lawrencee, an aspiring actress, becomes the secretary of a famous producer.

Like Hilary in Business As Usual, Madge has trouble finding a job. She stays in a women’s hotel where all the “girls” are looking in vain for acting jobs. They share Madge’s most stylish green dress, which they are constantly altering to fit different figures.

Madge has letters of introduction, but they do not help. A typical response is:

Mr. Freeman has asked me to acknowledge your letter and to advise you he regrets there is no opening at the present in which he could place you. I would suggest you apply to our Employment Department. I am sure they will show you every courtesy.

One desperate, dreary night Madge gets her break. Having nothing to do, she goes alone to a famous bar. And the magic happens; connections get her a job–and a bad connection too!

She writes in a letter to a friend:

The bar is crowded, so I modestly hie me to a little table facing the bar. I have taken the third sip of my Scotch highball and am feeling very sorry for myself when suddenly I spy a familiar face and hear a familiar voice. My first reaction is a wild surge of joy at recognizing anyone I know; then I think why couldn’t it have been someone I liked. For, it is no other than that limp bore, Bob Faulkner. Don’t tell me! I know what you’re thinking. But, in my condition even Bob Faulkner is welcome. Do you remember how we used to devise every known dodge at State to avoid him? Well, I think my sins are coming home to roost, for now I feel a large grin of welcome sprouting on my face and I wave frantically. He doesn’t seem to see me so I wave the louder. I am sure he looks directly at me but it is as though his eyes are opaque and they see nothing. I am thinking it is all very odd when I notice that a man near him is nudging him and pointing to me and whispering. Suddenly Bob comes to life. Next thing I know he is beside me and introducing me to Max Sellers, the director. Mr. Sellers is very cordial to me and Bob is very much Bob.

There’s nothing like coming across a friend you don’t like in a new city! Bob hates her, but Mr. Sellers does not. In fact, he knows a famous producer who needs a secretary. He says Mr. Brand will be impressed that Madge is a college girl, and immediately makes a long-distance call to him in Palm Springs. And so she gets the job! And then the three of them go to Hollywood parties. She is enchanted.

Madge is thankful to have the job. Her secretarial adventures become more comical and hectic as she obeys Mr. Brand’s ridiculous demands, stays at the office all night to take notes on meetings where he completely changes the setting, time, and plot of a script and sends the exhausted writers to rewrite, flies with Mr. Brand’s retinue to calm a hysterical “foreign” actress on location, and observes how fame changes the actors. Fortunately, Madge’s friend, Jim Palmer in PR, tells her what to expect. She sees Mr. Brand at his best and at his worst. You can’t count on him!

In real life, Jane Allen was the pseudonym of two women who collaborated on this book, Sylvia Schulman Lardner, who was David O. Selznick’s personal secretary, and Jane Shore, who came to Hollywood to write a film which was not produced. Jane Shore used the Jane Allen pen name for her later work.

A fun book, even if you are not a Hollywood aficionado.

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