Several years ago​ , I prepared an edition of Mrs Dalloway for Broadview Press. In the first instance, I was responsible for choosing an edition of the novel and digitising it. The Hogarth Press and Harcourt Brace editions appeared at the same time, both produced under Woolf’s direction, although from different proofs. There are some minor, though not insignificant, differences between the two. As E.F. Shields puts it in her exhaustive essay on ‘The American Edition of Mrs Dalloway’ (1974), ‘both … can legitimately claim to be authoritative first editions.’ For sentimental reasons I chose the Hogarth Press edition. The usual practice is to use OCR (optical character recognition) software: scanning the book page by page and then running the software to convert it into a Word document. This has the advantage of speed, but it has an accuracy rating of between 81 and 99 per cent, depending on the source material. In other words, what you gain in speed you lose in painstaking proofreading and correction. I chose to enter the text the old-fashioned way, by typing it in myself.

I am a fast and pretty accurate typist, the only characteristic I share with Northrop Frye who, in 1929, travelled to Toronto from his home in New Brunswick to compete in a national speed-typing contest. He came second. I don’t know how Frye came to be such an accomplished typist – 72 words a minute – but my own typing history is straightforward. When I was at high school in Montreal in the late 1960s, there were few optional courses available if, like me, you had no aptitude for maths or science. In grade ten my choices were Latin or typing. My parents told me to choose typing so that I would always have a way of supporting myself if my husband died. That was their reason and I suppose, given their own backgrounds, it wasn’t unreasonable. Typing class meant a room of women working heavy manual typewriters with pieces of paper taped to the machines so that you couldn’t see the keyboard. ‘ASDF JKL;’ is still burned into my brain and my fingers.

I sometimes wonder whether Latin would have been more useful to me than typing, but I do quite like the latter. There is something satisfying about the exercise of that kind of muscle memory. And typing did support me through my undergraduate degree. When classes were over in the spring, I would go to Kelly Girl Services and the agency would assign me temp jobs. One of my earliest, for the Sun Life Assurance Company, lasted a whole summer. I was sent to their massive, birthday cake shaped building on Dominion Square (as it was then called) in downtown Montreal. The typists, and there were many of us, sat in rows in a huge, brightly lit room. We were each assigned a desk and typewriter, but that was as personal as it got. I don’t recall a single conversation with my neighbouring typists, though I must have spoken to them. I do recall correcting the grammar and spelling of the letters I typed, though my changes were never acknowledged by the insurance agents. Montreal wasn’t T.S. Eliot’s Unreal City, and the insurance agents were not quite carbuncular clerks, but it was a soulless job. The only perk was the free hot lunch that Sun Life provided to all its employees.

A couple of years later my father got me a job as a summer typist at his insurance brokerage in Place du Canada, not far from the Sun Life Building. There, under the supervision of Monsieur Lefebvre, I typed multicopy forms in the personal insurance division. It was tedious work, but occasionally something would catch my attention – the contents of a rich person’s home, for instance. I would type up all their paintings and jewellery and furs. The filing clerks, all women, were kind to me, in part because they liked my father, who by then was a vice president. (They liked him because when he arrived in the morning he made his own instant coffee in the staff kitchen, not relying on his secretary to do it.) The job extended into the academic year, and depending on my university schedule, I worked either three half-days or two full days a week. One effect of this was to limit my sartorial choices. Clothes had to be suitable for the office and for college, so I wasn’t able to indulge my passion for peasant skirts and blouses, army surplus jackets, headscarves and tinkling jewellery. The kinds of thing I thought a poet should wear.

Office work taught me that I didn’t want a nine-to-five job. When, at the end of my degree, my father asked me to consider becoming an insurance agent – in the personal insurance division – I was both taken aback and adamant. Absolutely not. I may have also been a little touched by the suggestion. I hope I was. He was asking me to follow in his footsteps, after all. But personal insurance was the women’s side of the game. My father, like the other men in the executive suite, negotiated insurance for huge corporations. Still, he saw something in me and thought I could be more than a secretary.

What does any of this have to do with Virginia Woolf? Only typing. I typed Mrs Dalloway from beginning to end. There is something surprisingly intimate about entering text in this way. I knew that by typing up the novel I would refamiliarise myself with it. I didn’t anticipate that I would learn something about the minutiae of Woolf’s style, and in particular her often eccentric use of commas, semicolons and other punctuation marks. Here is one example, chosen at random. Rezia is in Regent’s Park with Septimus. She remembers her life in Italy and speaks aloud to herself. ‘Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers; bleak hillsides soften and fall in.’ Why insert a semicolon after ‘houses and towers’ but not after ‘surrender to it’? Not infrequently Woolf uses a semicolon where you might anticipate a comma and she often inserts a comma unexpectedly. The element of anticipation is important here, because typing, which relies on muscle memory, is in many ways about anticipation, it is the expression of anticipation. Even as I type the word ‘anticipation’, my fingers prepare themselves for the falling into place of that concluding ‘tion’ which, after years of entering such words, falls trippingly from the fingers. As my partner pointed out to me, ‘language is a kind of music and typing is a way of playing it.’ Entering Mrs Dalloway manually, by typing it, produces a physical response to Woolf’s style, as the fingers struggle not to enter a comma where a comma would ordinarily appear. For a while I thought it might be interesting to work up an essay on Woolf’s often eccentric punctuation, but then I thought better of it. It was not an article I would particularly want to read.

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Vol. 44 No. 6 · 24 March 2022

Like Jo-Ann Wallace, I have never lost the ability to speed-type, thanks to the rigorous typing class I took in high school with Sister Joseph Paul, famous for her grouchy perfectionism (LRB, 24 February). I hoped to become a writer, so I revelled in it, but many women of my acquaintance refused to learn, fearing that good typing would condemn them to lowly office work for the rest of their lives. Little did any of us know, back in the 1960s, how valuable that humble skill would be in a world dominated by – of all things – the keyboard.

Kitty Burns Florey
Amherst, Massachusetts

Vol. 44 No. 8 · 21 April 2022

Jo-Ann Wallace’s piece on typing, in particular her emphasis on the importance of anticipation, put me in mind of the work psychologists and physiologists were doing in the 1950s to develop a theory that behaviour is sequentially organised (LRB, 24 February). Karl Lashley, having observed that many typing errors, particularly at the end of words, were essentially anticipatory of the next word, argued that the sequencing of behaviour was organised through cognitive plans, not (as the then dominant behaviourist theories proposed) as a chain of letter by letter stimulus-response mechanisms. This is nicely illustrated by Wallace’s sense that even as she is typing the word ‘anticipation’, she is already prepared for ‘the falling into place of that concluding “tion” which … falls trippingly from the fingers’. Lashley’s theory was one of the first nails in the coffin of behaviourism and presaged the ‘cognitive revolution’ in psychology.

Roger Booker
London SW4

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