“Exact rules cannot be given for every emergency in life."
That’s the epigraph to Chapter 34 in Kentucky writer Alison Atlee’s debut novel, “The Typewriter Girl" (Gallery Books, $15) and a lesson the novel’s heroine must learn as she struggles against late 19th-century British social norms to blaze her own trail as an independent woman.
The source of the quote is not a famous author or celebrated philosopher, but advice from Mrs. Arthur J. Barnes, author of the 1890 book “How to Become Expert in Type-writing," which is quoted at the beginning of each of the book’s 40 chapters.
The quotations are sometimes full of surprising wisdom and sometimes reminders of the strict, antiquated skill of using a typewriter.
“If you form a careless habit in the beginning, you will probably always keep it," she wisely writes in one section.
“Pushing the keys blurs the printing," she scolds. “Strike them squarely with a light, springing blow of sufficient force to make a clear impression, and no more."
The novel’s protagonist, Betsey Dobson, is a “typewriter girl" at the beginning of the book, before she takes on another venture as a tour manager in a seaside tourist town. But Atlee says the typewriter is an important thread throughout the book because it represents the way most women began to break into the work force in the late 1800s.
“One historian called the typewriter the Trojan horse of women in offices," Atlee says. “If a typewriter came into the office, a woman came with it.
“As it became more important to doing business, there were more and more women," says Atlee, 43, who lives on a farm near Leitchfield, Ky.
Betsey breaks into the typing world by taking a course, but she must be twice as good as the other women because her name is already synonymous with scandal. She was kicked out of her typewriting course and given no reference after having an affair with one of her instructors.
Betsey’s sense of sexual autonomy is another way she is a social outsider, allowing Atlee to inject a complicated romantic plot line into the novel.
Atlee hopes the restrictive rules of 19th-century society and the determined, independent nature of her heroine make for captivating drama.
“When you’re writing a novel, you want conflict," Atlee says. “The harder things are for my character, the better it makes the story. So in a way, the limitations are helpful because the character has to find ways to get around them."
There have been plenty of novels about a plucky girl bucking tradition, but “The Typewriter Girl" is unique in that Betsey represents the dawn of the modern dilemma of the working woman. She climbs her way out of poverty and ill repute by her daring business sense and, along the way, grapples with romance.