A novel from the point of view of Henry James’ fictional amanuensis.
It’s 1907, and Frieda Wroth, a young woman from a small English town, has recently completed a course in typewriting, a skill that promises to liberate women by preparing them for employment. Frieda’s prospects seem even brighter when she’s hired by the celebrated author Henry James to take dictation. But certain ironies soon become evident, the most vivid of which is that the role of the typist, despite those early hints at liberation, is an essentially passive one: as James dictates, Frieda types. During her free time, Frieda makes her own little forays into novel writing, forays that bear the unmistakable stamp of James’ influence. But then a guest comes to visit her employer, and Frieda’s world shifts its scope. Morton Fullerton is a charming, mysterious, and handsome American living in Paris. He catches Frieda’s eye, or she catches his, or both; in any case, it isn’t long before Fullerton has asked Frieda to retrieve for him certain compromising letters he’s sent, over the years, to Henry James. In other words, he’d like her to steal. If Heyns, an accomplished South African scholar, translator, and writer, relies a bit too often on too-convenient coincidence, that’s a forgivable sin. So, too, is the matter of his prose style, which, though elegant for the most part, occasionally, like Frieda’s, collapses beneath the weight of James’ influence. But his novel plays on a fascinating interchange among the idea of taking dictation, the role of a medium, the concepts of telepathy and thought transference (much in vogue at the time), and the role of the writer who, not unlike a medium, merely gives voice to those who speak through him. Then there are the cameos by real-life, but larger-than-life, personages like Edith Wharton, which are amusing but also convincing: Wharton, like James in this novel, comes to life as a full-fledged character.
Literary history blends masterfully with a plot of intrigue in this slim and delightful novel.