This is my second go at collecting career novels. As a teenager I had virtually all the Bodley Head Career Novels but I got rid of them. It’s my biggest book collecting regret. Will I ever get my hands on Molly Qualifies as a Librarian ever again? Possibly not. It was one of my favourites and today’s choice was another. I used to daydream that my namesake could be me one day…
Although I enjoyed the book, it’s always seemed to me an odd concept. Being an author never felt like a career one could train for and that makes it quite different from most of the other novels. As well as hard work, excelling in the arts needs talent and, almost certainly, a lucky break. However, I’m putting all that aside and taking the book at face value.
Jane Fanshawe is at a loss. We meet her on her twenty first birthday and are given a potted history. She has been an orphan since the age of sixteen when her parents were killed whilst on holiday. Jane, who is at boarding school, falls under the guardianship of distant relatives and goes to live in their lifeless, loveless house. On leaving school she has no idea what she wants to do and eventually agrees to study medicine. (As we know from an earlier book, there’s nothing easier to get into!) But Jane knows she’ll never be any use in the medical world and so, now that she’s of age and has access to a little family money, she throws it up, moves into a flat with her friend Hester and gets a ridiculously underpaid job as maid-of-all-work at a publishing house.
And that’s when we discover that Jane thinks she’d like to write a novel. She is at least sensible enough to know that this isn’t a viable career at this stage of her life but she thinks that working in the book world might be a good starting point. In amongst the trivia of her working day at Hyde, Hessinger & Strong, Jane picks up bits and pieces about the technicalities of writing. Sadly, she also makes a terrible mistake over the editing of a short story and is sacked without notice.
However, as is the way in novels, on the same day she is contacted by Lucian Fenn, another publisher, who has read and enjoyed a short story Jane entered in a competition. He offers her a job in the editorial team and we all learn a bit more about writing from the publisher’s point of view. But the luckless Jane gets caught in the middle of romantic complications and Lucian, never a man to make his working life difficult, is delighted when the opportunity arrives to pass Jane on, professionally speaking, to author Stephen Traill.
Jane settles in well as his secretary, enjoying a good working relationship with him and becoming more like a member of the family as far as his wife is concerned. He teaches Jane (and us) more about the craft of writing and is encouraging when she tells him she’s writing a novel. To be honest, it all gets a bit tedious at this point and I may have skimmed through it… The book ends with a rejection letter for Jane’s novel which has the merit of being realistic. Stephen consoles her and encourages her to try again, this time writing about what she knows.