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The Typewriter's Tale: Book summary and reviews of The Typewriter's Tale by Michiel Heyns

The Typewriter's Tale

by Michiel Heyns

The Typewriter's Tale by Michiel Heyns X
The Typewriter's Tale by Michiel Heyns
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2017
    288 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

The Typewriter's Tale by Michiel Heyns is a thought-provoking novel on love, art and life fully lived.

"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to."

This is the maxim of celebrated author Henry James and one which his typist Frieda Wroth tries to live up to. Admiring of the great author, she nevertheless feels marginalized and undervalued in her role. But when the dashing Morton Fullerton comes to visit, Frieda finds herself at the center of an intrigue every bit as engrossing as the novels she types, bringing her into conflict with the flamboyant Edith Wharton, and compromising her loyalty to James.

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Media Reviews

"Starred Review. Faithfully re-created real-life individuals mix well with authentically drawn fictitious ones." - Booklist

"Though [Frieda] isn't the strongest protagonist and the fiction and nonfiction elements don't fully mesh, fans of James will find a compelling take on his private life." - Publishers Weekly

"Anyone who loves Henry James will adore this...Heyns has given us something playful as well as thought-provoking." - The Independent (UK)

"Heyns has a knack for building clear, expressive prose like a watchmaker fitting together the workings of a timepiece." - Sunday Times, South Africa

"Admirable for its Jamesian inwardness and delicacy. It's a brilliant idea to explore the typewriter's view of the great writer she serves and to imagine so plausibly how she is drawn into his world." - Lyndall Gordon, author of Henry James: His Women and His Art

"Sly, sympathetic, high-minded, involving, moving, funny. I loved it." - Ronald Frame, author of The Lantern Bearers and Havisham

"This exquisite account of the master and his amanuensis is a tour de force; her story, for all the confines of a typist's life in Rye, a triumph. Heyns is an important figure in South African letters; here he is profound and humorous. The Typewriter's Tale is a breathtaking work and, above all, a pleasure to read." - Zoe Wicomb, author of Playing in the Light and October

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Reader Reviews

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Mary D. (Claremont, CA)

The Typewriter's Tale
I must admit that I misunderstood the title of this book, thinking of the actual machine, the typewriter. I quickly realized that it refers to the young lady taking dictation from Henry James as he was writing his books. I had no idea that people employed this way were called "typewriters." Written in a style very close to that of Henry James himself, there were several times I had to pull up the dictionary and look up words, something that doesn't happen very often. It isn't a very lengthy book, under 300 pages, and it isn't what one would call an easy read, but the story was very interesting, looking at the world of Henry James and his relationships with Edith Wharton and his family, through the eyes of his 'secretary'. Telepathic communication is also a major part of the story, between the 'secretary' and one of Henry James' friends, with whom she is smitten, using the typewriter (machine) as the instrument of communication; interest in paranormal activities was high during this time period. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys James' writing, is interested in brief vignettes of the almost overwhelming life style of Edith Wharton and/or wants to add a few new words to their vocabulary.

Diana P. (Schulenburg, TX)

The Typewriter's Tale
A very well written story about a young lady who becomes a typist for Henry James. Lots of history of the era, a bit of mystery and a very good read.

Dottie B. (Louisville, KY)

Review of The Typewriter's Tale
The Typewriter's Tale is an enjoyable novel especially for readers who know something of the famous James siblings—Henry, William, and Alice. In the process of rewriting his novels for a new edition, Henry James is one of the novel's central characters. The author of The Typewriter's Tale Michiel Heyns gives the word "typewriter" two meanings—the machine itself as well as the person who takes dictation and types for a living. That character is Frieda Wroth from whose point of view the novel is told. As Mr. James's "typewriter," she is privy to the everyday occurrences in the household, including the entertaining of Henry's guests. Thus the reader gets acquainted not only with the habits of Henry James but also those of his frequent guests, Edith Wharton, Morton Fullerton, and finally Hugh Walpole. We learn about Henry's problems with the publishing industry, about the eating habits of several members of the James family, and about how Frieda's spiritualism operates via the machine as she imagines conversations with Morton Fullerton. The novel is not fast paced yet is a compelling read.

Janis H. (Willow Street, PA)

A new meaning to watching paint dry
Michiel Heyns reincarnates Henry James's 1907 Garden Room, where he dictates his novels to Frieda Wroth, The Typewriter, at Lamb House in Rye, England. Written in Jameson style complete with compound complex sentences and vocabulary, which SAT Prep students should appreciate, and I might add, punctuated correctly, as I know for certain because I checked the online website OWL from Purdue University, Heyns employs subtle humor to develop the multi-layered Frieda, the manipulative Morton Fullerton, and the flamboyant Edith Wharton. Suffragettes emerge in the background urging women to fight for equality, but the choices are few; hence encouraged by Aunt Frederica, Frieda, "whose future, though very indefinite, had never included a vision of 'taking dictation' that would deprive her of any independent agency," and the "chronic regard of Mr Dodds, an apothecary, whose placid courtship as well as his persistent odor of the tincture of iodine she had been fleeing, graduates from the Young Ladies Academy of Typewriting.

"The worst part of taking dictation is the waiting." (First line in book) "at the point from which the school-child, comma, with eyes raised to the wall, comma, gazes at the part-colored map of the world. Full stop." . . . "she clattered obediently after him, then halted, while he continued his treading of the carpet." Then, the dashing Morton Fullerton, a long time friend of James, bursts unannounced through the doors of the Garden Room, and Frieda is smitten.

At this point I realized two important facts: I was smitten with the Mr. Heyns's writing; and I wanted to peek into the mind of Henry James whose works I have not given much thought in the past forty years.

I conclude that I could have researched more about Edith Wharton, but why dispel the fond memories I have of her characters, that I am not sure of the accuracy of Mr. Heyns's portrayal of her and Morton Fullerton, although I do recall mention of their affair from past readings. Neither I am not sure if Mr. James would have been so easily duped by their actions and their use of him.
What is most important about The Typewriter's Tale is Frieda's coming of age. The effects of her betrayal to Mr. James weighed heavily on me throughout the book. Her telepathic communication with Mr. Fullerton via the machine, the typewriter, not the person Miss Wroth, and her interpretation of his physical silence after their afternoon fling in the local hotel was both sad and humorous. The mutual understanding of Frieda and James at the novel's conclusion reaffirmed Henry James brilliance and Frieda's awareness of herself.
It takes a committed reader to accept The Typewriter's Tale pace, its structure, and vocabulary usage. I admit that I did have to reread some paragraphs and check the meanings and part of speech of some of the vocabulary; but, the quasi love triangle of Wroth, Fullerton, and Wharton, the mutterings of the James's servants, and the recognition of some of the phrases from his novels create an interesting trip back to the 19th century.

I did enjoy the book.

Carol T. (Ankeny, IA)

Very.... Jamesian..
If you are fond of Henry James, you'll find The Typewriter's Tale to be just the ticket; full of long, delicious, delectable sentences, themselves filled with admirable adjectives, fulsome feelings, and sensitive sensibilities. A good weekend's read.

Portia A. (Monroe Township, NJ)

Fact and Fiction Mixed
The book is centered around the young woman who was employed by Henry James as his typewriter, (the transcriber, not the machine). In the story she is Frieda Wroth, in reality she was Theodora Bosanquet. Most of the characters who appear were real people and my experience was much enhanced by the use of Google to understand who they were.

The author has mixed fact with fiction to write a very good book.

...28 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Michiel Heyns

Michiel Heyns is Professor Emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Author of numerous academic works and radio adaptations of Henry James's and Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, Heyns wrote the chapter on Henry James for the Cambridge Companion to English Novelists. He is winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for journalism 2007, and the Sol Plaatje Award for translation, 2008 and was winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award 2012 for his novel Lost Ground.

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