Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings
In 1917, Willa Cather was working on a new book, a story collection called “Office Wives.”
She had already made arrangements to publish the stories in a magazine as she wrote them and to issue the series as a book when all the stories had been finished—but the book never appeared. In fact, there ended up being only four stories: three were published in magazines and one manuscript has vanished. She put the series aside to finish work on her next novel, My Ántonia, and she never revisited the project.
The three stories were a new take on the “New Woman” type depicted in popular magazine fiction during the early twentieth century: financially independent employees in warehouses, shops, and offices. “Cather well understood the power structures in such work environments,” writes Janis Stout, author of Willa Cather: The Writer and Her World. “Her typists and secretaries are not so much career women as functionaries.” Unlike the heroines of the formulaic stories of the era, the women in Cather’s stories are the hapless victims or, at best, the uneasy victors of their situations.
As our Story of the Week selection, we present the first of those stories, “The Bookkeeper’s Wife.” The bookkeeper, Percy Bixby, embezzles money so he can afford to marry Stella Brown, a stenographer employed at another company, and to maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. The outcome, when he is finally caught, is unexpected.