Annabel Williams

Smooth Operators: Hoaxes, Switchboards, and Midcentury Fiction

[Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]

In the telephony of midcentury literature, the switchboard operator tends only to materialise when there’s a problem: crossed wires, unanswered calls, a broken line, or a troublesome hoax. Yet the conversion from manual to automatic telephone exchanges spanned many decades in Britain, meaning that until the mid 1970s (and beyond for certain kinds of call), ‘hello girls’ had been plugging in to the lives of subscribers, mediating, monitoring, and sometimes disrupting communication. In Muriel Spark’s fiction, the presence of an operator not only unsettles early ideals for the telephone as allowing private, direct connectivity between two people, but also becomes part of Spark’s investigation into the collision of delusion and insincerity in an often undecidable world. Spark invokes the operator at moments where a received truth is radically undermined, or where a hoax or fraud threatens the ontological security of character and reader. Attention to the operator and their role in routing – or routing – meaning, I argue, sheds fresh light on the play of fabulation in Spark’s work; it also prompts the reader to reflect on our own interpretive practices in mediating, operator-like, between scepticism and credulity.


Early marketing by the General Post Office, or GPO, which ran the British telephone network from 1912 to 1981, represented the operator (where she appeared at all) as a component in a larger media network, simultaneously hyper-efficient and unobtrusive. This characterisation has sometimes been adopted in theorisation of the apparatus and voices at work in literary telephony. Steven Connor writes that “the telephone signal was routed through the body of the switchboard operator, whose function was simply to facilitate a connection, to ‘put the caller through’’. He explains that, unlike the telegraph operator, who must actively participate in the message being transmitted, the telephonist is a ‘quasi-mechanical relay’. Such reasoning was clearly in evidence at the Bell Telephone Company in 1930s and 40s America. As Elinor Carmi has shown, Bell insisted on ‘machine-like’ discipline from its female operators, regulating their behaviour through strict training programmes and a Taylorist approach to discipline that cancelled out the ‘noise’ of dissent. (324)

Carol Lake’s 1994 novel, Switchboard Operators, which is set in the late 60s at the Derby Telephone Exchange, presents the multiple ways in which telephonists resisted the kinds of policing designed to shape compliant automatons. When the women are not working in the switchroom, they attend union committees and Young Socialist meetings, paint CND signs on the town’s landmarks, and goad their bullying tutor at the Technical College into debates on Marxism. At their switchboards, they turn the disciplinary logic of the telephone system against itself, when they enact the Union’s ‘work-to-rule’ protest. The teenage protagonist, Sylvie, explains that this ‘meant withdrawing goodwill and sticking rigidly to the rules – meticulously observing all operating procedures, always looking up dialing codes, although of course with frequent use we often knew them. […] We answered all complaints with the chant ‘We’re Working-to-Rule’ (110). The women thus demonstrate what’s at stake when they make themselves into the machines their employers expect, passively following protocol to the letter, turning the drilled repetitions of phatic expression into a rallying cry.

The operators’ subversive potential is explicitly foregrounded in Lake’s work, but even where they remain distant voices in the telephone conversations of midcentury fiction, they can jolt the reader unexpectedly into remembering the remoteness of the mind in control of the story, and that it can choose to keep lines connected or not; to relay a message; to clarify, or withhold, meaning.

In Spark’s 1957 novel The Comforters, the voice of the operator is the last thing Caroline Rose hears before the onset of her psychological haunting by a chorus of voices that narrates her thoughts. Caroline’s boyfriend Laurence Manders has been trying to call her, and, Spark writes, ‘pursued the exchange with mounting insistence on the urgency of getting through; they continued to reply in benumbed and fatalistic tones that the phone was out of order’. These operators have little in common with the ‘girls with the golden voices’ of earlier GPO campaigns. Is Laurence’s obtuse persistence reason enough for them to be ‘benumbed’? Why should they be fatalistic? Apparently, they’ve absorbed cynicism from the voice of the author – that is, not Muriel Spark, but the author who intrudes into the novel’s diegetic world, and wrestles with Caroline for control of the plot.