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To be fair, he wrote it in 1949
In the Victorian era, telegraph operators were the first people to live with virtual reality.
Here’s how the 1880 novel Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes — the story of Nattie Rogers, a young telegraph operator — begins:
Miss Nattie Rogers, telegraph operator, lived, as it were, in two worlds. The one her office, dingy and curtailed as to proportions, but from whence she could wander away through the medium of that slender telegraph wire, on a sort of electric wings, to distant cities and towns; where, although alone all day, she did not lack social intercourse, and where she could amuse herself if she chose, by listening to and speculating upon the many messages of joy or of sorrow, of business and of pleasure, constantly going over the wire. But the other world in which Miss Rogers lived was very different; the world bounded by the four walls of a back room at Miss Betsey Kling’s. It must be confessed that there are more pleasing views than sheds in greater or less degrees of dilapidation, a sickly grape-vine, a line of flapping sheets, an overflowing ash barrel; sweeter sounds than the dulcet notes of old rag-men, the serenades of musical cats, or the strains of a cornet played upon at intervals from nine P. M. to twelve, with the evident purpose of exhausting superfluous air in the performer’s lungs.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. People, you have no idea how much fun this book is. And it’s free to read! Right here!
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away — I save my spoilers for below the jump. But the story, in brief, is that Nattie is at work one day when a telegraph operator in another city, who calls himself “C”, begins chatting her up. They engage in a virtual courtship, things get funny and romantic, until suddenly things take a most puzzling and mysterious turn.
It’s all quite nuttily modern. Wired Love anticipates everything we live with in today’s online, Iphoned courtship: Assessing whether someone you’ve met online is what they say they are; the misunderstandings of tone and substance that come from communicating in rapid-fire, conversational bursts of text; or even the fact that you might not really be sure of the gender/nationality/species of the person you’re flirting with.
As it turns out, Nattie quickly figures out that “C” is, indeed, a man. But the conversations she and her friends have about her online courtship are utterly wild to read: They have the arch elocutions of Victorian-era America, mixed with concepts that are so thoroughly modern that book feels like it was written this year, by someone merely emulating the language of 1880. Dig this passage, which begins with Nattie talking:
“You remember my speaking about ‘C’ and wondering whether a gentleman or lady?”
“Oh, yes!” Quimby remembered, and fidgeted on his chair.
“He proved to be a gentleman.”
“Oh, yes; exactly, you know!” responded Quimby, looking anything but elated.
“It must be very romantic and fascinating to talk with some one so far away, a mysterious stranger too, that one has never seen,” Miss Archer said, her black eyes sparkling. “I should get up a nice little sentimental affair immediately, I know I should, there is something so nice about anything with a mystery to it.”
“Yes, telegraphy has its romantic side—it would be dreadfully dull if it did not,” Nattie answered.
“But—now really,” said Quimby, who sat on the extreme edge of the chair, with his feet some two yards apart from each other; “really, you know, now suppose—just suppose, your mysterious invisible shouldn’t be—just what you think, you know. You see, I remember one or two young men in telegraph offices, whose collars and cuffs are always soiled, you know!”
“I have great faith in my ‘C,’” laughed Nattie.
“It would be dreadfully unromantic to fall in love with a soiled invisible, wouldn’t it,” said Miss Archer, with an expressive shrug of her shoulders.
A “soiled invisible”? I want to see an entry for that in the Urban Dictionary by tomorrow.
I’m not going to spoil the book any more, because frankly you all should go and read it right now. It’s short, a blast, and you can rip through it in an evening. (Copies in various formats are all free here via Project Gutenberg; you can see a typeset copy via Google Books. I was reminded of Wired Love just now because I read a smart article pointing out how Google Books has rekindled an interest in 19th century literature, because it’s all out of copyright, scanned, and suddenly super-accessible. I’ve read a ton of 19th century lit in the last few years for precisely that reason.)
Okay, now for some spoilers. A few of the absolutely surreal moments in this book include …
My all-time favorite moment in the book occurs about midway through. By this point, Nattie had pretty much fallen in love with “C” after many days and evenings of telegraphic courtship. Then one day she gets reverse catfished. A creepy dude shows up at her telegraphic office and claims that he’s “C”. This isn’t true; he’s actually someone who worked alongside “C” in “C”s office, and who learned about Nattie and decided to pay a visit. But at this point, Nattie doesn’t know this. He’s such a creep that Nattie shooes him away and falls into a funk. How, she wonders, could somebody be so delightful “on the line” and so nasty in person? (Again, wow: How modern a moment is that?) The next time she runs into “C” on the telegraph wire, he’s nice to her and tries to talk (he has no idea his associate visited Nattie and pretended to be “C”), and Nattie brusquely cuts him off, saying she wants nothing more to do with him. He’s totally baffled, and keeps on trying to talk to her, but she won’t talk back. Classic romantic-comedy, mixed-up identity stuff! This is straight out of Shakespeare, or possibly Three’s Company.
Anyway, one day Nattie’s friend Quimby shows up with his colleague Clem Stanwood, “a tall, fine-looking young man.” They all sit down to have dinner, and conversation turns to Nattie’s ill-fated experience with “C” on the telegraph wire. As the talk goes on, Nattie notices Stanwood doing something weird:
Suddenly Nattie was disturbed by Mr. Stanwood drumming with a pencil on the marble top of the table, and glancing up casually, observed his eyes fixed upon her with a peculiar expression, and at the same moment her ear seemed to catch a familiar sound. With a slight start she listened more attentively to his seemingly idle drumming. Yes—whether knowingly, or by accident, he certainly was making dots and dashes, and what is more, was making N’s!
“I will soon ascertain if he means it or not!” thought Nattie, and seizing a pair of scissors, the only adaptable instrument handy, she drummed out, slowly, on account of the imperfectness of her impromptu key—pretending all the while to be entirely absorbed in the album,
“Are you an operator?”
Mr. Stanwood, in his turn, seemingly deeply engaged in the contents of a book, immediately drummed in response,
It turns out Stanwood is the real “C”. He reveals this — by tapping with his pencil — and Nattie freaks out and all the misconceptions are worked out and, boom, the courtship is on. But seriously, this scene fried my brain. Communicating with morse-code rapping and scissor snapping! Hell, I want someone to turn this into a movie.
After that, the novel is less technologically surreal and more of a straightforward rom-com, except for one awesome moment. Stanwood moves to Nattie’s town and starts rooming with Quimby. They see each other as often as they can, but they discover something odd: Much as they enjoy hanging out together, they also miss the experience of communicating via telegraph. There’s something about the banter and repartee they enjoy when they’re talking in dots/dashes/text that’s qualitatively different — and delightfully so — from talking F2F. Again, this is a freakishly modern emotional experience. My wife and I frequently gchat with each other when I’m upstairs working and she’s downstairs working in our own house, not merely because it’s easier than hollering up and down the stairs but because we enjoy a different sort of conversation via text. This is what always frustrates me when doleful pundits claim that texting or chat is a devolved or “lesser” form of intimacy than in-person conversation. Anyone who’s done a ton of texting and chatting knows that textual talk has expressive qualities that are not only delightful but unachievable if you’re sitting with someone and conversing. Textual chat is not a substitute for in-person talk, of course; but vice versa is equally as true.
Anyway, here’s the moment when Nattie and Clem realize they want to talk via telegraph again. It’s a rainy day, and he’s shown up at her telegraph office to say hello. He’s no longer a telegraph operator at his old company “X n” — he’s got a job at a store in town — so the two of them no longer chat online. He’s standing in the office next to a telegraph key, and he asks her:
“Do you not sometimes wish I was back at X n to keep you company such days as these?”
Without thinking twice before she spoke once, Nattie answered candidly, as she placed a chair for her visitor,
“Yes, I believe I do, often.”
“I do not know whether to take that as a compliment or otherwise,” Clem said, looking at her as if half vexed.
Nattie glanced up inquiringly.
“It certainly is a compliment to my abilities for, making myself agreeable at a distance. But—” said Clem, with a shrug of his shoulders, “a poor fellow does not like to feel as if the farther away he is, the better he is liked!”
“Oh! I did not mean it that way at all!” exclaimed Nattie, in hasty explanation. “Only, you know, I had more of your company on the wire!”
Clem looked pleased.
“If that is the trouble—” he began, but Nattie interrupted, her face very red.
“I did not mean that, either; I meant it was in such a different way, you know—and I—I could talk more easily, and—I do not believe I know what I do mean!” stopping short in embarrassment.
Clem looked at her and smiled.
“Let us see if it is any easier talking on the wire,” he said; and taking the key, he wrote,
“Good P m, will you please tell me truly, and relieve my mind, if you like me as well as you thought you would?”
Taking the key he relinquished, and without looking at him, she replied, “Yes; and suppose I ask you the same question, what would you say, politeness aside?”
“I should answer.” wrote Clem, his eyes on the sounder, “that I have found the very little girl expected!”
And then their eyes met, and Nattie hastily rose and walked to the window, for no ostensible purpose, and Clem said, going after her,
“It is nicer talking on the wire, isn’t it?”
The solution? They take two telegraph keys home, and instal one in each of their bedrooms, running the wire from one rooming house to another, and hiding the batteries in their closets. Then they wind up going home after work and chatting online until the wee hours.
This book is 130 years old, but it could have been written last week.
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).
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