The 19th-Century Version of 'You’ve Got Mail'

The 19th-Century Version of 'You’ve Got Mail'

Why you should care

This 1880 novel promised to tell “the old, old story — in a new, new way,” and boy did it ever.

OZY's Love Curiously explores the many facets of romance and commitment.There's more to love than you ever imagined. OZY's Love Curiously explores the many facets of romance and commitment.

“There certainly is something romantic in talking to a mysterious person, unseen, and miles away!” observes our story’s protagonist, Nattie, about her burgeoning romance with a distant stranger. But Nattie is also worried about what her mysterious online correspondent is like in person, as she has only his words to go by.

Although Nattie may sound like Meg Ryan’s character in the 1990s romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, or any number of online daters today, she’s actually a character in an 1880 romance, Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes. The Victorian novel tells the story of two telegraph operators whose online flirtation over some 60 miles of telegraph wire leads to some unexpected challenges — ones that will sound awfully familiar to anyone attempting to navigate the pitfalls of online dating today.

The story’s 19-year-old protagonist could have stepped straight out of a Nora Ephron script.

As Tom Standage, a science writer for The Economist, chronicles in The Victorian Internet, the telegraph was an invention that changed many aspects of modern life, including courtship and romance. Women were widely employed as telegraph operators: The job was indoors, not too strenuous and female operators could be segregated from male ones, at least physically. There was no separating the genders over the wire, however, which was perhaps where Wired Love’s author, Ella Cheever Thayer, a suffragette and former Boston telegraph operator herself, got the idea for her best-selling novel.

The story’s 19-year-old protagonist could have stepped straight out of a Nora Ephron script. Nattie lives by herself and has an isolating, often monotonous job. She’s beginning to feel like there are no suitable romantic partners in her life, aside from a fellow boardinghouse resident named Quimby, whose somewhat pathetic affections never register on her radar. Nattie is a working girl, and fiercely proud of it: “She was not the kind of girl to sit down and wait for someone to come along and marry her, and relieve her of the burden of self-support.”

And then one day everything changes when the bored Nattie strikes up a conversation (in Morse code) with a telegraph operator called C during a lull on the wire. The conversation starts, as so many do by text today, with a ping. The dots and dashes grow increasingly flirtatious and include many shorthands like “ha” (for laughter) that we still use today until an endearingly clumsy Nattie (naturally for a rom-com lead) spills a pot of ink all over herself and must navigate the conversation while cleaning up the mess.

The two operators begin to talk daily over the wire. The telegraph was the first time in history that you could have a real-time chat with another unseen user miles away. And just as with today’s online communicators, it does not take Nattie and C (later revealed to be Clem) long to start inquiring about each other’s life, hobbies and, of course, looks. “How fortunate it is you are not near enough to be disenchanted,” Nattie demurs, regarding her own appearance, describing herself as only 5 feet tall with eyes “of some dreadfully nondescript color.” To which Clem sweetly responds, “If you are only 5 feet, you never can look down on me, which is a great consolation.”

Suddenly, Nattie finds herself arriving at work early and leaving late, just to chat with Clem, with whom she shares “all her daily life, thoughts and troubles.” On the wire, Clem is charming and funny, but Nattie worries that he (as well as herself) will be disappointed should they meet in the real world. “In all probability we shall never meet,” she observes at one point. “I think I should be dreadfully embarrassed if we should.”

Like the smartphone, the telegraph lends itself to romance and clever banter, and Wired Love captures the exhilaration, mystery and risk of the early stages of dating an “invisible friend.” You are free to put the best version of yourself forward … and worry that the other person is doing the same. Indeed, even once Nattie and Clem meet in person, it’s not happily ever after. Nattie worries “that a certain something that had been on the wire was lacking.” But the two overcome the initial awkwardness of an in-person relationship and do find happily ever after, with Clem popping the question (how else?) in a series of dots and dashes. To which Nattie responds simply, “OK.”

“The story shows that technologies may come and go, but human nature is unchanging,” says Standage, who co-hosts the podcast The Secret History of the Future. “The technologies we devise to meet people will get more and more complicated, but at the end of the day it comes down to how people respond to each other in person.”

Finally, there is one particularly prescient passage in Wired Love in which an acquaintance of Nattie’s muses about the “blissful lovers of the future”:

… [W]e will soon be able to do everything by electricity; who knows but some genius will invent something for the especial use of lovers? Something, for instance, to carry in their pockets, so when they are far away from each other, and pine for a sound of ‘that beloved voice,’ they will have only to take up this electrical apparatus, put it to their ears and be happy.

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