Wired LoveJuly 30, 2013
A friend linked me yesterday to a blog post about Wired Love, an 1880 novel by Ella Cheever Thayer that seems to have been making the rounds of the tech blogs lately. And yes, its telegraph romance evokes internet romances of today, and yeah, if I had a tech blog I’d probably write about it too. But I have a blog on public domain popular fiction, and I’m writing about it for an entirely different reason: it’s delightful.
Nattie Rogers is a telegraph operator. She runs a small telegraph office that operates on the same exchange as about twenty others, and she’s vaguely acquainted with the call signs and personalities of the other operators on the exchange. One day, she strikes up a friendship with a new operator, “C” — she’s “N” — and over the next few days they get increasingly friendly and flirty. He basically becomes her best friend. Then one day C comes for a visit, and isn’t at all what Nattie expected. And it’s obvious to the reader that he’s not the real C, but it’s not obvious to Nattie, and the next time they meet “on the wire,” she snubs him.
Of course, that’s less than halfway through the book, so C soon reappears in a different context, and telegraph operation takes a back seat to boarding house shenanigans. But that’s okay, because the boarding house shenanigans are great, too.
The thing that surprised me most about Wired Love was how modern it felt. It never stops sounding like it was written in 1880, stylistically, and obviously the contemporary trappings are, you know, contemporary, but it also felt young and realistic and relatable in so many ways. The telegraph/internet parallels are the least of it.
I don’t know how to say all the good things I want to say about this book, so instead I’ll just talk about Miss Cynthia Archer.
Miss Archer moves into Nattie’s building right around the same time Nattie starts talking to C. Nattie lives in the spare room in Miss Kling’s apartment, while Mrs. Simonson across the hall has turned all of her rooms into spare rooms, and rents them out to Nattie’s admirer Quimby, bohemian artist type Jo Norton, and now aspiring singer Miss Cynthia Archer, hereafter known as Cyn.
Nattie’s friendship with C furthers her friendship with Cyn in a bunch of ways. It gives them something to talk about and provides Nattie with confidences to impart. And I think her conversations with C also make her more capable of becoming close friends with Cyn because, with C in the background, Nattie is more confident and outgoing. I don’t know if Thayer meant to put that in there, but it comes through regardless.
And Cyn herself is great, too. I like Nattie best, and identify with her more than I actually want to, but there are so many great things about Cyn, chief among them being the way she turns the young people of their apartment building into a social circle with no apparent effort or intention. I also love the way that her nonspecifically tragic romantic past continued to affect her but didn’t stop her from being cheerful and outgoing. I mean, in any other book, there would have been something about how her bright personality was hiding, I don’t know, “the yawning maw of the insatiable universe” or something. In this one, Cyn has cut romance out of her life after some past heartbreak, but is also happy and successful in her personal and professional lives, and Thayer never makes those things seem like a contradiction. It’s just…I should come up with a word other than ‘great’ to talk about Cyn, but why bother? She’s great. She’s so great.
And then, yeah, there’s the telegraph stuff. I love the way Nattie is wary of C’s overfamiliarity, but dismisses it because he’s far away and she’s never likely to meet him, and how weirded out she is when she does. And I love how the book and the characters acknowledge how much easier it was for Nattie to talk to C when he was an “Invisible,” and how they occasionally resort to telegraphing even when they see each other every day. But more than that, I love that all the friendships in Wired Love have that same level of realism, whatever their primary mode of communication. So, you know, well done, Ella Cheever Thayer.