Wired Love – A Romance of Dots and Dashes – Ella Cheever Thayer

I’ve been eagerly awaiting a copy of this book – it’s a public domain work published in 1880, but there are precious few physical copies around (they do occasionally turn up on ebay and sell for hundreds of dollars) but I noticed a few months back that it had appeared on the Project Gutenberg works in progress list. A couple of weeks ago, the text appeared! Wahey!

So why the interest?

I read Tom Standage’s excellent The Victorian Internet last year, and was intrigued by a reference to Wired Love. Standage’s book covers the development of the telegraph, and he describes Wired Love as depicting the romance of a couple of telegraph operators who start communicating online, via morse code, and finally fall in love. I’m fascinated by the idea of online relationship: is physical propinquity necessary for love to flourish? Do people reveal their true selves online? What is the result of limiting the senses available for communication? Are the emotions qualitatively different from those experienced in real life? Are the emotions somehow more real, more authentic, because of the absence of physical distraction?

Ella Cheever Thayer was herself a telegraph operator, and her technical knowledge is clear from the text. She was also a suffragette, and wrote a play called The Lords of Creation which is part of the early canon of feminist literature. (I ordered a copy on Amazon months ago, and it still hasn’t turned up yet).

The plot revolves around a shabby boarding house with pretentions to gentility called the Hotel Norman, and its motley array of guests (and the landlady). Nattie, one of the guests, is the telegraph operator, and she falls for Clem, another telegraph operator further down the line. After a few hiccups in their relationship involving an impostor and well-intentioned but misguided interventions by her friends, and the surreptitious installation of a telegraph betweem Nattie’s room and Clem’s , love prevails.

From a social context, it’s fascinating. Most of the residents of the Hotel Norman are young (Nattie is only 18), and they are relatively solvent and, crucially, free from parental and family supervision. From that perspective, they are proto-teenagers, and their antics (which generally involve them trying to act as if they are middle aged) scandalise the older residents, who have a much more ordered sense of propriety, and are fairly disgusted by the freedom the younger generation possesses. The discovery of the inter-room telegraph renders one of the older characters apoplectic.

So how does she rate as an author?

I hate to say this, but, she’s pretty poor. The plotting is dull and predictable, and the dialogue is excruciatingly arch. I’m prepared to admit that people were that much more mannered in the 1880s, but I can’t believe that even the most uptight Victorian spoke in such a stilted way.

There are some comedy plotting errors: Quimby, the comic relief character, starts the book portrayed as clever (but dull, as all clever people are, apparently – an interesting indication of whom ECT had in mind as her reading public) and as the book progresses, without, apparently any supervening neurological explanation (mechanical or chemical) gets progressively dimmer until he is barely able to communicate in anything other than grunts. He doesn’t get any more interesting as a result, unfortunately, although he does a good line in sitting on desserts, accidentally proposing to the wrong woman (don’t ask how) and managing to get toffee in someone’s hair (again: too tedious to explain).

The plot twists and turns like a Roman road with a couple of minor village bypasses en route, and ECT has access only to Dickens to provide some highbrow literary references.

There are couple of fascinating portions: fax machines get namechecked early on, and in the same passage there is a reference to something which, if viewed from a certain angle while the lighting is just so could just about be said to be a mobile phone. Or a pager.

And then, for a spot of cognitive dissonance, towards the end of the book, a female character explains that she can never love again, because her former lover turned out to be gay. As in homosexual. I had to read the passage three times to make sure that’s what it said, but its entirely unambiguous. Way to go, Ella!

As a piece of social history, it’s fascinating, and for its protrayal of love at a distance, it chimes in a surprisingly contemporary way, but as literature, it is, unfortunately, no more than it was ever intended to be: pulp fiction.