Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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An Unusual Tale of Online Romance

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 27, 2013

Last week I read a very cute novel. I don’t normally go for little romantic comedy books, but this was an exception.

It was about a girl, Nattie, who meets a guy online. At least she thinks it’s a guy, but she’s not sure at first. The whole anonymity that comes from remote communication via text. In spite of it being something of a public forum that’s supposed to be used for business purposes only, they take to some online flirting – to the irritation of a couple of other users. Of course, they never plan to meet in real life, so they take advantage of their virtual anonymity to get a little more familiar than they would in the “real world.”

Nattie’s friends note that she’s spending more and more time at the office, doing some after-hours chatting, and that she seems to be living in “two worlds” – one “wired” and one in the real world. Her closest friend gets as fascinated by this online romance, but Nattie maintains that it’s purely virtual.

Before the end, we have a (fortunately low-grade) stalking / identity theft case, which is appropriately creepy. But halfway through, Nattie meets the guy (he is a guy) who was her online correspondent – unknowingly at first. Once they both know the truth, things get really complicated. Nattie finds that she’s far more comfortable texting him than talking face-to-face, even when in the same room, but her best friend does not have that problem. There are jealousies, love triangles (quadrangles?), silliness, and so forth. The sort of thing you’d expect from a romantic comedy.

While it all sounds quite modern, and is pretty common in western society today, it was published quite a few years ago.

It sounds like it would fit pretty good in the 90’s, doesn’t it? Sorta like the movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, huh? Well, it’s earlier than that.

Maybe the 80’s? Back in the early days of Prodigy and Compuserve? That would certainly work, too. But it’s even earlier than that.

A LOT earlier. The 70’s? Try 1870s

The book, “Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes” was published in 1879, and was apparently on the best-seller list for several years. As you can infer from the title, the texting and online technology is the telegraph.  It is not science fiction or fantasy; it is somewhat based on the author’s own experience as a telegraph operator, in an era when about 1/3rd of the telegraph operators in America were women.

The language is a little different (the book frequently uses terms like “ejaculated”, “making love,” and “gay” very differently from their popular modern definitions), and the social customs of 1870s can seem a bit confusing. But in spite of this, the story was quite readable and fun. It feels like it could easily be transplanted into the current era – with the exception of the not-so-secret code Nattie and Clem share. The issues, the confusion, the vagueness of online relationships – it’s all there, over a hundred and thirty years ago. Tech changes, but people are the same.

That was the part that really impressed me – just how people reacted and adapted with this communications technology complicating relationships very much as it does today.

Another fascinating aspect of the book was its explanation of how small, local telegraph offices worked.  That was actually what led me to discover the book in the first place.  It was also funny how telegraphy terms end up in the slang of the primary characters, and how non-technical people misunderstand how the telegraph worked. Once again, the parallels with modern technology are fascinating.

Another amusing bit is how even the non-“techie” characters in the book are at least aware of other technologies, like the telephone (one even complains that they should use a telephone instead, so that everyone else can know what they are talking about. They are also aware of facsimile transmission- what we call “fax” today (ah, how quaint!). Yes, they had early fax transmissions in the 1870s. The French, I understand, actually had an early commercial fax service than ran from 1865 to 1870.  That blew my mind when I found out about it a couple of weeks ago.

Aside from that, it’s a cute and humorous romance. That’s not the kind of book I normally read, but this one amused me. It was fun, a fairly quick read, and I felt better educated (about life & telegraph technology in that era) and enlightened when I finished.

Best of all – it’s well and truly in the public domain, and available for a free download. There’s a nice advantage of the more modern evolution of this old technology…

Filed Under: Books - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Anon said,

    > Tech changes, but people are the same.

    People change, but genitals are the same.

  • Felix said,

    That reminds me of my all-time favorite short story, The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. It blew my mind how well someone was able to understand the implications of electronic communications in 1909 (and now, I learn, even decades earlier). Now what was once sci-fi has turned real, and if anything we get it less.

    Oh, and the book is also available on project Gutenberg. Great find!

  • BarryB said,

    Honestly? You caught me, but through the wrong end of the telescope. I figured there was a catch to the tale from the first, and thought it sounded much like several French novels of the mid-18th century, around the Regency: very intimate, concerned with feelings, lots of hidden identity stuff, friends delicately betraying one another, finding out new information, etc. Some plays like this, too, and one famous modern film came out of one famous play of the time-Dangerous Liaisons. But that was something of an outlier, far more down-spirited than most.

    Fascinating how these things keep periodically showing up, isn’t it?