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Even 19th Century Girls Had to Worry About Being Catfished
"Yes, telegraphy has its romantic side."
By Johannah King-Slutzky
A new article published on The Atlantic documents a seemingly anachronistic case of catfishing -- from the 1880s. The piece excerpts from a book called Wired Love, a Victorian novel about love and deception via telegraph. The book is available for free online via Project Gutenberg and tells the tale of a fallacious romance between Nattie, a 19 year old telegraph operator, and Clem, her amorous virtual correspondent. Here's the opening paragraph:
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.
No "lack of social intercourse" indeed. Later in the novel, Nattie ponders the true identity of her Clem with a couple gossipy friends, Quimby and Miss Archer:
"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.
Girl was about to get catfished. "Catfishing" has belonged to the popular American lexicon for only three years, with the advent of the 2010 Catfish documentary and 2012 MTV TV show. However, fear-mongering about tech and communication is nothing new. The webcomic xkcd says it best. (Click on the link for the full comic, which we've excerpted below:)
The anxiety that technology will irrevocably alter how we live and love is nothing new. In Eros The Bittersweet, Anne Carson documents the deep roots of our collective concern with sexting when she describes the ancient Greeks' reaction to literacy as one of celebration heavily tempered by horror. Love is what happens when we stop acting like ourselves: but the idea to think of erotic forces as "coming from outside" (e.g. the idea of "cupid's arrow") is possible only in a literate world. One of Carson's main points is that literacy trains individuals to have a new sense of self. Reading is one of the ways we get the idea that we are whole and have control over our whole, sealed bodies. In other words, we can only think of love as a bolt of lightning because we've learned to think of ourselves as sealed off from our external environments. If, in a literate world, love is when we stop acting like ourselves, ancient Greece accurately recognized literacy as a threat. Even the simple technologies of reading and writing have, at one time, constituted threats.
Luckily, the Victorians weren't always so dire. In Wired Love, the heroine pulls a Tolstoy when she notices her friend fidgeting strangely on the table. Nattie quickly realizes her friend is tapping in Morse code-- and that indeed, her "Clem" is one fulsome gentleman by the name of "Mr. Stanwood." "Are you an operator?" she asks casually. "Yes," he replies. It's very You've Got Mail.
The book doesn't end there. Although Wired Love mostly follows conventional romcom plotlines, Nattie and Mr. Stanwood ultimately decide they're nostalgic for the romance distance afforded, and the novel ends with the pair installing telegraphs in their bedrooms.
“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?”
Replace "telegraph" with "gchat" and you could find the scene in any contemporary blog post.
The installation of bedroom telegraphs also confirms one of Anne Carson's other ideas, which is that distance is erotic. For Carson, the most erotic image in poetry is of a lover reaching for an apple without ever actually grabbing it. Catfishing-- now and forever-- works the same way: it's about the pleasure of an impossible romance from afar.
Follow Johannah on Twitter @jjjjjjjjohannah