My husband shares a first name with Cyrus West Field, the entrepreneur behind the first Transatlantic Submarine Telegraph. A man who shrank the world, collapsing 2,000 miles of ocean from a ten-day ship voyage to mere minutes.
Coincidence can often lure us into fate, or at least a belief in the thread of connection—the story waiting to be told.
The Transatlantic Submarine Telegraph was an act of both incredible invention and staggering arrogance. Much like a marriage.
Cyrus West Field had no oceanography experience. No engineering experience, either. What he did have was a rich network and confidence bordering on hubris. Under his Atlantic Telegraph Company, he finagled financial backing from both the British and American governments, as well as other private investors. The project began in 1854, a mere 16 years after working telegraph technology was introduced to the world. Ships from both sides of the ocean sailed toward each other, the cable was pitched off the back and left to sink to unknown depths. Four years later, the project was complete. Cyrus West Field had conquered the Atlantic.
On August 16, 1858, the first official message conveyed congratulations from the company’s British directors to their American counterparts. Floodgates open, the cavalcade of celebratory messages began. Queen Victoria telegrammed President James Buchanan:
…The Queen is convinced that the President will join her in fervently hoping that the electric cable, which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations, whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem.
The Queen has much pleasure in thus communicating with the President and renewing to him her wishes for the prosperity of the United States.
The President responded with even greater fervor:
…The President cordially reciprocates the congratulations of her majesty the Queen on the success of the great international enterprise accomplished by the science, skill, and indomitable energy of the two countries.
It is a triumph more glorious, because far more useful to mankind, than was ever won by conquer on the field of battle.
May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of Heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.
It was over in three weeks. The cable frayed, communication faltered, complete failure. The man who shares my husband’s name was not deterred: Cyrus West Field simply started again.
The relationship that would become my marriage also had a false start. Faced with an Atlantic distance between us as my student visa came to end, we cut the cord after a few months of dating.
Another coincidence of naming: one of the ships involved in laying the replacement cable was the SS Caroline.
I moved back to the US barely a year after our initial break up, and though he was in Georgia and I was in Massachusetts, we were young and still heartbroken, and well, you know the story.
My short author bio used to contain the sentence “She lives between Old England and New England.” In the three years I lived in Massachusetts, I never stopped being struck by a mixture of confusion, amazement and horror at running into place names that I’d grown up with in England. The capital of my small Celtic county is a Cape Cod vacation town. Plymouth, the city where I was born, is reimagined as a more insidious origin story at Plymouth Rock. The betweenness of that history.
I could speculate that I am not the first of my family to be transatlantic. If I could ever accept the strangeness of being married and accept myself as a part of a new family, then I wouldn’t need speculation. My husband’s family mythos paints their origins all over Europe. The betting is Irish or Scottish, with an outside chance of German. It’s a rigged bet, though, already won: they are white Americans, born citizens.
I met my husband two weeks after I came to the US for the first time on a short-term fellowship. I did not know at 22, drunk on lust for newness, that I would eventually call this man and this country home. More importantly, I knew nothing of the systems and mazes of bureaucracy I would have to shout this naming into, the stacks of papers I would diagram this love into dry, officious promises.
As a Brit in America much small talk with strangers revolves around my rapidly fading accent. In Lyft rides, in Post Office queues, at the grocery store, the routine dance of “Where you from?” begins. It is a seemingly innocuous question that since the 2016 election has curdled to become insidious. If the questioner is white, there are a limited number of outcomes that range from polite to abhorrent, all offered in the same tone of well-mannered stranger:
- The questioner asks for geographic specificity, despite my coming from a farm in a tiny and insular county, where nothing ever happens but sheep.
- The questioner responds to my answer that I’m from Britain, but I’ve lived in the US for a considerable chunk of my adult life with a cheery “Me too!” Of course, in this situation the stranger means their ancestors were British, and I continue to find these claims irritating.
- With little to no context about my visa or employment history, the questioner congratulates me on getting here “the right way.”
The first time this third outcome occurred, in a Lyft on the way to the airport to visit my family back in Britain, I was genuinely confused. In the repetitions of this scenario in the years since, I remember that initial confusion with nostalgia. I still play confused when this script repeats every few months—I will ask the polite stranger what “the right way” is and without fail, the right way is a vague explanation of “through the right channels, legal….”
That I was shocked at the audacity of other white people to express anti-immigrant xenophobia, while praising my own immigration I now find precious.
This stranger small-talk usually ends with my brief spiel about the costs and struggles of immigration—even my own, which is the “right way.” The “right way” is the story white people tell themselves. The story that anyone who looks like them must have a right to live here. Though I have worked for state institutions for many years, taught your children, paid my taxes, my immigration is a cheat—I got married. It’s the easy way. No doubt easier as a white woman—the questions more gentle, the eye contact less accusatory, my cultural difference considered cute, not contemptuous.
The easy way looks like this: several thousand dollars for an immigration lawyer to prepare the application. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages including: every address, every tax return, every lease. Your marriage certificate. Wedding photos. Photos from any significant occasion. Vacation itineraries. Plane tickets. Letters. Emails. Birthday cards from when you were broken up that you probably shouldn’t have kept. Engagement announcements. All your bank accounts. Car insurance. Dental insurance. Anything with a dollar sign and both your names. A five-hundred-dollar physical examination from a government approved doctor. Biometrics: another hundred bucks for the privilege of being finger-printed and photographed—again. Another five hundred dollars to file the application.
And then you sit still and wait.
You’ll be called for an interview. You will not be together. The questions will range from “How did you meet?” to a request for a diagram of the marital bedroom. You will tell the officer your love story. It should be clear, crafted and authentically accurate. Your story must convince the officer, who sees thousands of couples every year, that romance is real.
Stories are slippery, shapeshifting depending on the audience.
My marriage can be packaged into saccharine romance. It’s a transatlantic rom-com! A love story across an ocean! A wish-fulfillment wet dream!
The truth is, I love my husband. The truth is, he planned exactly the wedding I wanted (steak and chips, and fifteen people). The truth is, if it weren’t for the vagaries of immigration, we never would’ve married at all.
Among her many honours, Queen Victoria is credited with establishing contemporary conventions of the white wedding. I wore black at my wedding, because I always wear black, but I did cave to a white lace skirt for the engagement celebration my parents insisting on having in a quaint British church.
My marriage remains Victorian. As the Queen of England, I imagine Victoria’s choice to marry Albert, a foreign national, was not bogged down in the slow churning machine of immigration bureaucracy. But it is during her reign that British and US law encoding gender and marriage to both a man and the state begin to flourish.
Much of US marriage law was shipped over wholesale from English common law, including the concept of coverture. Coverture describes the status of a woman in marriage: under the cover of her husband. As a legal entity, the woman ceases to exist—she becomes the citizen of her husband.
The 1855 revision of the US Naturalization Act explicitly identified the domain of citizenship as the domain of the husband. If a non-citizen woman married an American citizen, she was required to assume American citizenship. Such a ruling did not apply for men. It would be almost a century until women could petition on behalf of their spouse in 1952, and in that century a woman’s citizenship remained precariously contingent on her performance as wife.
The 1907 US Expatriation Act declared a woman who married an alien lost her citizenship. If her husband became a naturalized citizen, she could apply to regain citizenship through the naturalization process. While the Cable Act, also known as the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act, seemingly corrected this law in 1922, it left enough cracks for coverture’s influence to still be felt.
When I asked my husband to marry me, I asked him to cover me with his US citizenship.
The peculiarity of immigration law’s language is inescapable. I have been an “alien” for almost a decade. One day, I will be “natural” by virtue of marriage. This narrative of a woman’s body as monstrous but made normal by matrimony is a familiar one.
All stories are snakes.
To the Victorian public, the Transatlantic Submarine Telegraph was the Eighth Wonder of the World and a triumph of humanity’s need to communicate. To Cyrus West Field, the telegraph was an investment opportunity that offered him the role of protagonist.
Hans Christian Andersen tells his own story of the telegraph cable in “The Great Sea-Serpent.” The “new wonder story” follows a little fish “of good family” as he swims through the chaos caused by the arrival of the cable—“a long heavy thing that looked as if it would never come to an end.” In his search to find out what this monstrous interloper to the sea floor is, the little fish encounters whales and sharks and saw-fish, who are turned from predators to co-investigators by the mystery of the cable. The sea-dwellers determine it as a great sea-serpent, a mighty eel, until finally a sea-cow enlightens them as to the human origin of the mechanism. The little fish still believes the hulking snake must be something more magical, and he’s right: the cable is more magical—it thinks and listens to the surrounding sea creatures, all the while crackling with the sparks of human communiques. The cable is silent, because it can be: “So it gave no answer; it had something else to attend to; it telegraphed and lay in its lawful place.”
“The Great Sea-Serpent” is a truly mediocre fairytale. But it tells the story of technological awe, extreme phallic hubris, and depths to which the entitlement of white Europeans can sink under the guise of exploration.
Other white people, when they don’t congratulate me on immigrating “the right way,” occasionally express genuine surprise that a British person needs a visa in order to live in the United States. I used to repeat this as a joke—all that wasted tea. It’s a weak punchline, one that falls apart with minimal pressure from self-examination.
This story is funny because it’s true. It’s the blither side of the coin to the false narrative of “the right way”—but it’s the same story, a story that begins by eating its own tail.
When we tell stories enough, they become archetypes: tragedies, romances, fairy tales.
As two people who were not particularly matrimonially-inclined, my husband and I have smoothed the edges of our engagement story with repeated tellings into the cold, hard pebble of a punchline: the romance of a proposal with both parties weeping in an immigration lawyer’s parking lot.
It’s a funny story. It’s also highly truncated—we’d bobbed and weaved around the fact of our transatlanticism for seven years. That grand gulf that Cyrus West Field saw as a canvas upon which to paint his entrepreneurial fame has haunted the relationship that ended up as my marriage, hanging between our birth certificates as a death warrant.
By the time we proposed—and we both tried to make up for the parking lot later with sweet gestures, me at the college campus where we first fell in love, him in the north Georgia mountains—marriage was the last resort. Not to save our relationship, but to save my right to live here.
I am still waiting to tell the government my love story. Current processing times are estimated at 13 to 33 months. So, I sit and wait—I cannot leave the country without abandoning my application.
This is the easy way.
I cannot imagine who might have it easier—being able to afford this process, alone, is an extreme privilege, as is the fact that my husband treats me with respect as I am now bureaucratically at his mercy. It’s a good lesson in American life: the easy way is easy only if you can afford it.
I have been telling you one story of my marriage—the shape of narrative mapped onto the Atlantic. There are others.
I could’ve told you that I went to college with my husband’s cousin, years before we ever met, or the other coincidences that have stacked up to a fate. I could’ve told you the true story of how I proposed, or how I’d read his mother’s work on Modernism as an undergraduate, or the many other strewn details of our lives that jigsaw together, each fit for a coo of “oh you two were meant to be!”
There are better ways to tell a love story. There are better endings than a comfortable, bureaucratically beneficial marriage—and there are many more worse.
Stories can slip right out of sight—the illusion of ending. I have rewritten this attempt several times. I brought you in at the end of the journey when the travel has slowed to become simply a life.
There’s no ending here: I will continue to be married and continue to wait for immigration approval based on that marriage. I will ‘til death do us part or divorce, and what kind of narrative resolution do either of these options offer?
I will wait to be covered by my husband’s citizenship, and until then I will be covered by my whiteness—a coverage that ensures I will continue to be read as resident, as she who should inherit this earth because America’s white supremacy will continue.
The Atlantic will continue to host journeys as quotidian and meaningful as my own. Somewhere in that ocean’s depths, the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable hums its path for the hundreds of cables—telegraph, telephone, internet—that have been laid in the century and a half since Cyrus West Field first instructed those cords of wire to be thrown off the back of the boat.
All endings are a deus ex machina. That’s the problem with stories—they change shape until suddenly they disappear completely, all with someone declaring themselves the god behind the scenes.
The year I was born saw the first transatlantic fibre-optic cable laid—another revolution of transatlantic communications enabled the American and European early internets to knit together. Another coincidence of fact that can be built to some idea of fate.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Caroline Crew is the author of PINK MUSEUM (Big Lucks), as well as several chapbooks. Her poetry and essays appear in The Kenyon Review, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Coast, among others. Currently, she is pursuing a PhD at Georgia State University, after earning an MA at the University of Oxford and an MFA at UMass-Amherst.
These coordinates point to Fowey Harbour, a natural harbour at the mouth of the Fowey (pronounced Foy) River in Cornwall. I grew up on a farm in this rural county. I started going fishing when I was 3. One of my earliest memories is leaving the harbour into the expanding and expanding Atlantic. I have made that same journey countless times. Sometimes at dawn, sometimes with family, sometimes in complete silence, and the parting of the rock crags into the sea's complete visual dominance never fails to amaze me.