While on the subject of publishing contexts at the end of 1884, and before edging further into Flatland and dealing with content…
It has become customary to connect Flatland to the work of Charles Howard Hinton, and the connections between Edwin Abbott and the author of Scientific Romances have been explored in some detail by a number of writers (Banchoff, Stewart, Valente). Developing the case made by Banchoff in 1990, that ‘Hinton lies at the centre of a web of intellectual, mathematical and social influences’, Ian Stewart argues that ‘the similarities between Hinton’s 1880 article [‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’] and Flatland are far too great to be coincidence’ and that ‘the circumstantial evidence that they probably did meet – or that, at the very least, Abbott was strongly influenced by Hinton’s ideas – is considerable’.
Extrapolating the publishing history of Hinton’s work clarifies one such connection. Hinton’s ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ had, as noted, been first published in 1880, but to a very limited audience; indeed, to an audience so scant that it failed to sustain The University Magazine, the ailing journal in whose last number the essay appeared (originally the monthly Dublin University Magazine, The University Magazine had been renamed in 1878, and reduced frequency of publication from monthly to quarterly from June 1880, before finally closing at the end of 1880. Hinton’s mother-in-law Mary Boole had been a frequent contributor).
By the end of 1880 Charles Howard Hinton was working as assistant science master at Uppingham College (one of the connections made by Banchoff: Abbott’s lifelong friend Howard Candler, to whom Flatland was dedicated, was mathematics master at the same school). He was not a novice to publishing, having edited a collection of his father’s work, Chapters on the Art of Thinking and Other Essays, published by C.K. Paul & co in 1879, but ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ was his first published work under his own name.
It was reprinted in slightly expanded form in 1883 in the magazine of Cheltenham Ladies College, where the author had worked as assistant master from 1877 to 1880. Once again, it is safe to assume that the school magazine had a limited audience, although precise figures are not available. Stewart’s speculation that Edwin Abbott’s acquaintance with the headmistress Dorothea Buss in the 1880s was another potential point of contact between Abbott and Hinton seems more tenuous than the Candler link. What is clear from both the titles in which Hinton’s essay first appeared – a magazine hoping to appeal to a core student readership, and the magazine of a school – is that its author considered it a pedagogical piece. An instructional essay for students it is likely to have remained were it not for Abbott’s book.
The timing, format and re-editing of Hinton’s essay for publication by Swan Sonnenschein in November 1884 suggests very powerfully a commercial response to Flatland, whose first edition of 1,000 copies had been sold within a month of publication. What is the Fourth Dimension? (italics will henceforth be used to distinguish between the pamphlet and the collected essay) came hot on the heels of Abbott’s book as a part-issue, a format suggestive of a rapid publishing response: as the entry for ‘Serials and the Nineteenth Century Publishing Industry’ in the Dictionary of Nineteenth-century Journalism notes: ‘The principle motivations underlying the rise of serial publications were speed and economy.’ (Brake, Demoor eds, 2009: 567) There is also considerable evidence in the archives of Swan Sonnenschein that Hinton did not yet have enough completed work for a book.
Should there be any doubt concerning the opportunistic nature of the 1884 re-publication of Hinton’s essay on its third go round the block, its new title and subtitle surely settle them. It has been suggested by Rudy Rucker that the subtitle Ghosts Explained was added by the canny publisher, aware of the Zöllnerian hypothesis and its currency in spiritualist groupings. But surely the title of the series, Scientific Romances, is even more suggestive of commercial expediency? Hinton’s first ‘romance’, after all, was not even fiction, but a pedagogical exposition answering its own question in terms that only began to hint at the visionary hue of the psychological metaphysics that would follow. Stylistically, it owed more to the popular science writing of Tyndall than it did to Stevenson, but the content was evidently particularly amicable towards Flatland and the market was demonstrably keen on dimensional romances in November 1884.
It seems highly likely, then, that the chosen designation of ‘romance’ would have identified Hinton’s work to the readership to whom it was most likely to appeal: recalling Stevenson’s definitional account, a young (?), masculine, domestic (British) readership. The subject matter of geometry would further limit the audience to those educated in mathematics.
Darko Suvin’s obsessive historical materialist categorisations of the readerships of early SF precursor texts are interesting here, not because I would like to categorise Hinton’s work in such a way, but because in identifying a social proximity between the authors of proto-SF, scientific non-fiction and the readers of both, outside of mainstream circuits, he speaks directly to the textual hybridity of Hinton’s work: ‘Indications from the textual system point to one of those groups comprising mostly upper-middle and middle class males with special interest in politics, religion and public affairs in general. This is a circuit very close, perhaps even identical, to that of the bourgeois nonfiction reading – which would explain the intertextual closeness to SF of such nonfiction genres as the social blueprint, the political tract, the predictive essay, even the semi-religious apocalypse.’ (Suvin, 1983: 403)
This also, however, creates an interesting tension. I find myself wanting to argue that savvy publishing nouse helped to make the fourth dimension a subject of discussion in social groupings beyond specialist mathematicians and spiritualists. If the readerships of texts such as Flatland and What is the Fourth Dimension? are as socially narrow as Suvin suggests, however, do they really introduce the arcania of higher space to a broader audience? I think the answer to that question probably lies, in part, elsewhere: it’s what these texts do with the subject, as well as to whom they tell it, that catalyses interest.
Finally, a word or two on that canny publisher, William Swan Sonnenschein. Sonnenschein built his list in the early years (ca. 1878-1882) around books for children, educational texts or theoretical work concerning education policy. There was also a focus on German language translations, such as Grimm’s Teutonic Myths. Both arose naturally from the publisher’s family background: his father was a German-born mathematics teacher. Although Sonnenschein described himself as a liberal, he was closely connected socially to a number of Fabians and socialists, publishing both the first English translation of Marx’s Capital and George Bernard Shaw’s Unsocial Socialist in 1887. (Stepniak, exiled Russian revolutionary, was apparently often to be encountered taking tea chez Sonnenschein).
The Swan Sonnenschein list also always included philosophy, and the publisher was a member of the first Ethical Society in the late 1880s. Commissioned to write a history of the firm’s precursors by George Allen and Unwin in the 1950s, the historian F. A. Mumby wrote: ‘Throughout his life Swan Sonnenschein was a remarkable blend of other-worldliness and business acumen; a man of wide erudition whose interests were quickly roused by the simplest human problems’. Combining education, mathematics, philosophy and literature, Swan Sonnenschein was a highly appropriate home for the esoteric and hybrid work of Hinton.
So, some further lines of research worth pursuing with regard to dimensional romance: its roots in pedagogy and a progressive, broadly socialist, political subtext. Onwards and upwards. Or, as Flatland has it, Upward, not Northward.