Archive for November, 2010

The worst kind of blogger: completely off-radar for six months. I have been productive, or perhaps more accurately reproductive – my third daughter has justifiably diverted attention away from blogging.

That said, I’ve been making considerable progress with the thesis, elements of which have appeared here in the past. A draft of a third chapter on Theosophical engagements with higher dimensioned space is under the belt, and work well under way on chapter four, which is a welcome return to the happier hunting ground of fiction. In this chapter I’ll be looking at H.G. Wells’s continued engagements with the idea of the fourth dimension in his early scientific romances, Lilith (1895) by George MacDonald, The Inheritors (1901) by Conrad and Ford, The Mummy and Miss Nitocris (1906) – and the assorted stories that led up to it – by George Griffith, and a handful of British genre stories by folk like Algernon Blackwood. So lots of fun to be had in canonical SF and less-canonical pulp.

In the course of the Theosophical researches, some of which I’ll return to in future posts (really? does anyone believe that there will be future posts?), I turned up this intriguing clip from The Boy’s Own Paper of Saturday April 26, 1890.

Mobius strip

Möbius Strip

The Boy’s Own Paper was pretty much what it said on the tin. Indeed, the phrase ‘real Boy’s Own stuff’ derives from the magazine’s title, so we can get an idea of its editorial content from its linguistic legacy: tales of adventure, instructions in edifying outdoor activities and advice on everything from keeping cats to fishing to putting down troublesome natives at the imperial margins. It was one of a great number of magazines for boys produced during the boom in print publishing from the late 1870s onwards, and the traditional account, that these catered for newly educated readers produced by the Education Reform Act of 1870, does tell part of the story. At the same time print was becoming cheaper and new publishers were entering the market by the week. (There’s a typically thorough and thought-provoking analysis of The BoP’s science content by Richard Nokes here, which also covers the  paper’s background in detail).

The Rev. Bartlett’s column was a regular piece, and the Rev becomes the latest in a long line of ordained men to have displayed an interest in the possibilities of higher space (Arthur Willink and C.W. Leadbeater were interested around the same time, as was the fictional vicar of Wells’s The Wonderful Visit (1895)). I remember reading somewhere of Möbius strips being used as parlour games around the turn of the century, so perhaps this is the source of that. It’s worth trying out, especially if you have kids, and I seem to remember doing this as a child myself.

Needless to say, despite the Rev’s 4-d addendum, the only connection this little trick has with the fourth dimension is through Möbius himself, who speculated in his paper on Barycentric Calculus (1827) that the assumption of a fourth dimension would enable the calculation of the gravitational centre of solid objects by the same means he’d outlined for plane figures. He added that there was, of course, no such thing as the fourth dimension, but he’d already let the cat out of the bag.

A Möbius strip is a topologically curious thing but it is resolutely 3-d – it has one boundary and one surface, but it still exists in 3-space without troubling 4. For me, this little piece illustrates the popular penetration of ideas of the fourth dimension around this time: no longer was it stuff for mathematicians or philosophers, it was precisely the sort of thing that would interest the adolescent readers of The Boy’s Own Paper. There’s subsequently a ludic element to this, which I’m encountering again and again in my research: 4-d is play. The whys and wherefores of this are less easy to unpick, but I have a theory I’m working on in my lab.

I’ll be giving a paper on the spaces of the late-19th-century novel alongside Prof Isobel Armstrong at the Nineteenth Century Studies Seminar on Saturday December 11th at Senate House. I’ll be offering readings of Flatland, The Wonderful Visit and The Inheritors and hoping that my middle-brow stuff doesn’t sound too feather-brained in the company of Isobel’s slightly intimidatingly cerebral work – I console myself that a balance is good and healthy. I think this is open to all so if anyone is interested…

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