“If our highly pointed triangles of the soldier class are formidable, it may be readily inferred that far more formidable are our women. For if a soldier is a wedge, a woman is a needle; being, so to speak, all point, at least at the two extremities. Add to this the power of making herself practically invisible at will, and you will perceive that a female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with.”
Edwin Abbott Abbott
Edwin Abbott Abbott was the son of two cousins, both with the surname Abbott. His father was an educator and also called Edwin. As a young man, Edwin Abbott Abbott was an outstanding student, winning medals and honours for mathematics, classics and theology. This mix of fields was to fuse together to create his most famous work, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is a science fiction narrative; a strange mixture of the fairy tale genre, geometry and theology. Abbott didn’t begin writing until after he retired from the field of education, after completing university he became an educator, like his father. He was a headmaster by the time he was 26. When he retired from his post as Headmaster of City of London School, he went to pursue his interest in writing. He wrote books on the classics, and theology. In the middle of all these nonfiction books, he found time to write Flatland.
There are plenty of mathematical and theological articles about Flatland if you are interested, and what I want to focus on is the feminist subtext in this work. If you’ve read the quote, you will see that all the female flatlanders are geometric lines (all the males are polygons), and considered very dangerous. All the females are characterized as too dangerous to allowed to roam freely through Flatland, and are subject to three main rules.
But a general view of the Code may be obtained from the following summary: –
- Every house shall have one entrance in the Eastern side, for the use of Females only; by which all females shall enter “in a becoming and respectful manner” and not by the Men’s or Western door.
- No Female shall walk in any public place without continually keeping up her Peace-cry, under penalty of death.
- Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus’s Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed .
Flatland was written as a satiric commentary on Victorian society. E. A. Abbott dedicates a whole chapter to the situation of the female flatlanders. His character of ‘A. Square’ makes the strange customs of the flatland society sound natural and normal, as it would be to someone who grew up and lived in Flatland. The customs and rigid rules of Flatland mirror the situation of women in Victorian society. One paragraph is particularly telling in what E.A. Abbott’s own thought on the situation.
To my readers in Spaceland the condition of our Women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is. A Male of the lowest type of the Isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation of the whole of his degraded caste; but no Woman can entertain such hopes for her sex. “Once a Woman, always a Woman” is a Decree of Nature; and the very Laws of Evolution seem suspended in her disfavour. Yet at least we can admire the wise Prearrangement which has ordained that, as they have no hopes, so they shall have no memory to recall, and no forethought to anticipate, the miseries and humiliations which are at once a necessity of their existence and the basis of the constitution of Flatland.
If I was a Patriarchal Victorian man reading this, think my reaction would have been “OUTRAGEOUS!”
I would like to think Flatland gave a few men (and women) something to ponder in a quiet moment. It is still popular today because of its modern outlook. This narrative wasn’t Edwin Abbott Abbott’s only controversial literary venture, but -as previously mentioned – the rest of his work was more of an academic nature. Flatland was his only venture into Science Fiction.