Victorian England takes its name from the reigning power at the time. Queen Victoria ruled from 1837 - 1901, during the 100 Years of Peace. At this time there were no large and debilitating wars being fought. Instead, Britain concentrated on industrialization, scientific development, expansion overseas, and managing colonies.
"Science touched the imagination by its tangible results," said G.M. Young of early Victorian England (TURNER p.8). Science established the foundation of wealth through industrialization and automation of jobs. Science was also responsible for safety from tragedies such as flood, disease and famine. The standards of life, quality of hygiene, housing, food, and material goods such as cloth also improved. T.H. Huxley, a writer of the times, remarked that this was a "new nature created by science."
Naturalistic thinkers such as Huxley abounded in the latter half of the 19th century. These prominent writers, politicians and teachers believed that the emphasis of society on religion should be replaced by respect and reverence for science and the "New Nature." Charles Darwin changed religion's role as a governing body of society forever when he published his "Origin of the Species." Darwin's writings used the newly established, and widely respected authority of Science to directly contradict the teachings of the Bible, and the basis of Christianity. Disagreements occurred between ardent Creationists and those who believed Darwin's evolutionary theories to be correct.
The public was able to closely monitor these proceedings due to the proliferation of cheap, easily accessible "penny papers." These papers were sometimes called "penny dreadfuls" due to their scathing, sensationalistic news coverage. The "Religion versus Science" wars were a favorite of the paper writers and editors. Besides hot political and moral topics such as the former, the papers also satisfied the public demand for murder, mystery, mayhem and madness. The papers had attention-grabbing headlines such as "SHOCKING CHILD MURDER," and "SUICIDE THROUGH DESTITUTION." The papers also covered in incredible detail high-society murders and scandals.
The new journalism was part fiction and part fact. The papers often relied on the testimonies of self-proclaimed "criminal and forensic experts." These sources gave incorrect and unsubstantiated information and were often themselves the subject of scandal-trial articles, as a result of their slander and lies.
High-society murders were of particular interest to the reading public. Large numbers of middle-class people had been involved with the industrial and colonial growth of England. When these industries generated success and wealth, the number of new rich trying to join the upper reaches of society exploded. Due to the incredible increase in social climbers, the rules that had to be followed to become a truly "valid" member of the upper ranks became increasingly complex and numerous. It is interesting to think of the rigid societal divisions in "Flatland" with this in mind. Elite society, previously restricted to aristocracy, was growing to include people with commercial, industrial and colonial backgrounds (TURNER p. 59), and as their ranks grew, "true" aristocracy raised the stakes and obscured the rules to keep themselves free of commoners.
As high-class status became more accessible to common people, there grew a prurient interest in the dark sides of the rich and successful. Trials such as the Palmer trial (he poisoned people) were at least as famous and followed as the O.J. Simpson case of our time. The penny press made the trials available for the inspection and deliberation of everyone.
The voyeuristic interest with which the public absorbed murder and scandal may have been the result of a desire for insight into the unknown lives of strangers. This desire could have been sparked by colonizers reports from around the world of strange "savage" peoples. Everyday lives of these "primitive" civilizations were closely documented by missionaries, explorers, traders,and merchants. The people documented were either pitied from a religious standpoint due to their heathen nature, or belittled from a naturalist, evolutionary standpoint as being less civilized and therefore farther down on the evolutionary ladder.
However they were viewed, writers spared no detail of the private lives of their subjects. Such reports were wildly popular in England. Comic newspapers were also highly popular in Victorian England, and these provide another insight into the perception of "savages" by readers.
Another forum that provided "accurate" insight into the lives and doings of others, were the World Fairs, the predecessor of which was the Crystal Palace Exhibition in England in 1851. This exhibition emphasized the development of industrial nations at the expense of the non-industrial (BOYLE, p.226).
The penny press, comics, and the popular World Fairs and Exhibitions are just a few of the ways in which unknown cultures and ideas were introduced to Victorian England. This was the time period before and during which "Flatland" was written. The Victorian fascination with all things bizarre and foreign gives an interesting insight into "Flatland." For all its modern satirical and mathematical qualities, "Flatland" seems appropriately Victorian in that it provides for the reader a microscope view of a strange people living in an unfamiliar land.
Women, with their puffed shoulders, large bonnets, and short, full skirts, were commonplace in early Victorian history. Their dress suggested an assemblage of gaudy whipping-tops. This style of dress generally progressed through the inception of the French Romantic Movement of the 1830's, and the accession of Queen Victoria. The time gave pass to more elegant fashions, from an era of bouncing ostentation, to a period of "fly-away" charm, and a seeming look of ideal seraphicity. Skirts grew steadily longer and more voluminous, and were usually worn with several layers of petticoat, starched muslin, corded calico, or thick flannel. A roll of plaited horsehair beneath the outer petticoat ensured the proper degree of solidity and amplitude. It was not uncommon to see a crinoline which measured ten yards round. At the inception of the romantic movement, the changing of the fashion of the Victorian woman, also warranted a change in the way in which the woman was percieved. Quennel remarks that the "woman was not a two-legged viviparous animal, but an exquisite and unreal, being who moved, without any apparent means of locomotion, in a perpetual sighing rustle of silken drapery." He later goes on to say that "her costume conspir[ed] to increase the touch of awe with which she was regarded by the ingenious, possessive male, who respects the female in proportion as he finds it difficult to approach her." This quote lends it self to some remarkable literary parallels with other works of this time. In Edward Abbott Abbott's "Flatland", we encounter a presentation of women which incorporates these views. Abbott describes women as having "the power of making [themselves] practically invisible.." and that a female "is a creature by no means to be trifled with." In "Flatland", it is especially dangerous to approach a woman, as it may result in "absolute and immediate destruction."
The development of the crinoline made it especially difficult for women to maneuver, and perform trivial tasks. It was not easy for a woman to walk with such a mass of material to carry along with her, and sitting "was a pure matter of art to prevent the steel hoops from getting out of place." The art to which Quennel refers is not one to be admired and awed when view, but is meant to diminish and satirize the triflings of the female as it requires "a husband of extraordinary patience..", indeed, a truly "ingenious male.." to tolerate the seemingly unimportant problems wrought by the dress of the female.
By the end of the Victorian Era, agnosticism, impressionism, and naturalism had begun to make considerable headway. This time also saw the development of items to make the woman more presentable, as well as enhance her figure, or the image of the perfect figure, to which both male and female had wholeheartedly subscribed.