In 1888 Constance Naden was made the first female Associate of the Mason Science College (which became the University of Birmingham in 1900), a title that acknowledged the distinguished position she had taken as a student during her six years studying there. A year later, in an obituary printed in the Mason College Magazine, the editor claimed that ‘It is not too much to say that hers was the most powerful intellect, her gifts the most remarkable, and the most highly cultivated of any who have received their education in science within these walls.’
As well as studying and mastering a wide range of sciences and languages, Naden published two volumes of poetry (both of which were well received in the national press), and was an active proponent of a scientifically-grounded philosophy called Hylo-Idealism. These achievements are all the more remarkable in that all this intellectual activity took place during the decade before she died at the age of 31 in 1889. Furthermore, in the last year and a half of her life Naden travelled for several months with a friend through the Middle East and India, moved away from Birmingham where she had lived all of her life in order to buy a house in London, and became actively involved in several political and philanthropic causes.
You could say that Naden is a near-perfect example of that icon of the fin-de-siècle, the New Woman; she was intelligent, educated, emancipated, and independent. An inheritance from her grandparents meant that she was free to avoid the usual paths open to young middle-class women that needed to support themselves in the late nineteenth century: getting married or training to become a teacher. Instead Naden was able to pursue an education in science, art and philosophy, and through this she developed a full and nuanced understanding of the universe in its physical, intellectual and social aspects.
After her death Naden’s life became a somewhat contested narrative as biographies proliferated. The principle of these is the multiple authored Constance Naden: A Memoir (1890), but in addition there are prefaces to the posthumously published volumes of her essays and poetry, and obituaries in the national and local press. As a result, while the basic facts of Naden’s life are well documented, conflicting portraits emerge, depending on whether the memoirist knew her primarily as a child, a student, a philosopher, or a poet.
The primary point of contention was Naden’s rejection of religion in favour of adopting a rational atheist philosophy. Only after meeting the retired army surgeon Robert Lewins did Naden’s unbelief take a clear and specific form, as they worked together to refine the concept of Hylo-Idealism. This was a materialist philosophy that insisted upon the subjective nature of all perception and rejects any dualist opposition of matter to spirit. In his memorial essay, originally printed in The Contemporary Review, family friend R.W. Dale asserted that Lewins ‘acquired a remarkable ascendency over her mind’ and ‘She felt and welcomed his power over her’ but George McCrie refutes this, arguing (and concurring with other obituary essays) that though Lewins introduced Naden to his specific philosophical ideas, she ‘had worked herself free from the creed of Christendom’ before meeting him (1891). Clearly this is not simply a disagreement about influences, it also highlights contemporary debates regarding the degree of rational autonomy that a women could be presumed to have.
Perhaps we cannot blame her friends for having conflicting views of her actions and character though, since Naden was clearly aware of her many-sidedness, and was careful to distinguish between the poetry published by Constance Naden, and her essays on Hylo-Idealism signed with pseudonyms such as C. Arden, C.A., or C.N.. Clearly these pen-names elide her gender, something that was particularly useful as she participated in debates in the letters pages of the Journal of Science, Knowledge and several other periodicals, since on the rare occasion that her status as a woman was apparent she invariably found her opinions to be belittled and dismissed in a way that was not evident at other times. However, as explored by Marion Thain in her 2003 essay ‘“Scientific Wooing”: Constance Naden’s Marriage of Science and Poetry’, they also functioned to maintain, semi-successfully, distinction between the secularism of her philosophy, which had working-class and republican origins, and her status as a poet and successful student who grew up in bourgeois Birmingham society.
Nevertheless, Naden was the lone women in a coterie of middle-aged men with whom she published many pamphlets, books, articles, reviews, and letters extolling the new ‘creed’ of Hylo-Idealism. As noted by one of her fellow Hylo-Idealists, she was perhaps at risk of becoming a symbolic figurehead of the group. However her prowess as a philosopher meant that she often outshone her older, male counterparts and became the philosophy’s most clear and successful proponent. For example, the editor of theosophical magazine Lucifer acknowledged ‘a letter signed C.N.’ that ‘places Hylo-Idealism in a new and different light, and its straightforward style and language are in strong contrast to the turgid effusions of such writers as G. M. McCrie’ that had been published in in previous issues (1888).
While the obituary essays can disagree, they do combine to construct a persona for Naden that her friends believed was her rightful legacy, rather than one that rings entirely true. In particular, their repeated emphasis of her femininity is interesting, and seems to stem from the societal expectations and prejudices surrounding gender norms in this period. Clearly Naden was a fiercely independent and intelligent woman: her prowess at commanding the floor with keen and insightful comments in debates and the classroom is well documented and the academic prizes won at Mason College demonstrate her talent for science, philosophy and languages. The issue from her friends’ point of view is neatly summarised by the attitude of Herbert Spencer, who wrote a letter to Lewins after her death that had resulted from an unsuccessful operation to treat infected ovarian cysts. Although primarily complementary of her talents, his reservations regarding female intelligence are quite shocking to the modern reader:
“Already I had formed a high estimate of her intellect and character, and now perusal of some parts of the volume you have sent me has greatly raised this estimate. Very generally, receptivity and originality are not associated; but in her mind they appear to have been equally great. I can think of no woman, save “George Eliot,” in whom there has been this union of high philosophical capacity with extensive acquisition. Unquestionably her subtle intelligence would have done much in furtherance of rational thought; and her death has entailed a serious loss.
While I say this, however, I cannot let pass the occasion for remarking that in her case, as in other cases, the mental powers so highly developed in a woman are in some measure abnormal, and involve a physiological cost which the feminine organization will not bear without injury more or less profound.”
Naden’s friends were, unsurprisingly, appalled at the suggestion that it was abnormal for a woman to be highly intelligent, and that through her education Naden was somehow culpable for her early death. The letter was printed in the 1890 Memoir, followed by a counter-argument by Hughes, which is extremely limited in its success as he concurs that a woman displaying a high level of intelligence is abnormal (meaning that it lies outside a ‘natural range’), although he argues that this does not mean it is dangerous or unhealthy since ‘either sex under special stimulations is capable of manifesting powers ordinarily shown only by the other’.
Other friends took a different approach to re-establishing Naden’s character. They highlight not only her intellectual strength but also the robustness of her physical constitution, while emphasising that her intelligence did not nullify her femininity. Thus, Madeline Daniell provides the following sketch of her physical features: ‘tall, slender, pale, with dark hair; a delicate, yet powerful face […] She had especially small white hands’. Further on it is stated that she had ‘very dainty hand-writing’, which allows us to attempt to verify these conjectures about her femininity; however I would suggest that, when you look at the sample of Naden’s writing below, ‘dainty’ is not the first adjective that comes to mind!
Facsimile of the last letter written by Naden to Lewins (dated 22nd November 1888), reprinted at the beginning of Further Reliques of Constance Naden: Being Essays and Tracts for Our Times, edited by George McCrie (1891). https://archive.org/details/furtherreliques00mccrgoog
The cover of The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden, edited by Robert Lewins (1894). https://archive.org/details/cu31924013529205
In addition, the obituaries often focus on her more traditionally feminine activities, such as her poetry and flower paintings. This type of art was often considered socially acceptable for women, being viewed as a hobby rather than a serious creative pursuit, and both were clearly important to Naden since a version of one such painting became the motif embossed on the covers of her volumes of poetry (see above). Nevertheless, she ceased painting in the last few years of her life and in 1888 she announced that she had stopped writing poetry in order to concentrate on her Hylo-Idealistic work. It seems that by emphasising her ‘feminine’ artistic output the more subversive ‘masculine’ facets of Naden’s character and activities could be elided. This is supported by the biographers who knew her academically stating that ‘poetry was mere amusement for her, for she had […] deeper and more exalted work for her intellectual powers’, while family friends maintained that her true vocation was poetic, and ‘if she had lived a few years longer; she would have risen buoyantly again and sung like a lark’ (Memoir 1890).
I would contend that Naden’s scientific education, philosophical writings and poetic work are intrinsically connected, the concept of ideal unity being a recurring theme. She predicted a future in which ‘we shall no longer be able to distinguish between matter and spirit, and shall be forced to find in Hylo-Idealism the reconciliation of poetry, philosophy and science’ (What Is Religion? 1883), and fundamental binaries such as idealism and materialism, the objective and the subjective will be reconciled. Poem titles such as ‘Poet and Botanist’, ‘Speech and Silence’, and ‘Science and Philosophy’ attest to this preoccupation. It is also reflected in her educational agenda, Professor William Tilden stating that ‘No inducement seemed sufficient to prevail upon her to become a mere specialist […] she came to gather herself the elements of a synthetic philosophy’. By studying a range of physical and social sciences Naden was able to draw upon cutting-edge developments in how experts understood the functioning of the universe (whether it be Heinrich Hertz’s work on light waves or Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism).
Nour Alarabi, in her 2009 PhD thesis, discusses how Hylo-Idealism is an essentially humanist philosophy, which asserted that ‘both women and men were suffering due to the limits set against their potential by scientific misconceptions and religious dogmas’. While Alarabi suggests that this negates the idea that Naden was writing from an essentially feminist perspective, I would argue that this philosophical stance is fundamentally ingrained with a feminist ideal. While it is never explicitly stated in her essays, the concept of reconciling binaries strongly linked to the appeals of the suffrage movement that socially constructed gender binaries should be challenged on the basis that women have the same abilities, and therefore have a right to the same opportunities, as men.
From the activities undertaken in the last year of her life, it is evident that Naden was engaging with the women’s rights movement. She became a public advocate by giving lectures at Deptford and the Central Finsbury Radical Club on the subject ‘Women’s Suffrage’, although the specific content of these is unknown. After her death the Women’s Penny Paper published articles of remembrance, reiterating the sentiment articulated at a Committee Meeting of the Women’s Suffrage Society that ‘we can ill spare her from our rank. She exhibited a union of powers which marked her out as a woman with a great future’ (1890). While it is futile to wonder “what if?”, it is difficult not to think that the suffrage movement lost a unique voice upon Naden’s untimely death.
Today, thanks to the turn to gynocriticism during the 1980s and 1990s, Naden (while still relatively obscure) is becoming an established figure in Victorian women’s poetry. Her most well-known poems are the four ‘Evolutional Erotics’, which pit contemporary human relationships against Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Here she employs a knowing, comic tone to dissect core assumptions surrounding romantic relationships, focussing upon the rapidly expanding class of newly educated men and women that resulted from increasing access to universities for both sexes during this period. (The second half of the nineteenth century saw the opening of the women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, and new civic universities and colleges in London and the industrial cities often had policies of gender equality for their admissions and examinations.) One of these, ‘The New Orthodoxy’, will here provide an introduction to Naden’s playful but pointed poetic voice:
SO, dear Fred, you’re not content
Though I quote the books you lent,
And I’ve kept that spray you sent
Of the milk‐white heather;
For you fear I’m too “advanced”
To remember all that chanced
In the old days, when we danced,
Walked, and rode together.
Trust me, Fred, beneath the curls
Of the most “advanced” of girls,
Many a foolish fancy whirls,
Bidding Fact defiance,
And the simplest village maid
Needs not to be much afraid
Of her sister, sage and staid,
Bachelor of Science.
Ah! while yet our hope was new
Guardians thought ’twould never do
That Sir Frederick’s heir should woo
Little Amy Merton:
So the budding joy they snatched
From our hearts, so meetly matched—
You to Oxford they despatched,
Me they sent to Girton.
Were the vows all writ in dust!
And you write—“We will, we must
Now, at once, be married!”
Nay, you plan the wedding trip!
Softly, sir! there’s many a slip
Ere the goblet to the lip
Finally is carried.
Oh, the wicked tales I hear!
Not that you at Ruskin jeer,
Nor that at Carlyle you sneer,
With his growls dyspeptic:
But that, having read in vain
Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford, Bain,
All the scientific train—
You’re a hardened sceptic!
Things with fin, and claw, and hoof
Join to give us perfect proof
That our being’s warp and woof
We from near and far win;
Yet your flippant doubts you vaunt,
And—to please a maiden aunt—
You’ve been heard to say you can’t
Pin your faith to Darwin!
Then you jest, because Laplace
Said this Earth was nought but gas
Till the vast rotating mass
Denser grew and denser:
Something worse they whisper too,
But I’m sure it can’t be true—
For they tell me, Fred, that you
Scoff at Herbert Spencer!
Write—or telegraph—or call!
Come yourself and tell me all:
No fond hope shall me enthrall,
No regret shall sway me:
Yet—until the worst is said,
Till I know your faith is dead,
I remain, dear doubting Fred,
People have debated the extent to which this poem rejects or confounds traditional gender roles and stereotypes, but what I think is most evident here is the engaging and engaged poetic voice that articulates some key issues facing women who were accessing higher education. They were manoeuvring around the expectations of a society that did not yet comfortably accommodate them. Several of Naden’s poems take a similar perspective and tone, while others use the dramatic monologue to articulate the plight of both men and women who can no longer integrate into society. In addition her long narrative poems, such as ‘The Lady Doctor’, ‘A Modern Apostle’ and ‘The Story of Clarice’, offer more extended considerations of such issues. Happily, Indiana University’s Victorian Women Writers Project has made Naden’s Complete Poetical Works freely accessible here: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7115 . The fascinating work of this extraordinary multi-faced woman deserves to be more widely read.
Clare Stainthorp is in the first year of her PhD at the University of Birmingham, funded by the AHRC. She is researching how Constance Naden’s poetry and philosophical prose were influenced by the range of subjects she was studying during the 1880s at Mason Science College (precursor to the University of Birmingham), with a particular focus on optical physics and visual perception.
More information about Clare’s research can be found here (birmingham.ac.uk/clarestainthorp), and you can follow her on Twitter at @ClareGS87.