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Constance Naden

(24 January 1858 - 23 December 1889)

In 1888 Constance Naden became the first female Associate of the Mason Science College (later the University of Birmingham), 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 fascinating 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 because all this intellectual activity took place during the decade before she died at the age of 31 in 1889.


After her death Naden’s life became a somewhat contested narrative as biographies proliferated, including the multiple-authored Constance Naden: A Memoir (1890), 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. Nonetheless, the impression given by all of them is that Naden was a fiercely independent and intelligent woman: her prowess at commanding the floor with astute 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. Furthermore, in the last year or so of her life she became active within the women’s rights movement. She became a public advocate by giving lectures on the subject ‘Women’s Suffrage’, and after her death the Women’s Suffrage Society declared that they could ‘ill spare her from our rank. She exhibited a union of powers which marked her out as a woman with a great future’. While it is futile to wonder “what if?”, it is difficult not to think that the suffrage movement lost a unique voice upon Naden’ untimely death.


Naden’s insightful and varied poems remain a joy to read, ranging from the reflective to the comic, and addressing the big issues of the day (then and now), such as gender and religion. Today, thanks to the increasing attention paid women’s writing over the past few decades, Naden is becoming an established figure in Victorian poetry. The recent discovery of three notebooks full of unpublished poems and other writing extends our understanding of her life and works quite radically. These exciting documents, which are deposited at the Cadbury Research Library, are sure to stimulate further research and raise her profile still further.


Constance Naden is one of Birmingham’s foremost poets, and a rare example a Victorian female polymath, and she therefore deserves a more fitting memorial than the current jigsaw of broken stones in Key Hill Cemetery from the city in which she spent most of her short but extraordinary life.

Clare Stainthorp, PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham. 


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