Constance Naden

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Constance Caroline Woodhill Naden was born on 24th January 1858 at 15 Francis Road, Edgbaston. Due to the death of her mother a mere fortnight after giving birth to her, little Consie was brought up by her maternal grandparents in nearby Pakenham House on the corner of Charlotte Road and Pakenham Road, where there is a blue plaque commemorating her life.

It was here that she developed a habit of voracious reading, thanks to a large miscellaneous library, the property of her grandfather, Mr Woodhill. Described by a cousin as ‘a quaint, retiring, meditative and silent child’ she was educated at a small private day school in Frederick Road and then in 1881 she was enrolled in Mason Science College, later Birmingham University, where she was the first female Associate. Here she came under the influence of Dr Robert Lewins, who founded a gold medal, the Constance Naden medal, in her honour. In 1887 she won the ‘Heslop Gold medal for her essay’ Induction and Deduction’.

Said to have inherited her sense of humour from her mother herself-deprecation is shown by her comment after one of her lectures on the doctrine of evolution before the Sociological Section that ‘people spoke afterwards to the effect that they had profited extremely but hadn’t understood a word’. Having received a considerable inheritance from her grandparents, she was enabled to travel extensively in Europe and the Middle East with her friend, Madeline Daniell.  Her gifts were extraordinary and there is a story of her translating extempore from ancient Greek to modern German with ease and rapidity. She had a painting accepted by the Birmingham Society of artists; In an obituary in the Mason College magazine the editor wrote 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.’.

Her poem ‘The Pantheists’ Song of Immortality’, containing the line ‘Look in her face and lose thy dread of dying;’ was described by W. E. Gladstone, no less, as ‘a short but singularly powerful production’. Thought of more often as a poet, she was deeply interested in both science and philosophy.

A rational atheist, she wrote widely on Hylo-Idealism, the philosophical position that reality exists by virtue of our belief in it. The word ‘polymath’ hardly seems to do her justice. It is even more remarkable that all this was achieved before her thirty-second birthday, which she did not live to see. She died from complications arising from infected ovarian cysts on 23rd March 1889.

Constance Naden

Dr Clare Stainthorp

Used by Permission

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In the decade after Constance Naden’s death in 1889 she became, in some circles, a cautionary tale about the plight of the intellectual woman. As a result of an inflammatory letter written about her by one of the most prominent thinkers of the Victorian age she came to represent how women became a danger to their own health if they chose to pursue a life dedicated to thought and learning.

Today Naden is best known, if at all, as a poet. In her lifetime and immediately after, however, she was rightly celebrated by many as a trail-blazer in terms of her desire to conquer the traditionally male-dominated spheres of science and philosophy. She was elected the first female associate of Mason Science College in Birmingham, had been warmly welcomed into London’s philosophical Aristotelian Society, and frequently published letters and articles in periodicals about social evolution and her atheist philosophy. She was an advocate of social reform, and supported several causes that sought to benefit the position of women, including the Central National Women’s Suffrage Society, the Women’s Liberal Association, and the National Indian Association (through which she hoped to address the position of Indian wives). She was independently wealthy as a result of an inheritance from her grandparents, which meant that she never felt obliged to marry and was able to be generous in her charitable support of less-fortunate women. Indeed, shortly before her death she had committed to take ‘responsibility of the Campden Houses [in London…] for the reception of ladies of limited means’. In addition, her most well-loved poems provided a comic perspective on modern romance, for example taking a critical, almost anthropological, view of male impudence and female acquiescence when considering human relationships through the lens of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (see the ‘Evolutional Erotics’) and exploring the tensions caused by educated women being expected to remain the angel in the house (see ‘Love Versus Learning’).

Her death at the age of thirty-one led to the publication of many positive obituaries that celebrated her diverse achievements, however it was a letter of condolence written by Herbert Spencer a few months after Naden’s death that became a defining text in regard to her legacy. The majority of the letter is laudatory: he compares Naden favourably with George Eliot and states ‘Unquestionably her subtle intelligence would have done much in furtherance of rational thought; her death has entailed a serious loss’. He nonetheless concludes with the assertion 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’. Spencer thus had the temerity to suggest that Naden – accomplished poet, philosopher, and scientist – died of complications to do with ovarian cysts because her body could not support the brain work that she had been undertaking with such confidence and ability.

This, unsurprisingly, angered many people. Madeline Daniell, Naden’s great friend and travelling companion, wrote one letter of rebuke. She stated in no uncertain terms that ‘Miss Naden’s lamented death was not caused by her exceptional mental development’, indeed ‘It was the strength and healthiness of her brain which kept her spirits even, and allowed her to work without evil effects’ during her protracted illness. She argued that such ‘highly developed mental powers’ may only be conceived of as ‘abnormal’ in that they are not common in men or women. Daniell was clearly aware of the potential damage caused by these claims from the pen of such a high-profile commentator, noting that ‘Mr. Spencer’s words carry much weight, and have much influence, therefore I have been constrained to write so that no false impression may go abroad’. Similarly, in 1894 the principal of Mason College, R. S. Heath, named Naden in an interview when asked about whether there had been any ‘great women students’, and took the opportunity to refute Spencer’s assessment of her death as being indicative of the strain higher education places on women’s bodies.

It was not only Naden’s friends that were outraged. After Spencer’s letter was printed in some newspapers several individuals felt compelled to respond. Some did so with humour. ‘Lætitia’ wrote to the Women’s Penny Paper with an amused but critical attitude, asking ‘Mr Spencer what ought women to do, to whom Nature has been so unkind as to bestow on them mental gifts rare in both sexes? In what way ought they seek to rectify this unaccountable oversight?’. Others attacked Spencer more directly. An anonymous male correspondent wrote to a Scottish newspaper, berating the way Spencer ‘seizes the golden moment’ of Naden’s death to ‘read the ambitious sex a homily’. He remarks that Spencer ‘strangely enough, forgets that he himself has been an invalid the greater portion of his life […] and that he has thereby unfitted himself for fatherhood as much as the most abandoned feminine savant ever unfitted herself for motherhood’.

This latter observation gets to the heart of many people’s problem with women’s education during the late Victorian period. During the second half of the nineteenth century opportunities for women to attend higher education institutions were rapidly increasing: during the 1870s seven trail-blazing women began to study medicine in Edinburgh, women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were established in 1879 and 1869 respectively, and from the start new institutions such as Naden’s Mason College (established in 1880) received female and male students on equal terms. Women’s invasion of the masculine public sphere – which encompassed science, philosophy, literature, politics, and almost all professions – was deemed problematic because it undermined traditional distinctions between the sexes. It was implied that by taking up such roles women would no longer desire, or be able, to fulfil their domestic roles. This is illustrated by the proliferation of negative cartoons about the so-called New Woman in popular magazines such as Punch. This example from 1894 shows the decidedly masculine-looking Miss Quilpson, a ‘literary type’, exclaiming ‘What? I marry! I be a man’s plaything! No, thank you!’

Even some of the people closest to Naden were inclined to agree. Her friend and biographer William Hughes was not obviously enraged and instead supported Spencer’s assertion about the female body’s inability to sustain masculine intellect alongside good health. An 1891 article about Naden’s life and works made this even more explicit, turning Naden’s life and tragically early death into a cautionary tale intended to dissuade other women from similarly pursuing their intellectual interests.

The anonymous reviewer wrote: ‘To tell the truth […], a young woman who is troubled about the mystery of things will usually find the best answer in a house to keep and children to bring up, and a husband to control. If we had fewer educated unmarried women, we should have much less yearning, and much less of the poetry of detachment. […] Thinking of this young lady dead almost before the death of youth, […we] may regret, vainly and foolishly, perhaps, what seems a waste of life to many; a career, a mode of thought, common enough to-day among women of intellect.’

Despite the developing strength of the women’s rights movement and continued expansion of educational opportunities for women across the 1890s and into the twentieth century, there continued to be publicly expressed wariness regarding the negative repercussions of such intellectual development. Well over a decade after Naden’s death Havelock Ellis deemed it ‘worthwhile to quote’ in full Spencer’s assessment of Naden as a footnote to his observation that women’s brains are not well-suited to philosophical thought.

The idea of women being a danger to themselves by not following some men’s advice about what was ‘best’ for their mind and body has been a persistent one. In the case of Naden this assessment came to overshadow her many achievements. Spencer’s voice became louder and more persistent than her own, diluting any dangers Naden’s often radical writings might have posed towards the patriarchal society in which she lived. It is only in recent decades that Naden’s place in the history of thought has begun to be re-established, her unique and insightful voice rising above that of those who attempted to silence it.

The Birmingham Civic Society


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