Constance Naden

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Constance Naden
Constance Naden
Constance Naden
Born(1858-01-24)24 January 1858
15 Francis Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England
Died23 December 1889(1889-12-23) (aged 31)
Resting placeKey Hill Cemetery, Birmingham
OccupationWriter, poet and philosopher
EducationBirmingham and Midland Institute
Alma materMason Science College
Notable worksSongs and Sonnets of Springtime

Naden's grandparent's home, Pakenham House, 20 Charlotte Road, Edgbaston

Constance Caroline Woodhill Naden (24 January 1858 – 23 December 1889) was an English writer, poet and philosopher. She studied, wrote and lectured on philosophy and science, alongside publishing two volumes of poetry. Several collected works were published following her death at the young age of 31. In her honour, Robert Lewins established the Constance Naden Medal and had a bust of her installed at Mason Science College (now the University of Birmingham). William Ewart Gladstone considered her one of the 19th century's foremost female poets.

Early life[edit]

Constance Naden was born on 24 January 1858[1] at 15 Francis Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, England to Caroline Ann Woodhill Naden who died within two weeks of giving birth, and Thomas Naden, an architect, later president of the Birmingham Architectural Association.[2] She was brought up by her mother's parents, Caroline and Josiah Woodhill,[3] from 12 days old until her grandparents' deaths.[1] Naden's well read and devout baptist grandparents lived at Pakenham House, Edgbaston.[2][4] Her father also lived with the Woodhills for many years.[1] At age 8 Naden was sent to a local Unitarian day school, where she developed a talent for painting.[2][4] She submitted some paintings to the Birmingham Society of Artists, one of which (titled ‘Bird's Nest and Wild Roses’) was accepted for display at the Society's Spring Exhibition in 1878.[2]


Mason Science College, now the University of Birmingham

She became interested in philosophy, languages and the sciences. In 1879, Naden attended the Birmingham and Midland Institute to study botany and French,[2][4] and from 1881 to 1887 attended Mason Science College to study physics, geology, chemistry, physiology, and zoology,;[2][4] she also became a member of the Birmingham Natural History Society.[2] Naden also edited the Mason College magazine.[5]

From the late 1870s onwards Naden developed a philosophy called Hylo-Idealism in collaboration with Robert Lewins, MD, who she first met in 1876 and corresponded with for the rest of her life. The key principle of this philosophy is that "Man is the maker of his own Cosmos, and all his perceptions – even those which seem to represent solid, extended and external objects – have a merely subjective existence, bounded by the limits moulded by the character and conditions of his sentient being."[6] She was interested in Herbert Spencer's concept of a unifying philosophy that sought to explain the universe through the principles of evolution.[7] In his work The Social Organism (1860), Spencer compares society to a living organism and argues that, just as biological organisms evolve through natural selection, society evolves and increases in complexity through analogous processes.[8] Naden agreed with this, since the theme of unity is central to Hylo-Idealism, which seeks to reconcile materialism and idealism, poetry and science, the self and other.

Writing career and adult life[edit]

In 1881, Naden published her first volume of poetry Songs and Sonnets of Springtime.[2][4] This is a diverse collection, and her sonnet sequence that describes the changing of the seasons is particularly notable.[9] In 1885 she won the "Paxton prize" for an essay upon the geology of the district.[2] She published a second volume of poetry A Modern Apostle, the Elixir of Life, the Story of Clarice, and other Poems in 1887. In this volume appear her best known poems, the 'Evolutional Erotics', which are written from a comic anthropological perspective about human relationships, using Darwin's theory of sexual selection as a basis. She also wrote in the Journal of Science, Knowledge, The Agnostic Annual and other periodicals.[2][4] She authored many of her scientific and philosophical essays under the signatures of CN, CA and Constance Arden.[5]

Also in 1887, she won the "Heslop" gold medal for her essay, Induction and Deduction. Her grandmother Woodhill died on 21 June 1887[nb 1] and she inherited a considerable fortune, which allowed her to travel to Constantinople (Istanbul), Palestine, India, and Egypt[2][4] with her friend the educationalist and campaigner for women's right to higher education, Madeline Daniell.[10] While in India she became interested in its society, particularly regarding equality and the position of women.

She returned to England in June 1888 and bought a house on Park Street, Grosvenor Square,[2] which she shared with Daniell.[3] She raised funding to allow Indian women to study medicine and became a member of the National Indian Association.[3] She joined the Aristotelian Society, endeavoured to form a Spencer society, and belonged to various societies of benevolent aims. On 22 October 1889 she delivered an address upon Mr. Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology to the sociological section at Mason College.[2] She also spoke about the need for women's suffrage at public events, as recorded by reports in the Women's Penny Paper.[11][12]

Naden was described as:

slight and tall, with a delicate face and ‘clear blue-grey eyes.’ She was regular and active in her habits. She had a penetrating voice, and was thoroughly self-possessed in public speaking.[2]

She possessed the tendency to be somewhat aggressive and sarcastic in discussion, but was well-loved and had very warm personal and intellectual friendships.

Illness and death[edit]

The grave of Constance Naden in Key Hill Cemetery, photographed in 2015

In 1889 a diagnosis of infected ovarian cysts was deemed to require surgery; on 5 December she was operated on by Lawson Tait, and while initially this was a success, on 23 December she died of a related infection.[13] Naden's last letter to Robert Lewins, which is printed on the opening pages of the 1891 essay collection Further Reliques of Constance Naden details the circumstances of the surgery and her worries regarding it.[14] She was buried in the nonconformist Key Hill Cemetery, Birmingham.[15] The gravestone was badly damaged over the course of the twentieth century, and in September 2017 a campaign was launched to replace it with a more fitting memorial.[16] A rededication ceremony for the new gravestone took place on Saturday 11 May 2019.[17]


Naden was lauded after her death for her philosophical writings, by Robert Lewins, M.D.,[18] her contributions to poetry, her support of the women's suffrage cause in popular women's periodicals,[19] and for her "Pantheistic view of immortality" by William Ewart Gladstone,[20] in which he ranked her among the nineteenth century's top female poets.[21] Lewins founded the Constance Naden Medal at Mason College in her honour,[20] which is awarded each year, first for the "best competitive philosophical essay" and now for the best Faculty of Arts Master's degree thesis at the University of Birmingham.[22] Lewins also commissioned a bust of Naden which he presented to Mason's College. It sits on a plinth of three books, the spine of which are inscribed "Songs and Sonnets of Springtime and A Modern Apostle, The Elixir of Life, etc." on the front and "Induction and Deduction and Hylo-Idealism" on the back.[22] It was originally placed in the college's library. Mason College became the University of Birmingham in 1900, and the bust stands in the Cadbury Research Library Reading Room.[22]

On 14 December 2009, the Birmingham Civic Society provided a commemorative blue plaque which was unveiled by the Lord Mayor. It is located at her childhood home, Pakenham House 20 Charlotte Road, Edgbaston. The inscription reads "Constance C.W. Naden 1858–1889 Poet, Scientist and Philosopher lived here for most of her life."[23]

Naden's grave in Key Hill Cemetery is shared with her mother and maternal grandparents. During the twentieth century the stone was broken up and buried by the city council along with other memorials in the area; in 2010 it was excavated by the Friends of the Cemetery but it remained illegible. On 11 May 2019, following a successful fundraising campaign by the Constance Naden Trust, a rededication ceremony was held to mark the installation of Constance Naden's new gravestone.[24] The replacement stone reproduces the text on the original but draws additional attention to Naden's achievements with the words ‘Poet, philosopher, artist, Scientist’ newly inscribed near the top of the stone along with a line from her 1881 poem ‘The Pantheist's Song of Immortality’: ‘For earth is not as though thou ne’er hadst been’.[25]

Posthumous publications[edit]

Three books were published posthumously, Induction and deduction, and other essays (1890), Further Reliques of Constance Naden (1891) and The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden (1894).[2][26] Herbert Spencer, who had been an important scientific and philosophical influence on her work, remarked: "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."[27]

Critical reception[edit]

Naden's poetry has received increasing attention since the 1980s, as people sought to recover lost women's voices. A range of scholarship on her life and works has appeared, with particular focus on the interplay between literature and science in her works, her relationship with freethought, and her proto-feminist ideas. Clare Stainthorp has published an overview of the first three decades of critical writings on Naden, in which she also suggests avenues for future research.[28]


  1. ^ Naden's Grandfather Woodhill died previously on 27 December 1881.[2]


  1. ^ a b c William Richard Hughes; Charles Lapworth; Sir William Augustus Tilden; Robert Lewins (1890). Constance Naden: A Memoir. Bickers & Son. p. 6. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Lee, Sidney, ed. (1894). "Naden, Constance Caroline Woodhill" . Dictionary of National Biography. 40. London: Smith, Elder & Co. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.
  3. ^ a b c "Featured New Women: Constance Naden (1858–1889)". The Latchkey – Journal of New Women Studies. Archived from the original on 19 December 2013. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Christine L. Krueger (1 January 2009). Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries. Infobase Publishing. p. 251. ISBN 978-1-4381-0870-4. Retrieved 19 July 2013.
  5. ^ a b Marion Thain, "Scientific Wooing": Constance Naden's Marriage of Science and Poetry' Victorian Poetry, 41.1 (2003), pp.151–169
  6. ^ Constance Naden, ‘The Brain Theory of Mind and Matter’, in Induction and Deduction (London: Bickers & Son, 1890), p. 157
  7. ^ "Constance Naden". University of Guelph. Archived from the original on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  8. ^ Herbert Spencer (1860). "The Social Organism". The Westminster Review. reprinted in Herbert Spencer (1892), Essays: Scientific, Political and Speculative, London and New York
  9. ^ Clare Stainthorp, 'Songs of Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter', Changeful yet Changeless blog (7 Jan 2015)
  10. ^ Begg, Tom (2004). Daniell [née Carter], Madeline Margaret (1832–1906), educationist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/56167.
  11. ^ 'Women Voters for the County Council', Women's Penny Paper, 12 January 1889, p.2
  12. ^ 'The Women's Suffrage Question in Parliament', Women's Penny Paper, 15 February 1890, p.194
  13. ^ Constance Naden: A Memoir, ed. William R. Hughes (London: Bickers & Son, 1890), p.56
  14. ^ Further Reliques of Constance Naden, (London: Bickers & Son, 1891)
  15. ^ 'Famous graves of Key Hill Cemetery in the Jewellery Quarter', Birmingham Mail, 7 November 2014.
  16. ^ Stainthorp, Clare (10 September 2017). "Constance Naden Grave Restoration Appeal". Changeful, yet changeless. Retrieved 22 October 2017.
  17. ^ "Constance Naden Grave Rededication Ceremony". Changeful, yet changeless. 27 April 2019. Retrieved 8 May 2019.
  18. ^ "Foreword". The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden. London: Bickers & Son. 1894. p. viii.
  19. ^ Women's Penny Paper reports, 1889–90
  20. ^ a b Frederic Boase (1897). Modern English Biography: I-Q. Netherton and Worth. pp. Section 1, 1810. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  21. ^ Patricia Murphy (1 January 2006). In Science's Shadow: Literary Constructions of Late Victorian Women. University of Missouri Press. p. 42. ISBN 978-0-8262-6557-9. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  22. ^ a b c "Constance Naden (1858–1889)". National Recording Project. Public Monuments & Sculpture Association (PMSA). Archived from the original on 19 December 2013. Retrieved 1 July 2013.
  23. ^ "Blue Plaque for Birmingham's Constance Naden". Birmingham Perspectives: 12. Spring and Summer, 2010. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  24. ^ "Constance Naden Grave Restoration Appeal". Changeful, yet changeless. 10 September 2017. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  25. ^ "Pioneering Victorian alumna's grave restored and unveiled in Birmingham". University of Birmingham. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  26. ^ "The Complete Poetical Works of Constance Naden". The Victorian Women Writers Project (online version). 1894.
  27. ^ William Richard Hughes; Charles Lapworth; Sir William Augustus Tilden; Robert Lewins (1890). Constance Naden: A Memoir. Bickers & Son. pp. 89–90. Retrieved 20 July 2013.
  28. ^ Stainthorp, Clare (1 August 2017). "Constance Naden: A Critical Overview". Literature Compass. 14 (8): e12401. doi:10.1111/lic3.12401. ISSN 1741-4113.

Further reading[edit]

  • Virginia Blain (15 September 2009). Victorian women poets: a new annotated anthology. Pearson Longman. pp. 235–236. ISBN 978-1-4082-0498-6.
  • E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. (1891), Constance Naden and Hylo-Idealism, London: Bickers & Son
  • Julie S. Gilbert (1994), "Women Students and Student Life at England's Civic Universities Before the First World War", History of Education: 405–422
  • William Ewart Gladstone (1890), "British Poetry of the Nineteenth Century", The Speaker (1): 34–35
  • William R. Hughes, ed. (1890), Constance Naden: A Memoir, London: Bickers & Son
  • McCrie, George (1891), Further Reliques of Constance Naden: Being Essays and Tracts for Our Times
  • A.H. Miles (1893), Poets of the century, viii, pp. 571–578
  • J. Jakub Pitha (1999), "Constance Naden", Dictionary of Literary Biography 199: Victorian Women Poets, Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, pp. 211–215
  • Clare Stainthorp (2017), "Constance Naden: A Critical Overview", Literature Compass 14.8
  • Clare Stainthorp (2018), "On the Discovery of a Sequence of Constance Naden’s Notebooks: Finding Her Voice, 1875–1879", Victorian Poetry 56.3, 233–63.
  • R.K.R. Thornton, Marion Thain, ed. (1997), Poetry of the 1890s, London: Penguin

External links[edit]