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Constance Naden

Scientist, Philosopher, Poet


Clare Stainthorp

Constance Naden (1858–1889) is a unique voice in Victorian literature and science. This book, the first full-length critical account of her life and works, brings into focus the reciprocal nature of Naden’s poetry, philosophical essays and scientific studies. The development of Naden’s thinking is explored in detail, with newly discovered unpublished poems and notes from her adolescence shedding important light upon this progression.

Close readings of Naden’s wide-ranging corpus of poetry and prose trace her commitment to an interdisciplinary world-scheme that sought unity in diversity. This book demonstrates how a rigorous scientific education, a thorough engagement with poetry and philosophy of the long nineteenth century, an involvement with the Victorian radical atheist movement, and a comic sensibility each shaped Naden’s intellectual achievements. Naden sought to show how the light of reason is made even brighter by the spark of poetic creation and how the imagination is as much a tool of the scientist and the philosopher as the artist.

Taking a comprehensive approach to this complex and overlooked figure of the Victorian period, Stainthorp demonstrates how Naden’s texts provide a new and important vantage point from which to consider synthetic thinking as a productive and creative force within nineteenth-century intellectual culture.

This book was the winner of the 2017 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Nineteenth-Century Studies.

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Chapter 2: Scientist


Chapter 2


And see, wherever sun or spark is lit,

One Law, one Life, one Substance infinite.

— Constance Naden, ‘Starlight. II’, CPW 143, ll. 13–14

Whether writing in poetry or prose, Constance Naden was committed to scientific ways of thinking. During the 1880s Naden studied chemistry, botany, zoology, physics, biology and geology. The notion of disciplinary distinctions thus structured her seven years enrolled at Mason Science College and the Birmingham and Midland Institute (BMI). While structures were in place around Naden to instil disciplinary allegiance, she demonstrated that an independent programme of study across the sciences and an extracurricular commitment to the arts and humanities allowed one to resist the imposition of intellectual borders.

Naden’s commitment to scientific ways of thinking aligned her intellectual endeavours with the methodology that John Tyndall articulated in his celebrated 1870 address, ‘The Scientific Use of the Imagination’.1 Drawing upon her intensive education, Naden performed the ‘leap[s] of the imagination’ that Tyndall identified as ‘the mightiest instrument of the physical discoverer’.2 She combined her expertise in the most up-to-date science – drawn from←81 | 82→ independent reading as well as the classes she attended – with a deep knowledge of the history of philosophy to develop her own world-scheme that synthesized materialism and relative idealism. Naden’s poetic and philosophical works demonstrate how she used her education to build her synthetic philosophy. Her poetry provided a creative space to address the unifying aims...

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