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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 The development of Naden’s thinking is explored in detail, with newly discovered unpublished poems and notes from her adolescence shedding important light upon this progression.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 3: Philosopher


Chapter 3


I cannot say when it will be finished, […] for ideas have

an uncomfortable habit of developing as one writes.

— Constance Naden, qtd in Memoir 48

Early in 1879 Constance Naden wrote in her notebook: ‘What we are, we can never know, but the conflicting claims of Experience & Intuition are clearly solved reconciled by the thesis of Unity’ (N78–9 17). This is one of the earliest surviving expressions of her philosophical position. It is defined by a unifying urge that is carried through her prose and poetry across the following decade. The deletion is significant; her clear, flowing hand indicating that the sentence was first written in its entirety, ‘solved’ was then scored out and replaced by ‘reconciled’ in superscript. The resultant shift in meaning is indicative of Naden’s stance on the scope of human knowledge: while a complete or absolute answer is unachievable, the application of reason enables synthesis, expanding our understanding of the material world and our place within it. Over the course of her writing career Naden used the rhetoric of unity to persuade readers to engage with her philosophy, encouraging them to synthesize different types of knowledge arising from different forms of writing.

A few pages later Naden articulates her attitude to faith: ‘Religion is a matter of false reasoning, not of false feeling’ (N78–9 23). She does not share the aggressive stance towards religion of the most prominent...

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