A Short Biography:
Born in Birmingham on 24 January 1858, Constance Caroline Woodhill Naden spent her childhood living with her wealthy maternal grandparents in Edgbaston, her mother having died a fortnight after her birth (her father remarried a few years later). Between 1866 and 1874/75 she attended a private day school run by Unitarian sisters, and upon leaving travelled widely around Europe before meeting and beginning correspondence with a retired army surgeon and amateur philosopher, Robert Lewins, in 1876. The following years were filled with independent study, painting, and poetry writing. Then in 1879 Naden enrolled at the Birmingham and Midland Institute to study languages and botany, later joining Mason College of Science in 1881. Here she studied physics, chemistry, zoology, physiology, and geology over the course of six years; Naden achieved first-class honours in all her exams and in 1888 was the first woman to be honoured with an Associateship of the College. According to her friends and academic colleagues, she undertook this diverse and intensive education in order to ‘gather herself the elements of a synthetic philosophy’ called Hylo-Idealism (Memoir 68).
In 1881 Naden published her first volume of poetry, titled Songs and Sonnets of Springtime. Over the next few years she began publishing philosophy essays and letters in journals including the reputable Journal of Science and Knowledge, as well as the more esoteric Agnostic Annual and Lucifer (usually under pseudonyms such as C. N., C. C. W. N., and Constance Arden). In 1883 she published the pamphlet What is Religion?, served on the committee of the Mason College Union, and joined the Birmingham Natural History Society. These three distinct strands of her intellectual life continued through to 1887, at which point she left Mason College and published her second volume of poetry, A Modern Apostle; The Elixir of Life; The Story of Clarice; and other Poems. Later that year, after returning from travelling around Europe, the Middle East, and India with her good friend Madeline Daniell, she stopped writing poetry in order to concentrate on Hylo-Idealism and politics. Naden became a more public figure during the final years of her life, moving to London and becoming a vocal member of the Women’s Liberal Association, the Aristotelian Society, and the National Indian Association, as well as offering to take ‘responsibility of the Campden Houses […] for the reception of ladies of limited means’ (Memoir 50). Unfortunately her career as philosopher, philanthropist, and activist was cut short by the late diagnosis of ovarian cysts which, when operated on, were found to have become gangrenous; she died from this infection on 23 December 1889.
Naden’s death was mourned publically and privately in the period that followed. However, despite her friends’ efforts to maintain posthumous interest in Naden – overseeing the publication of four poetic and philosophical collections in the following five years – she fell out of critical view for the majority of the twentieth century until the gyno-critical movement of the 1980s stimulated new research into forgotten female writers.
Almost all biographical information we have is taken from the Constance Naden: A Memoir, which was written by four of her friends soon after she died and published in 1890.
I’ve written more about Naden in a feminist context here: