Victorian Poetry 40.2 (2002) 107-130
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Women and Science in the Poetry of Constance Naden
HOW CAN A VICTORIAN WOMAN FIND A VOICE WITHIN THE PATRIARCHAL realm of scientific discourse that judges her an intellectual inferior? More broadly, how can she even position herself within a culture that disdains rigorous cognitive work by women as unnatural and dangerous? Constance Naden (1858-1889) grapples with these questions in a series of poems published in the fin de siècle, herself wielding the language of science tointerrogate the Victorian woman's relation with intellectuality, rationality, and logic. Naden's ultimately pessimistic negotiation of these issues suggests that a woman cannot participate unproblematically as an authoritative voice in the rarefied field of scientific endeavor, with its esoteric and complex lexicon, or the wider universe of learning in which the discipline is located. Instead, Naden deems efforts to enter this masculine world as insurmountably thwarted by nineteenth-century perceptions of female subjectivity that valorize acquiescence, silence, morality, sensibility, and passivity for the gender presumed inevitably flawed in its mental capacity. The discourse of science, then, serves as a vehicle of power whereby Victorian women can be delimited and defined as the Other.
Published in the 1880s, Naden's poetic works appeared at a significant moment in Victorian cultural history. 1 The previous decade saw Darwin's The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, with its brief but censorious pronouncements on the female mind, as well as a plethora of scientific texts penned by psychologists, physicians, anthropologists, biologists, and others who unequivocally placed women on a lower evolutionary rung in comparing their cognitive abilities to those of men. Darwin, for instance, asserted in the 1871 Descent that "the chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman." He continued, "If men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman." 2 Psychologist George Romanes made a similar contention in an 1887 essay, [End Page 107] noting that "on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power" in women. 3 Mental differences between the sexes could be succinctly differentiated, he surmised, for "in the feminine type the characteristic virtues, like the characteristic failings, are those which are born of weakness" (p. 660). In the early 1870s, Herbert Spencer, ironically one of Naden's heroes, claimed: "That men and women are mentally alike, is as untrue as they are alike bodily." 4 In fact, Spencer maintained, women experienced "a somewhat earlier arrest of individual evolution" (p. 32), a point with which numerous other Victorian scientists agreed. One of the most outspoken critics of women's mental abilities, anthropologist J. McGrigor Allan, reinscribed in an 1869 essay the common belief that "man's realm is the intellect—woman's the affections." 5 "In reflective power," Allan opined, "woman is utterly unable to compete with man" (p. cxcvii) and "will always fall far short of man" (p. ccvi). He went on to sputter, "No distinction in the minds of men and women! Nature flatly contradicts the absurd assertion" (p. ccxv). Another anthropologist, Luke Owen Pike, reiterated his colleague's view and argued three years later that "if man's highest prerogative is to think, woman's noblest function is to love." 6 All of these scientists mustered ostensibly objective evidence to support centuries-old presumptions of an inferior female intellect, shaping their conclusions to tread well-established ideological paths.
Constance Naden's own life history contradicts these patronizing estimations of women's mental abilities. An avid reader and inquisitive student, Naden included among her many interests a fascination with the natural sciences. Her early studies of botany at the Midland Institute in Birmingham were complemented by later work at nearby Mason College where, as one of her professors recalled, she was the school's "most brilliant student...