- 1 Vadillo, “New woman poets and the culture of the salon at the fin de siècle”, Women: A Cultural Rev (...)
- 2 Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005), p. 84.
1British female aestheticism is seen to have a key geographical location: London. Critics have argued convincingly for the importance of London to the aestheticism of female poets of the late nineteenth century, and their cultural development. A. Mary F. Robinson’s Bloomsbury then Kensington salon of aesthetes, and “Michael Field’s” suburban Richmond house, which became an embodiment of aesthetic style, are two paradigmatic examples. A. Mary F. Robinson’s home was the centre for literary gatherings that brought together well-known women poets (such as Amy Levy, Augusta Webster and Mathilde Blind) as well as figures such as Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater and Arthur Symons. Ana Vadillo has written interestingly on how when A. Mary F. Robinson took over the salon that her father had begun in Gower Street (after the publication of her well-received first book of poetry) the “morphology” of the salon “changed completely”, and encompassed a variety of female perspectives “from Emily Pfeiffer’s active involvement in women’s education and her interest in the working classes, to the atheism and republicanism of Mathilde Blind, to Louise S. Bevington’s radical position as an anarchist, to conservative feminists such as Elizabeth Chapman or liberals like Margaret Veley”.1 The Robinson family’s move to Kensington (alongside neighbours such as Robert Browning, Henry James, and Walter Pater) acted as a marker of A. Mary F. Robinson’s success as a poet, and Vadillo argues that the move “revitalised” Robinson’s salon.2 Bradley and Cooper’s London location for their work as “Michael Field” enabled them to engage with literary salon culture and to immerse themselves in the aesthetic life of the city, but in addition to this their Richmond house became in itself a statement of their aestheticist project with the help of nearby friends Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. Ricketts was one of the key designers of Decadence, notably producing luxurious editions of work by Oscar Wilde as well as Michael Field, and Shannon was an artist and metal worker who designed some beautiful jewellery for Bradley and Cooper. Ricketts and Shannon wrote to Bradley on 26 February 1899 with the following advice on decorating their new home (in his inimitable style that is at once poetic and amusing):
- 3 Letter from Ricketts and Shannon to Katharine Bradley: 26 February 1899 (Add.ms.58087 fols. 126r-12 (...)
In colouring a house, see that the temper of
the [insert] each [end insert] room s is kept.—When a room hides from the sun provide it with colours & hangings that love the shade: the green of green shadows in the heart of a wood, blue of that blue haunting a grot, the colours found under the sea. [insert] Place also [end insert] mirrors [insert] in it [end insert] that listen to you, that look like pools. In these cool rooms various objects may be hung or placed; shadow is kind to ugly but useful books.
In rooms that love the sun, use colours that love the sun also: white ivory, gold, yellow, fawn, some shades of rose even. In
this [insert] these [end insert] rooms, the objects should be well-chosen; the sun is angry with ugly thick shapes, but loves the corners of delicate frames, and dainty furniture. Here the mirrors should be allowed to talk: provide them with subjects of conversation, carnations, roses, anemones, woodbine, rings on hands, fruit in a basket or on a silver dish, Chinese embroideries.
In a room given over to melancholy before or after
lunch, a blue (the colour of my dear books) may be combined with white and enlivened with bright pieces of china, sufficiently expensive to make their sudden destruction undesirable. In all these rooms strive to keep the furniture close to the walls, as in Persia. The air and light will love you for this; a rare carpet may then brood in the [insert] an [end insert] open space, lady friends will not overset snowdrops in slender glasses or bump against things, & male friends [insert] or relations [end insert] will not leave hot briars, or smouldering cigarettes upon satinwood, or [insert] even [end insert] galoshes.3
2Indeed, descriptions and pictures of their satinwood-filled rooms, with Botticelli prints and beautiful wallpapers and fabrics, attest to the importance of the house as a statement of their cultural and aesthetic allegiances. They moved from Reigate to Richmond in key part to be close to Ricketts and Shannon and to be able to be involved in the city’s cultural scene.
3In her important book on Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism, Vadillo explores London as a locus for female aesthetes and as an environment which shaped and interweaved with their aesthetics, playing a key character role in their work. Yet, what interests me here is a complementary, unwritten, “back story” to the geographical formation of female aestheticism in London. Robinson and Michael Field may have made their careers in London, but this hides the fact that the family wealth off which they lived, and which made their writing career possible, came from the crucible of industry: the West Midlands.
- 4 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (Routledge, 1984), p. 339.
- 5 Women and British Aestheticism, ed. Talia Schaffer and Kathy Alexis Psomiades (Charlottesville & Lo (...)
4A strong and fascinating line of critical engagement with British aestheticism has made visible the symbiotic relationship between aestheticism and industry. Theodor Adorno famously positioned late-nineteenth century aestheticism as the moment at which art simultaneously becomes autonomous and decontextualised, separate from everyday life, yet increasingly involved with commodity culture and consumerism. L’art pour l’art is to some extent “the opposite of what it claims to be”.4 The various recent critical narratives of aestheticism—most notably those by Freedman, Gagnier, Shaffer and Psomiades—all recognise its ambivalent relationship with the marketplace, “Whether aestheticism is seen as a claim for the absolute autonomy of art, a critique of that claim, or the moment at which art abandons itself wholeheartedly to the world of commodities while pretending not to”.5 For all that “art for art’s sake” defines itself against the marketplace of the new popular fiction as much as against the old moral purpose of literature, it is, covertly, as engaged with an economic agenda as were the “penny dreadful” novels written for an age of mass circulation. The finely bound and beautiful books of aestheticism were, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny”: an emblem of the double-sided nature of what can be bought and what cannot—of invaluable beauty and spirit packaged in a manner which can be sold.
- 6 Jonathan Freedman, Professions of Taste (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 47–8.
- 7 Eric S. Robertson, English Poetesses (London: Cassell and Company, 1883), p. 377–8.
5Yet, this deeply-engaging theorisation of the links between aestheticism and the economics of an industrialised society must be linked more to the facts of aesthetic production in concrete terms. Jonathan Freedman has written about male aesthetes such as Ruskin (as the son of a sherry merchant) and William Morris (as the offspring of a successful stockbroker) as sons of newly wealthy middle-class families, but what of the female aesthetes?6 This is a particularly interesting and important question because inherited money was particularly important to enable women writers to pursue their aesthetic life. While notable examples such as Alice Meynell relied on money earned from their writing to keep themselves in food and lodging, women had less opportunity to earn a living to support their artistic endeavours, and marriage was more problematic for them to combine with their art than it was for male aesthetes. The story of the publication of A. Mary F. Robinson’s first book of poems is apposite here. Given the choice, on her twenty-first birthday, between her family paying for a coming-out ball or the publication of a book of poems, Robinson chose the latter and A Handful of Honeysuckle (Kegan Paul, 1878) was produced.7 While in some ways a choice between her life as an eligible woman and her life as a writer, at least Robinson had this choice—and both routes were to be financially supported by her family—and paid for from the proceeds of the industrial expansion in the West Midlands.
- 8 Robinson, letter to Maria Herzfeld. 1895. From Paris. Eg.3152, ff.72-75. British Library manuscript (...)
- 9 Symons, “A. Mary F. Darmesteter”, in The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, vol. 9, ed. Al (...)
- 10 Vernon Lee [Violet Paget], Vernon Lee’s Letters (privately printed in 1937 (50 copies), with a pref (...)
6Robinson’s early life is fascinating and recorded in a letter to Maria Herzfeld, now held in the British Library, in which Robinson responds to a request for her life story.8 This letter provides me with the facts given below. Born in Leamington Spa on 27th February 1857, Robinson’s father was the wealthy architect, George Thomas Robinson who provided his daughters, Agnes Mary Francis, and her younger sister Mabel, with a private education in Belgium, Brussels and Italy before settling his family in London, educating his daughter at University College, London, and opening his house to the fellowship of the artists and writers of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Arthur Symons called Robinson “the spoilt child of literature. . . . Growing up in a literary house, with all the London singers about her, and the sound of verse in the very air, she naturally signalized her coming of age by the publication of a volume of poems”.9 Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget)—a close companion of Robinson through the early 1880s casts a rather different light on this childhood, presenting George T. Robinson as “a mediocre, tho’ clever, extremely hard and tyrannical little man . . .”. She concludes that Mary’s father did all he could to prevent her writing poetry: “The poor girl is very unhappy; and is so, I fear, very often”.10 This perspective no doubt in part reflects Paget’s clash of values with the family, as well as youthful petulance, but it probably also says something about the driven and ambitious nature of the man.
7George Thomas Robinson (1828-1897) was the son of Richard Robinson, and the family lived in Wolverhampton. George practised architecture in Wolverhampton (before moving to Leamington), and designed the Exchange Building there, as well as the church of St. Luke in Upper Villiers Street.11 The latter shows off his penchant for polychrome brickwork prompting rebuke from Pevsner, the famous critic of English architecture. This combined engagement with commerce and religion in the West Midlands points to exactly the cultural locus for aestheticism that I will argue is crucial to the back-story of aestheticism. The Wolverhampton Exchange was built as an interface between agriculture and industry as, to quote the original prospectus for the building, “the approaching railways to the counties of Worcester, Hereford, and Salop will complete a chain of circumstances that will shortly render the market of Wolverhampton second to none in the Empire”.12 George Robinson himself went on to write books, which demonstrates the beginning of his family’s transformation from offspring of the industrial west midlands to aesthetically-engaged people of literary culture, publishing (amongst other things) “Fictiles” [mouldings] and “Of Stucco and Gesso” in Arts and Crafts Essays (1893). The money that paid for Mary Robinson’s aesthetic education and writing career, then, was made from the expansion of the west Midlands as it led the way in the process of industrialisation that was to change the face of the country.
- 13 Gauntlet, 6 Oct. 1833, p. 546; quoted in Jackie E. M. Latham, “The Bradleys of Birmingham: the Unor (...)
8Behind Michael Field’s life lived aesthetically was also a story built on industrial money. Katharine Bradley’s father and grant-father, both called Charles Bradley, made their money in Birmingham, manufacturing tobacco, snuff and cigars. The family lived at 10 Digbeth, and Katharine was born there. A typically West Midlands mixture of religion and industry was formative of this family just as it was of Robinson’s—although the religion was of a very different hue. Nineteenth-century Birmingham was characterised by its number and mixture of free-thinking sects, and Charles Bradley the elder was a follower of the radical John “Zion” Ward (who wrote many letters to the Bradleys of Birmingham). Charles Bradley the younger was also a convert and married Katharine’s mother (Emma Harris—also a Shilohite) without the aid of the Church establishment. Katharine’s father was also in correspondence with Richard Carlile, who had been imprisoned for distributing leaflets on birth control. After being released from gaol in 1833, Carlile came to Birmingham and visited “the most amiable and intelligent family of the Bradley’s in Digbeth”.13 This religious, socially and politically-committed heritage could not seem further from the aestheticism of Michael Field, and the issues of aesthetic interior design to which they devoted themselves with the help of Ricketts, but it was part of the context of West Midlands industry by which the family made enough of a fortune to enable Bradley and Cooper not only a private income on which to live while they wrote, but also the money to publish their own works with private presses in expensively bound covers. The tobacco industry also ensured they were free not to have to marry for money to support their art. While both had opportunities to do so, Bradley’s reaction to the possibility of Cooper’s engagement shows how they felt their pursuit of their art was incompatible with their life and work as “Michael Field”. Moreover, during the course of Bradley’s life, particularly, one can see a journey from her Birmingham heritage to the London aesthete played out gradually (in Robinson’s family it was her father’s life that marks this transition; for Michael Field it was the older, aunt’s, trajectory). In her younger days she was interested in the “woman question”, Ruskin’s socialist “Guild of St George”, and the antivivisection movement; all causes which reflect to some degree the free-thinking, pro-choice, politics of her father and his circle. Although still committed to socialist thinking in 1899, when she joined the Fellowship of the New Life, her later life was increasingly more devoted to aestheticism. Similarly, it wasn’t until 1899 that the women moved to Richmond in London. The previous eleven years had been spent in Reigate, just outside of London, and previous to that, Bristol and Kenilworth, but the move to London registered a further step in the transformation of Birmingham’s industrial money into London’s aestheticist values.
9Nineteenth-century Birmingham, and its broader West Midlands conurbation (including Coventry), is known for being the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and it is still a city in which the heritage of industry can be seen to have shaped its urban geography. Never did a city seem more removed from the culture of aestheticism that was simultaneously thriving in the London of the 1880s and 1890s. If one is looking for a binary between art and industry in late-nineteenth-century Britain then one might look to London and Birmingham as its geographical instantiation. Yet, this simplistic binary should be instantly troubled by the strong presence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters in Birmingham: both Burne-Jones’s actual birth in the city in 1833, but also the city’s important role in collecting and promoting Pre-Raphaelite art from the time of the opening of the City Art Gallery and Museum in 1885. Local industrialists and politicians such as William Kenrick (1831-1919) and John Throgmorton Middlemore (1844-1925) led the way for a new generation of patrons who focussed particularly on the acquisition of the contemporary Pre-Raphaelite art for the city. Kenrick and Middlemore donated, respectively, Millais’s The Blind Girl in 1891 and Holman Hunt’s The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple in 1896. In addition, the first director of the museum, Whitworth Wallis, secured funds through public subscription for over 1000 Pre-Raphaelite drawings, purchased from the artist and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray in 1903 and 1906.14 Today the Pre-Raphaelite collection remains the strongest part of the museum’s collection.
- 15 T. H. Huxley, Sir Josiah Mason’s Science College: Opening Address (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 18 (...)
- 16 Matthew Arnold, “Literature and Science”, The Nineteenth Century 12: 66 (August 1882), p. 218.
10Indeed, not only was the city supporting and cultivating interest in the Pre-Raphaelite artists, it was also the geographical locus for a debate about the relationship between the arts and sciences that became a national discussion and a now important part of the history of the period. It is rarely recognised that Matthew Arnold’s famous essay “Literature and Science” (published in the Nineteenth Century in August 1882), and delivered as the Cambridge University Rede Lecture earlier that year, was a direct response to the also well-known 1881 piece by Huxley, “Science and Culture”. Huxley’s piece was originally a speech delivered in Birmingham on October 1st 1880 as part of the opening ceremony of Birmingham’s new Mason Science College (the College became the University of Birmingham in 1900).15 Josiah Mason gave explicit instructions that the college should make no provision for “mere literary instruction and education”, and Huxley’s inaugural speech follows this theme. In this lecture, Huxley goes on to reinforce the importance of a scientific education, and describes with metaphors of war the combat between the champions of ancient literature and modern literature against “a third army, ranged under the banner of Physical Science” (p. 11). He asserts both that “neither the discipline nor the subject-matter of classical education is of such direct value to the student of physical science as to justify the expenditure of valuable time on either”, and that “for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least effectual as an exclusively literary education” (p. 12). Yet, he also goes on later to say that an exclusive education in either will produce a “lop-sided” intellect: “There is no need, however, that such a catastrophe should happen. Instruction in English, French, and German is provided, and thus the three greatest literatures of the modern world are made accessible to the student”; “since the constitution of the college makes sufficient provision for literary as well as for scientific education and since artistic instruction is also contemplated, it seems to me that a fairly complete culture is offered to all who are willing to take advantage of it” (p. 21). Arnold engages with Huxley’s speech throughout, and asks whether the current movement for “ousting letters from their old predominance in education, and for transferring the predominance in education to the natural sciences . . . ought to prevail”.16 Arnold’s conclusion is that if there was to be a forced separation between an education in literature and science, most people would benefit more from an education in “humane letters”. In a striking premonition of the popularity of English literature as a subject for undergraduate study in the UK today, in comparison with the mostly beleaguered sciences, Arnold declares that “I cannot really think that humane letters are in danger of being thrust out from their leading place in education, in spite of the array of authorities against them at this moment. So long as human nature is what it is, their attractions will remain irresistible”; “We shall be brought back to them by our wants and aspirations” (p. 229).
11Yet, ultimately, both Huxley and Arnold were arguing for a balanced education encompassing the humanities and sciences, and this is what Mason College sought to offer with its study of languages and literatures as well as the sciences. It was a “Science” college in that it sought to integrate a teaching of the sciences with the previously dominant study of letters. Of course, Huxley’s metaphors of battle belie the truth of the debate between the two men, which was that they “agreed far more than they disagreed”. As George Levine contends,
- 17 George Levine, “Scientific Discourse as an Alternative to Faith”, Victorian Faith in Crisis (ed. Ri (...)
Both sought to humanise and broaden the understanding of the society which they mutually regarded as narrow and “philistine”. As Huxley wanted to insure that modern languages and literature were part of the “science” curriculum . . . so Arnold would allow study of Euclid and Newton and Darwin.17
12Huxley and Arnold were friends, furthermore, and there is a certain polemical playfulness in their encounter. As Levine comments, “The solemnity with which both are read these days misses the flexibility of spirit that made them effective cultural critics but bad philosophers” (p. 248).
13The importance of late nineteenth-century Birmingham and its broader conurbation, and its industrial wealth that powered the aesthetic lives of writers such as Michael Field and A. Mary F. Robinson, has been overlooked in writings about female aesthetes. However, Birmingham cannot simply be associated with industry and science in an equation that places arts and culture in London. The establishment of Mason College in 1880 became a focus for a highly significant national debate, between chief spokes-people, about the relationship between culture and industry. It is no accident that this happened at a point in time when aestheticism was defining itself in opposition to the commercial world that resulted from the new focus on science and industry, while simultaneously being enabled by its economic gains. The very debates on which aestheticism was, in Freedman’s astute analysis, based are crucially focussed around Birmingham and the West Midlands.
14There is one figure who brings all of these concerns together in a revealing manner. On 14th July 1889, a young author called Constance Naden wrote to Edith Cooper enquiring after her family and revealing close connections between the women’s parents:
- 18 Naden, letter to Edith Cooper: 14 July 1889. Bodleian Library, Oxford: MS. Eng. lett. e. 33, fol. 5 (...)
I hope that your mother does not suffer greatly, but she must be very weary. Give my very warmest remembrances to her—I know that she will care to hear of me for my mother’s sake.18
15Naden was a poet and philosopher born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 1858, to a newly-wealthy middle-class family. Her father, Thomas Naden, made his money as a builder, and eventually became President of the Birmingham Architectural Association (in this latter role it is likely he would have known Robinson’s architect father in nearby Coventry, as well as the Bradley family). Her mother was Caroline Anne, daughter of Josiah C. Woodhill, who had made money through wholesale jewellery trade which was so central to Birmingham. Caroline’s death soon after Constance’s birth meant that Constance was brought up by her grandparents, but it is the family money that enabled them to give Naden a good education, and then to provide her with a private income (as with Field and Robinson) to pursue her writing.
- 19 See W. R. Hughes Constance Naden: A Memoir (London: Bickers and Son, 1890), p. 17.
16Naden would have known Huxley from his lectures at the Birmingham and Midland Institute,19 where she attended classes before her enrolment in the new Mason College in 1881. Living in Birmingham, and eager to study at the college, Naden would no doubt have followed the debate around the opening of the College with interest; not least because in her own work, she was determined to forge a connection between the arts and sciences in order to support her development of a scientific-materialist philosophical creed she named “Hylo-Idealism”, as well as her poetry which dealt with scientific (particularly evolutionary) themes. Naden attended classes in French and German literature (and went on to publish translations of Schiller’s poetry), was a member of a poetry society and engaged with the arts in her writings for the Mason College Magazine—as well as taking classes in the sciences. There is no clearer emblem for the uniting of an education in science and the humanities within Birmingham’s Mason College than Naden. Michael Field’s family clearly knew the Nadens from their shared Birmingham locale, but her letter to Edith Cooper ends with an entreaty from Naden for Cooper to visit her in London. Like Bradley and Cooper, Naden also moved away from Birmingham and was able to use her West Midlands industrial money to settle in London and join a community of writers. Naden moved to London in 1888 and eventually bought 114, Park Street, Grosvenor Square, where she lived while she devoted herself to feminist philosophy for the last year of her short life before her death at the age of just thirty-one.
- 20 William A. Tilden, “Part III”, in W. R. Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir, p. 68.
- 21 “Miss Naden”. Mason College Magazine 5 (1887) p. 99.
- 22 “Edgbastonians, Past and Present: No. 104 - Miss Constance C. W. Naden”. Edgbastonia 10 (Feb. 1890) (...)
- 23 Madeline M. Daniell, “Memoir”, in Lewins ed., Induction and Deduction: A Historical and Critical Sk (...)
- 24 “Miss Naden”. Mason College Magazine 5 (1887), p. 99.
- 25 W.E. Gladstone, “British Poetry of the Nineteenth Century”, The Speaker 1 (11 January 1890), p. 34- (...)
- 26 Constance Naden, The Complete Poetical Works, ed. Robert Lewins (London: Bickers and son, 1894).
17Naden’s story is a fascinating one in its own right, and one which I will outline here before indicating why Naden might provide the missing link in the story of female aestheticism between Robinson and Field’s London-based aestheticism and the West Midlands “back-story”. Naden’s early death cut short one of the most promising careers of her generation and ensured that few have heard of her today, but in her own time, she made quite a mark and there is every sign that she would have gone on to be influential. She was the star student of Mason College. Dubbed “Hypatia” by her peers at the College by way of acknowledging her position amongst them,20 her fellow students comment that “her powerful intellect, ready eloquence, and incisive wit made her at once the fortune and the fate of a debate”.21 An outline of her career at the college is given in a memorial article in the Edgbastonia journal.22 This is supported by evidence of her achievements recorded in the Mason Science College Calendars for the years of 1881 to 1889. Constance began with elementary courses in chemistry, physics, zoology, botany, and physiology, and rapidly moved on to more advanced scientific studies, obtaining many first class grades and prizes along the way. The most notable of these achievements were, in 1884-5, winning the Panton prize for an essay on the geology of the Birmingham district, and, in 1887, winning the Heslop gold medal for her dissertation on “Induction and Deduction”. This latter accolade was presented for the best thesis on a subject selected by the candidate out of a group arranged each year by the academic board, and carried considerable prestige. The college then awarded her the only tribute that remained for them to give by electing her an associate of the college—Madeline Daniell’s comment that Naden was “as yet the sole female one” gives some indication of the significance of this commendation.23 The glory of such achievements was indeed recognised by the Mason College Magazine which, in November 1887, noted that these were “the highest honours which it was in the power of the Council to bestow”.24 After her death a marble bust was commissioned to commemorate her presence, and it still today resides within Mason College’s later incarnation, the University of Birmingham. While Naden’s early death prevented her full integration with the London scene (Birmingham connections aside), she has already come to the attention of many outside of Birmingham, including Prime Minister William Gladstone, who named her along with Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in his list of favourite women poets.25 Her poetry was published in two volumes during her life, and collected into a complete edition after her death, by her friend and mentor Robert Lewins.26
18Naden was herself not an aesthete, but a New Woman: a socially—and philosophically-engaged thinker. Her poetry is mainly satirical, feminist, or engaged with socialism or evolutionary science, and her philosophy was a form of feminist materialism. She was a disciple of Herbert Spencer and involved in London’s agnostic community. She joined the Denison Club of women engaged in social action, and, together with her friend (and leading figure in the suffrage movement) Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, raised funds for the new women’s hospital in Marylebone Road. She became a lecturer for the Central National Committee for Women’s Suffrage, pledged her allegiance to Liberal politics, joined several debating societies, and by the time of her death she was both engaged in practical plans for the housing of poor women, and had been elected a member of the Aristotelian Society. Yet, while one would be hard pushed to class Naden as an aesthete it is no accident that one of the most lasting references to her work is contained within the title of Oscar Wilde’s short stories: “The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance”. The term certainly signals an engagement specifically with Naden’s personal materialistic philosophy because it was she who coined the name, changing it from the “Hylo-Zoism” advocated by Robert Lewins. Naden’s scientific-philosophical work has not been the subject of much scrutiny within recent explorations of the rich world of aestheticism, but it clearly held an interest for Wilde, and her position as a link between the world of the West Midlands’ free-thinking-industrial-socialism and London aestheticism deserves more attention. It interests me here because Naden’s position makes explicit the connection between these two worlds that is hidden in the aesthetic careers of Field and Robinson, which nonetheless were so dependent on the industry of the West Midlands.
- 27 James R. Moore, “Re-Membering Constance Naden: Feminist Erotics and Philosophy of Science in Late-V (...)
- 28 Robert Lewins, Humanism Versus Theism; or, Solipsism (Egoism) = Atheism (extracts from letters writ (...)
- 29 E. Cobham Brewer, Constance Naden and Hylo-Idealism: A Critical Study, Annotated by R. Lewins (Lond (...)
- 30 Robert Lewins, “Part IV”, in W. R. Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir (London: Bickers and Son, 1890 (...)
19Robert Lewins was a retired army surgeon when “lacking wife or family, [he] devoted himself obsessively to the propagation of irreligion”.27 His Hylozoism was an extreme form of evolutionary Monism. With hyle meaning “matter” and Zoe meaning “life,” Hylozoism is the doctrine “that energy is inherent in matter itself, and not dependent on any influx from outside, or in other words on extranatural influence”.28 An outcome of his materialistic standpoint is that Lewins believes we are aware not of an objective world but merely of the subjective impressions which are generated by it. The objective world must be made subjective by the process of recording it through our sense organs before we can know anything about it. This process Lewins called “asselfing”. He sees each individual Ego as a museum, with the stores being all that any individual knows or thinks s/he knows.29 The effect of this epistemology is that each individual sentient being is “the Maker or Creator, or Demiurge of the only universe—abstract or concrete, visible or invisible, to which it has access”.30
- 31 Lewins, “Part IV”, p. 79.
- 32 Naden [C. N.], “Hylozoic Materialism”, communicated by Robert Lewins, Journal of Science, 3rd Serie (...)
- 33 Naden [C. N.], “Hylo-Idealism: The Creed of the Coming Day”. Introductory essay to Humanism Versus (...)
20Lewins’ thought is not unique at this time, but the strength and originality of his position, and what appealed to Naden, came in key part from his poetic ability to elevate monistic theories of life through his rhetoric, and the feminisation of the nature which his system elevates. Lewins writes of Naden “resolving” Hylozoism into her own creed of Hylo-Idealism.31 The change in name stems from a desire to stress the fact that the theory has as its main objective the reconciliation and unification of matter and spirit; she claims her theory “destroys, at the very outset, all distinction between body and soul”.32 Naden does this by proposing that spirit, or the “God within,” is “simply the energy stored up in the thought-cells; and this energy is no separable spiritual being, but a specialised form of that cosmic vitality which is inherent in matter”. “Nowhere,” writes Naden, “can we point to a manifestation of energy, and say: - This is the work of the pure nous, the spirit; hyle, the physical agency, here finds its occupation gone”.33
- 34 Naden, “Philosophical Tracts: Introduction”, in George M. McCrie, ed., Further Reliques of Constanc (...)
21She shares Lewins’ desire to imbue her monism with the same sense of wonder and power which people have traditionally found in religion. She believes that philosophy aims to convert, much as supernatural religion does, and its conversion can bring “the same sense of new joy, new strength, and new life”.34 In full rhetorical flow, she writes:
- 35 Naden, “What Is Religion? A Vindication of Neo-Materialism”, in George M. McCrie, Further Reliques (...)
Nor does it seem more glorious to be “a little lower
than the angels” than to be the creator and fashioner
of an ideal host of heaven, even though their bright
array be the offspring of a material organ.35
- 36 Naden [C. A.], Letter to the editor: “Hylo-Idealism”, Journal of Science, 3rd Series, 6 (1884): 242
- 37 Naden [Constance Arden], “The Brain Theory of Mind and Matter”, Journal of Science, 3rd Series, 5 ( (...)
22She also avidly develops the feminisation of nature which Robert Lewins gestured towards. In a letter to the Journal of Science, Naden writes on the use of terminology for “proplasm”. She is of the opinion that the word “matter”, “being identical with “mater”, the mother or producer, is especially applicable to the fons et origo of the phenomenal world”.36 Again in her article “The Brain Theory of Mind and Matter,” she writes that reason teaches us to behold in the orderly arrangements of the cosmos “a supreme glorification of Matter, the Universal Mother, and of Man, her child”.37 The pages of the Journal of Science, Knowledge, and Agnostic Annual buzzed for a few years with the writings of Naden and Robert Lewins propounding their creed (she writing under the pseudonym’s “C. N.”, “C. A.” and occasionally, “Constance Arden”).
- 38 Josephine M. Guy, “An Allusion in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’”, Notes and Queries 243 (N. (...)
- 39 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (London: Macmillan and co., 1922), p. 235.
23Josephine Guy, an editor of Oscar Wilde, has tried to unpick the significance of Wilde’s reference to Naden’s philosophy, suggesting that the serious-sounding sub-title simply “mocks the seriousness with which ghost stories in general used supernatural sensationalism for crude moralizing”.38 She claims that Wilde’s addition of the subtitle to his story in 1891 when it was reprinted in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and other Stories (the story was first published in 1887 in the periodical the Court and Society Review), shows that Wilde only fully engaged with Naden’s philosophical work after her death in 1889 when her pseudonymously published philosophy was finally reissued under her own name (Guy, 226). Thus, she concludes, the story does not particularly engage with “Hylo-Idealism” in any particularly meaningful way, but was simply retrospectively linked to it. This may be the case, but Guy’s article overlooks the fact that Naden’s central project of developing her “Hylo-idealist” creed was in fact highly relevant to aestheticism in that it was a way of linking matter and spirit in a godless universe—exactly the kind of Paterian theme that Wilde simultaneously satirised and absorbed. Indeed, Pater’s belief in a subjective basis of epistemology—we are trapped inside that “thick wall of personality” through which we can never pierce—is very resonant with Lewins’ and Naden’s “asselfing” theory, and with the tenor of their rhetoric.39
- 40 “Rest” in March 1888 issue. See Moore “Re-Membering Constance Naden”, p. 49.
- 41 Oscar Wilde, “Literary and Other Notes”, Woman’s World, 1 (1887), p. 81–2.
- 42 A copy of this letter is given in James Moore’s “Re-Membering Constance Naden” (p. 248–49). In 1986 (...)
- 43 Josephine M. Guy, “An Allusion in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’”, Notes and Queries 243 (N. (...)
24Guy also overlooks the fact that even if he had not known about her philosophical writings until the true identity of their author was revealed after Naden’s death, he had been engaged with her poetry for a couple of year before that. Moore notes that the last poem Naden published before her death appeared in Wilde’s journal, the Woman’s World.40 Indeed, in the December 1887 issue of Woman’s World Wilde stated that “Miss Naden deserves a high place among our living poetesses”.41 An undated letter exists in which Wilde wrote to Naden requesting her to write a contribution for the magazine, assuring her that “an article or short poem from Miss Constance Naden would give a charm and interest to the magazine”.42 Wilde suggests “Modern Life in its Relation to poetry” as a possible topic for her article, “But any subject Miss Naden chooses is sure to be made attractive”. It is presumably as a result of this letter that he published her poem “Rest” the following year. So, Naden’s work had come to the attention of Wilde before her death—and even before her move to London, in spite of Guy’s claim that at this time, Naden was “virtually unheard of” in London circles.43
25Looking at Constance Naden disrupts some of the boundaries we have retrospectively put in place in our analysis of late-nineteenth century aestheticism: boundaries between Birmingham (and its surrounding conurbation) and London, between the arts and sciences, and industry and culture, between the New Woman and the female aesthete, and between materialist philosophy and aestheticism. This disruption of our critical expectations and critical map opens up the space for us to see more clearly (and with more complexity) the links that exist between “London” female aesthetes such as Robinson and Field, and the backdrop of free-thinking West Midlands’ industrialism that funded their aesthetic lives and productions. Field, Robinson and Naden were all the first generation of women in their families to live in London and to have the necessary funds to carve out lives for themselves as writers, but for all three of them, their London literary lives were absolutely dependent on West Midlands’ industrial money.
- 44 Kathy Alexis Psomiades, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism (Stanf (...)
In her ground-breaking study, Beauty’s Body, Kathy Psomiades traces aestheticism’s negotiation between the aesthetic and the economic through the icon of the beautiful female body. For Psomiades, femininity—a concept itself fissured, for the Victorians, beneath the surface into multiple dichotomies—“allows for the difficult and vexed relation between the categories of the aesthetic and the economic in bourgeois culture to be represented and covered over by erotic relations”.44 But these female aesthetes are themselves fissured bodies in that in their own family inheritance have spanned the gap between industry and an art that was both intimately dependent on it but simultaneously disavowing of it. A poem such as Michael Field’s poem “A Palimpsest” explores a model for writing which is highly resonant for the aesthetes:
. . . The rest
Of our life must be a palimpsest—
The old writing written there the best.
In the parchment hoary
Lies a golden story,
As ’mid secret feather of a dove,
As ’mid moonbeams shifted through a cloud:
- 45 Michael Field, Wild Honey from Various Thyme (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908), p. 180.
Let us write it over
O my lover,
For the far Time to discover,
As ’mid secret feathers of a dove,
As ’mid moonbeams shifted through a cloud!45
- 46 See Mary Berenson: A Self-Portrait from her Letters and Diaries, ed. Barbara Strachey, and Jayne Sa (...)
26The poem has multiple significances, drawing together many of the major themes in Bradley and Cooper’s lives. At its most explicit, it voices their conviction that their talent will be rediscovered and recognised in the future even if their work is passed over now.46 However, the poem also reveals a specifically aestheticist desire to hide the lyric from the public gaze even as it is exposed in commodified form in the finely-bound published volume. Michael Field’s poetry is imagined as the obscured text of the palimpsest: something deeply buried but detectable by the finest of sensibilities. This need for a voice which is almost unheard, a poetry almost unseen, draws Bradley and Cooper to an imagined obscuring of their work: they do not obliterate it but veil it in an effort to maintain it at one remove from commerce and daily life. Yet one can’t help wondering whether, geographically-speaking, industrial Birmingham is the obscured text in the life of these female London aesthetes: the underpinning premise which made possible not only their fine taste in interior decoration of their Richmond house (those “Chinese embroideries”, “satinwood” furniture and “rare carpets” recommended by Ricketts and Shannon in the letter quoted at the beginning of this essay), but which paid for them to have the leisure in which to write, and their aestheticist eschewal of the popular press, as well as funding their beautiful gilded book covers. But it is not only for this hidden story of industrial wealth that enables the aestheticism of writers such as Field and Robinson that we need to explore the significance of late nineteenth-century Birmingham; Birmingham’s Mason College was at the heart of a national debate around the relationship between science and culture, economics and aesthetics, that can be more fully understood through a better knowledge of its significance, and Birmingham figures such as Constance Naden complicate and expand our sense of aestheticism’s interactions and connections not just with science, but also with the free-thinking sects that thrived there and were such a distinctive (but overlooked) part of aestheticism’s context. The multiple transactions between Birmingham and London give a more expansive context for the study of female aesthetes than one might expect, and a way of overcoming some of the boundaries that have become entrenched in our critical thinking around these writers.