Precocity or Industry? Constructing Narratives of Attainment in Victorian Life Writing

Clare Stainthorp is a third-year AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis is on the writer Constance Naden (1858-1889), focusing on the unifying project through which Naden sought to draw together poetry, philosophy, and science. Clare is also Editorial Assistant for Modernist Cultures, and postgraduate committee member for the Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar. She tweets about her research via @ClareGS87 and blogs at https://nadensyearinsonnets.wordpress.com/.

Precocity or Industry? Constructing Narratives of Attainment in Victorian Life Writing

At a fascinating panel at the BAVS conference in September 2015 Rebecca Mitchell, Roisín McClosky, and Hannah Field spoke on the topics of precocity and backwardness. Their research illuminated the Victorian construction of childhood intelligence and, in various ways, the tension between industry and idleness in relation to attainment and giftedness.[1] Mitchell concluded that when precocity is viewed as a consequence of a sensuous faculty (for example a gift for poetry), it undermines the moralistic view that success it is the result of effort and hard work.[2]

I found this particularly interesting in relation to my own research, which focuses on the poet and philosopher Constance Naden (1858-89). She was an impressively productive individual, having learnt six languages, studied a wide range of sciences, published two volumes of poetry, and written countless articles and letters on philosophical topics before her death at the age of 31. As a result in Constance Naden: A Memoir – a collection of obituary essays published by four of her friends in 1890 – there is a distinct tension between casting Naden as possessing an innate creative intelligence and being a notably studious young woman.

Constance Naden: A Memoir (1890), via archive.org

Constance Naden: A Memoir (1890), via archive.org

 

William R. Hughes’ account of Naden at the age of six emphasises her precocious curiosity and propensity to imagine ‘“talks” with the trees, birds, and butterflies, out of which grew questionings as to “How?” and “Why” these were; what was our relation to them, and theirs to ours; questionings to the solution of which [Naden] devoted her life’.[3] And yet, this was not an idle genius but one that lent itself to industry. Indeed, much of the rest of the narrative is dominated by her desire to learn and synthesise her knowledge into a unifying philosophy. Hughes describes the adolescent Naden as ‘devoting herself to the systematic study of languages’, and recalls how her science teachers deemed her a ‘most brilliant’ and ‘diligent and clever’ pupil with an insatiable ‘thirst for knowledge’.[4]

Notably, this discourse focuses on her achievements as science student and philosopher, despite the fact that Naden was most well known as a poet during her lifetime, and this remains the case today. Her juvenile artistic abilities are somewhat side-lined in A Memoir; poems are described as being composed ‘at odd moments’ and ‘while she was dressing in the morning’.[5] Indeed her earliest compositions were largely suppressed by Naden and then by her friends and family. As a result three notebooks dating from 1875 to 1879 (Naden’s adolescence) filled with over one hundred poems have only come to light in 2015.[6] This narrative aligns with the findings of James Sully, whose 1886 article in the Nineteenth Century titled ‘Genius and Precocity’ became (in Sally Shuttleworth’s words) ‘the standard text in subsequent enquiries’ on the topic.[7] Sully’s analysis of the lives of 287 notable individuals in the field of arts, sciences, and humanities found that musicians, artists, and poets were the most likely to show early promise, while philosophers and novelists were the least likely to produce work during their youth.[8] Thus, Naden’s creative talent for poetry is deemed by her friends to have been innate and drawn upon in times of idleness, whereas her natural desire to assimilate new knowledge, while evident from early childhood, required hard work in order to come to fruition.

Constance C. W. Naden (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham)

Constance C. W. Naden (Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham)

This dynamic indicates that Naden’s friends were keenly aware of the negative associations fostered by labelling an individual as having been precocious. As Mitchell noted in her conference paper, the Victorian work ethic (whereby striving to better oneself was an extremely admirable quality) fostered a general disapproval of individuals who were content to rest on their inborn talents.[9] In an extension of the nature versus nurture debate – a phrase coined by Francis Galton in 1869 to describe the relationship between internal and external factors in determining one’s attributes – we are led to consider the moral repercussions of either accepting one’s natural talents as requiring little development or nurturing one’s intellectual tendencies in order to improve oneself further. In this way, those who memorialised Naden in print sought to downplay her precocity in order to emphasise the morally laudable narrative of hard work and hard-won achievements. Their notable discomfort with the term bears out a wider desire to set industry against idleness in the construction of achievement in Victorian life writing.

_____________________

[1] Rebecca N. Mitchell, Roisín McClosky, and Hannah Field, ‘Panel: Ahead and Behind Time: Precocity and Backwardness’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[2] Rebecca N. Mitchell, ‘Industry and Idleness: Precocious Genius in the Victorian Era’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[3] William R. Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir (London: Bickers and Son; Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1890), pp. 8-9.

[4] Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir, pp. 16, 18, 17, 18.

[5] Hughes, Constance Naden: A Memoir, pp. 16, 17.

[6] These unpublished notebooks are now held in the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham, USS115. Clare Stainthorp, ‘The Adolescent Writings of Constance Naden (1875-1879): A Manuscript Discovery’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

[7] Sally Shuttleworth, The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science, and Medicine 1840-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 145

[8] Anon. ‘Mr. James Sully on the Precocity of Genius’, Science 8 (16 July 1886), 62-63 (p. 63).

[9] Rebecca N. Mitchell, ‘Industry and Idleness: Precocious Genius in the Victorian Era’, British Association of Victorian Studies Annual Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 27-29 August 2015.

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