The memoirs of an imprisoned suffragette.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on John Cleland’s very erotic prison novel, here.
In 1908, when she was thirty-seven, Lady Constance Lytton took a vacation by the sea in Littlehampton. She’d accepted a friend’s offer to spend the summer at the Esperance Club, a charity meant to teach working-class women traditional English dances and folk songs. During a walk through town one day, she found a crowd gathered around “a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse.” Watching the animal stagger around to the crowd’s amusement, she wrote,
A vision suddenly rose in my mind of what it should have been on its native mountain-side with all its forces rightly developed, vigorous and independent. There was a hideous contrast between that vision and the thing in the crowd.
The vision of the sheep comes at the start of her 1914 autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners, in a chapter titled “My Conversion.” “It seemed to reveal for me for the first time,” Lytton continued, “the position of women throughout the world.”
From then on, in Lytton’s telling, the need for women’s suffrage moved her like a religious calling. Three of her housemates that summer were the suffragettes Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie and Jessie Kennedy, the last of whom had only recently been released from Holloway—the London prison where Lytton herself would be confined only months later for joining a march to demand women the vote. For Lytton, that imprisonment initiated three years of increasingly high-profile involvement with the suffragist cause, a period she spent moving in and out of jail.
Lytton soon befriended prominent suffragettes like Pethick-Lawrence, the Kennedys, and Emmeline Pankhurst, and she wrote about them with reverence and comradely gratitude. They had nurtured in her a trait she’d been cultivating since adolescence: a tendency toward self-denial, a readiness to give herself over completely to the defense of what was right or just. In 1892, as the historian Lyndsey Jenkins relates in her recent biography of Lytton, Constance was already writing her sister Betty to lament “what a mistake it is to care only for little things, or to care for things only a little,” and to insist that “if one only cares enough, there is strength enough to overcome every obstacle, or at least to endure every martyrdom.”
To Lytton, the suffragettes not only suggested something worth “caring enough” about to suffer for, they also confirmed that her comfortable life as an unmarried upper-class woman had been systematically cleared of great purposes and crowded instead with “little things” about which it didn’t make sense to care. “I myself,” she wrote slightly later in Prisons and Prisoners, “was one of that numerous gang of upper class leisured spinsters” for whom “a maiming subserviency is so conditional to their very existence that it becomes an aim in itself.” The restrictions applied to these women inspired some of Lytton’s most extravagant rhetoric, precisely because it was largely overlooked by the middle- or lower-class suffragettes among whom she moved:
To the single woman, the old maid of later years, the paralysing worship of incapacity dominates life, the chain of limitations and restrictions is but seldom broken, and never overcome save by exceptional force of character or ability. Even then how often it is only the beating of wings against unyielding and maiming bars.
When she was diagnosing social pathologies or advocating for legal reforms, Lytton would seethe. “Whether or not the women alive to-day in the working class can be cured is of comparatively little importance,” she reflected later in the book, “but clearly the causes which have brought them forth must be altered at the root.” And yet even as her gestures of resistance grew bolder and the abuses visited on her grew more extreme, she was careful not to judge any single police officer, judge, prison wardress, doctor, or chaplain uncharitably. She comes off equally in her own book and in Jenkins’s careful reconstruction of her life as a figure of blinding decency and good will. Her younger sister Emily wrote in an 1890 letter to an elderly reverend that Constance “is such an angel and seems to make everyone happy,” with one exception: “when there is someone very good near me, it seems to make me feel extra bad.”
Lytton’s was a troubled, prominent family with a history of shameful episodes. Her grandfather, the famous novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, denounced his wife, Rosina, after she rebelled against his ongoing infidelities; he took custody of their children, kept her to a modest income, and, when she started satirizing him in her own novels, had her briefly committed to an asylum. (She would later describe that experience in her memoir, A Blighted Life.) The couple’s only son, Robert, hoped to be a poet, but his father, as Jenkins notes, concluded that it wouldn’t do for “two of the same name to have a permanent reputation in literature.” He joined the diplomatic service instead.
Constance, his second daughter, was born in Vienna. When she was seven, the family moved to India, where Robert began a doomed tenure as Viceroy. (His years in power included both the Great Famine of 1876 to 1878 and the second Anglo-Afghan war, for both of which he’s since been more or less qualifiedly blamed.) The family returned home when Constance was eleven. Prisons and Prisoners never refers to her early years abroad; she skims over nearly thirty years of her life in several brisk paragraphs. Left unmentioned is her protracted and painful informal engagement to the army officer John Ponsonby, who never made the formal proposal both families expected. Her health was always fragile and her temperament seemingly gentle. “I was an average ordinary human being,” she would write, “except perhaps with an exaggerated dislike of society and of publicity in any form.”
One of the riddles of Prisons and Prisoners is how someone with such an aversion to “society and publicity” could have done what Lytton managed to do between 1909 and 1912. During her first imprisonment in Holloway, indignant that the prison authorities were favoring her with a lengthy hospital stay on account of her aristocratic background, she resolved to carve the slogan VOTES FOR WOMEN across her chest with a hairpin and “show the first half of the inscription to the doctors, telling them that as I knew how much appearances were respected by officials, I thought it well to warn them that the last letter and a full stop would come upon my cheek.” (She only got through the V.)
Her next imprisonment, at Newcastle, later in 1909, came after Gladstone’s Home Office had begun forcibly feeding suffragettes on hunger strike using tubes inserted through the nose or mouth. She expected to receive the same treatment and felt ashamed when, instead, she was released “because of the state of my heart”—another sign of what she and her fellow well-connected suffragette Jane Brailsford called, in a letter to the Times, the “glaring partiality and injustice” from which wealthier militants benefited. In January of 1910, she decided to put that partiality to test. She had her hair “cut short and parted” unflatteringly, bought weak eyeglasses, sought out a cheap draper, renamed herself Jane Warton, and had herself arrested and imprisoned again for agitating outside a prison in Liverpool. This time she was force-fed eight times before her sister tracked her down and negotiated her release.
Whenever she was together with Emmeline Pankhurst she found herself “overcome by the sense of being superfluous.” When the two of them visited a newly released hunger striker, Lytton observed that the woman “looked ethereal,” the kind of figure that she’d previously scoffed at in Fra Angelico paintings for bearing “a look of purity that no living creature has.” In the company of such rarified beings, she was burdened by a sense of her physical frailty and by the inconveniences of having a recognizable name, although she knew that her name gave her a special power to campaign for the cause. After her release from Walton Gaol in Liverpool, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) put her on the payroll as an organizer to offset the costs of her speaking tours.
The incident that led to her second arrest, at Newcastle, is suggestive of the odd balance she struck between her militancy and her urge not to do harm. She had been assigned to throw a stone at a window or car, a common tactic among suffragettes affiliated with the WSPU. At a demonstration timed to a series of meetings held by David Lloyd George, she resolved that her stone-throwing “must be more zealously done, more deliberate in its character than the stone-throwing at ordinary windows … I was determined that when they had me in court my act should inevitably be worse than that of other women.”
The first car to come around the bend at which she stood poised was of no importance, but she couldn’t resist (“the instinct was too much for me”). At the same time, “to throw a stone against the car as it ran along the side was dangerous, as there were two men in front.” She threw it low to miss. The following night, she wrote an inscription on the wall of her cell: TO DEFEND THE OPPRESSED, / TO FIGHT FOR THE DEFENSELESS, / NOT COUNTING THE COST. She did, however, count many of her costs, to her antagonists as much as to her family and friends, and her writing reflected her carefulness not to cause any unnecessary collateral damage.
Again and again in Prisons and Prisoners the jailhouse officials Lytton encounters are praised for their small kindnesses and partially excused for their cruelty and callousness. The wardress in Holloway whose kind inquiries betray the “unspoiled human being” below “her rigid exterior”; the visiting magistrates who strike Lytton as “neither kind nor unkind,” simply “angry” and “displeased”; the senior medical official who seems to have “mastered the fundamental matter of treating prisoners as he would treat other human beings”—the figures Lytton comes across in prison are a procession of basically decent people, certainly not wicked, forced into a noxious line of work. “It was obvious,” Lytton wrote midway through her memoir about the prison officials’ often inhumane attitude, “that this official manner was quite detached from the individual personality of those who assumed it. They looked and spoke in this way, not to serve their private ends, but in compliance with some strangely mistaken tradition.”
Even the repellent doctor who slaps the disguised Lytton after subjecting her to a force-feeding regimen avoids her resentment. When she describes his conduct to the governor, it’s with a startlingly forgiving tone:
He slapped me on the cheek; he did not hurt me, but seemed to wish to show his contempt; about this, too, I do not wish to complain as of an insult to me personally. He no doubt was irritated by his repulsive job, but this is hardly the right mood for an official, and what he could do to one woman he might possibly do to another.
Much of Prisons and Prisoners is taken up with hair-raising descriptions of the conditions Lytton and other imprisoned suffragettes endured: “filthy” walls; “dirty” public lavatories; “blackened” slippers; “coarse” clothing; towels on which “blood had freely been wiped,” and the grisly details of the force-feeding procedures themselves. This was a book of propaganda; it was meant to startle its readers out of complacency and awaken them to a widespread injustice. But one also senses, reading the book, that prison had a strange, potent attraction for Lytton as an alternative to the cloistered life she’d led as a spinster approaching middle age. If not for her conversion, she might have become one of those women whose situation she memorably described: “The fearful unnecessity of their disablement awakens no pity … a yoke so submitted to, so uselessly endured, can claim no reverence of martyrdom.” As a suffragette, it was precisely her frailty and her “disablement” and her upper-class title that helped make her a figure of large stature and high moral energy, someone who could easily claim “reverence of martyrdom.”
In 1912, Constance suffered a stroke. She finished writing Prisons and Prisoners without use of her dominant hand. By the mid-1910s, she was living in a house with her elderly mother and what her sister called “a most peculiar set of servants who shout and sing all day.” She died in 1923 at fifty-four, five years before the Representation of the People Act 1928 expanded women’s suffrage to the same parameters as that of men. Her sister Betty, according to Jenkins, had always been interested in occult phenomena, and “just before the Second World War broke out, she ‘contacted’ Constance at a séance.” She described seeing “a woman who passed to this life some time ago,” seeming “as if in some way in life she was a lonely person. She shows me Prison clothes. But she does not say what crime she committed … She says, ‘prison gave me my freedom.’ ”
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.
Previous entries in Prison Lit:
- John Cleland, Fanny Hill
- François Villon, The Testament; Paul Verlaine, Romances sans paroles and Sagesse; Gregory Corso, Gasoline and The Vestal Lady on Brattle; Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
- Austin Reed, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict
- Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers
- Christopher Smart, “Jubilate Agno”; John Clare, “Child Harold”
- George Jackson, Soledad Brother
- Madame Roland, The Private Memoirs
- Abdellatif Laâbi, The Reign of Barbarism and Le livre imprévu
- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
- John Bunyan, Grace Abounding; Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from a Dead House