Death in Plain Sight

Marina Warner on Emily Davison

Marina Warner explores Emily Davison’s legacy as the suffragettes’ first martyr in a talk given at the inaugural Wilding Festival at St George’s Bloomsbury, where Davison’s memorial service was held.[1]

Marina Warner on Emily Davison

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 in a substantial house in Greenwich, the middle daughter of her speculator father’s second marriage. She was red-haired and liked sweets; her pet name at home was Weet Weet. At the age of 19 she won a scholarship to Royal Holloway, where she could read for the Oxford degree in English. But during her second year her father died and, in a Dickensian twist, he left the family skint; Davison’s mother took her children north and opened a shop. Davison became a governess, worked on her books at night and managed to save up for one more term’s tuition at St Hugh’s Hall, Oxford; in 1895 she sat her exams and got a First. It wasn’t an official degree, since Oxford didn’t yet allow women to graduate. (Wearing university gowns to underline this injustice was to become a central element of suffragette demonstrations.) She was praised by her tutor as ‘industrious and painstaking’.

She began teaching and writing plays and journalism in London, and in 1906 joined the WSPU, the Women’s Social and Political Union, but her independent – and extreme – militancy caused a breach. In the words of David Mitchell, a biographer of Christabel Pankhurst, she became ‘an incorrigible freelance’. In the summer of 1913, newsreel cameras captured her running across the course of the most popular race of the year, the Epsom Derby, falling under a horse and lying prone on the ground, with the horse tumbled too, and the jockey thrown.[2] The film was not censored, and the three cameras’ differently angled footage can be seen on YouTube.

At first the press worried chiefly about the horse and, after the horse, the jockey. Both were unhurt, surprisingly (the jockey would kill himself decades later). Davison never regained consciousness, and died in hospital four days after the race. In certain quarters, her action seemed to prove that women were hysterics and not fit to vote. But the leaders of the suffrage movement, who had previously frowned on Davison’s maverick exploits, now rallied behind her memory. She ‘gladly laid down her life for women’s freedom’, Mrs Pankhurst wrote. ‘We mourn for the loss of a dead comrade … but we also rejoice in her splendid heroism.’ Rebecca West joined in the tributes: ‘To the end sunlight was on her face. I was glad that for an executioner she had an unmalicious brute.’ Whether she wanted to sacrifice herself isn’t clear – the circumstances of her death are waiting for their historian. But she had a return ticket in her pocket and planned to go on holiday and meet her sister soon after Derby Day.

The newsreel was slowed down and disarticulated frame by frame for a Channel 4 documentary, and it seems highly likely that Davison was reaching up to the head of Anmer, the king’s horse, either to wrap a suffragette sash with Votes for Women around its neck or to attach it to the bridle. If so, she chose her moment with remarkable bravery and precision, stepping out onto the track just as the colt and jockey, towards the back of the field, were coming round Tattenham Corner. The action demanded an impossible acrobatic feat: with an animal at full gallop, it needed split second timing and speed of reaction, not unlike vaulting over a bull in the dances of Crete. It seems that she was exercising an obscure medieval right entitling a subject to petition the monarch. Had she succeeded, George V’s horse would have finished the course wearing the colours of the WSPU beside those of the jockey’s royal livery, and the suffragettes would have achieved a brilliant détournement of the race.

Emily Davison’s coffin outside St George’s, Bloomsbury saluted by the suffragette guard of honour.
Emily Davison’s coffin outside St George’s, Bloomsbury saluted by the suffragette guard of honour.

Processions, performances, banners, flags, costumes and colours were central to their campaign, which presented a remarkably coherent vision to the public and the press. The suffragettes were inventive and bold impresarios in the tradition of the French Revolutionaries. In The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign (1987), Lisa Tickner shows how dynamically the many artists in the movement visualised its anger, the demands and the diversity of its members. The purple, green and white of the suffragette colours formed a new revolutionary tricolour, and the WSPU and the suffragettes, the union’s militant element, patterned themselves on the radical Enlightenment. Led by the artist Jacques-Louis David, the Jacobins adapted Catholic rituals into civic state pageantry: at the Fête de la Raison, the goddess of reason was crowned in the cathedral of Notre-Dame. A profanity, a metamorphosis? Children who were used to strewing rose petals in the path of the Eucharist as it was carried through the village on the feast of Corpus Domini now skipped and sang around the liberty trees set up on the village green. The model lingered in the vast parades of Soviet Russia and continues still in North Korea. It lingered too in more local processions and pageants, such as Virginia Woolf invents in Between the Acts. Miss La Trobe, who stages a history of England, may have been modelled on Edith Craig, the artist daughter of Ellen Terry, who designed some of the movement’s banners. When he created the spectacular story of the nation for the opening of the Olympic Games, Danny Boyle rightly included a glimpse – it was only a glimpse – of a suffragette march.

Davison’s ideas for political actions prefigure Act-Up interventions and demos; she’s a natural precursor of the Occupy movement with its stratagems of performative gestures and symbolic actions. But impatient with the dissension and indecision – and the fruitlessness – of the suffrage movement, Emily went it alone, mischievously, daringly. On the night of the census in 1911, she managed to steal into a broom cupboard in the crypt of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster, and so was able to declare on her form that she was in residence in the House of Commons that night: the only inhabitant of the place, and a woman. (Tony Benn, hailing her a heroic campaigner for liberty, had a plaque raised to her in 1999 in the very cupboard.)

This adventure, clever and significant and doubtless very uncomfortable, resembles, in its verve and imagination, the attempt to put the movement’s favour on the royal colt. In both actions Davison was positioning herself in what Giorgio Agamben calls a ‘zone of indistinction’, an interstice, in order to demarcate a new space for women as citizens. Both the broom cupboard and the race track are non-places where non-citizens can take up a position, turning both the site of their occupation and themselves, hitherto disregarded, into significant presences. At the level of symbolism, Davison’s actions exert a startlingly articulate power of definition: a woman, belonging to a category of persons still invisible to political power (except insofar as that power wished to maintain women’s invisibility), refuses to continue in that state, and identifies a space that matches her state of non-existence, then makes its marginality visible and its presence consequently undeniable. On the other hand, approaching a horse at full gallop in a fast flat race isn’t just a symbolic act.

In the years between the cupboard and the racetrack, Davison took her lead from the WSPU’s slogan, ‘Deeds not Words’. She was sentenced for arson, and became one of the most frequent victims, alongside Mrs Pankhurst herself, of the Cat and Mouse Act. She went on hunger strike; she endured the horrors of force-feeding 49 times in nine separate prison terms; during one stay in Holloway she threw herself down the stairs to protest at her fellow prisoners’ sufferings. She was desperate, she was an extremist, and her ordeals ravaged her, as a photograph taken not long before her death makes plain.

In the Channel 4 documentary, Secrets of a Suffragette, Clare Balding alluded to the possibility that a group of sister activists had practised running at a horse and then drawn lots to see who would make the attempt on the day. They knew it would be dangerous, and perhaps glimpsed just how dangerous. According to this scenario, Davison won the short straw. It is important to remember, however, that she also epitomises the distinction between seeking death and being killed: a distinction that can become damagingly blurred. Until her centenary this year, her death was routinely reported as suicide – and in several books about the Pankhursts, for example, she gets rather short shrift. This misprision was not corrected by the movement itself, which claimed her as its first martyr.

When Davison died the question of her intentions was swallowed up in the larger drama of the movement. The funeral procession on 14 June was the last great public pageant held by the WSPU; and it displayed, as had many marches and demonstrations since 1908, the movement’s strength of support.[3] It was solemn, even awe-inspiring, designed with brilliant stagecraft by Grace Roe, and wound its way through London to St George’s Bloomsbury, where the rector had agreed to allow the funeral to be held, after four other parishes refused.

Photographs reveal an impressive, solemn occasion. A dense crowd thousands strong lined the streets or watched respectfully from the windows of shops and houses as the open, horse-drawn hearse went by, carrying a coffin draped in WSPU colours and mourning bands. The guard of honour included Sylvia Pankhurst, followed by members of the WSPU wearing white, with sashes of red for martyrdom as well as the usual purple, green and white. Graduates processed wearing their brightly coloured hoods. Some women held madonna lilies, others garlands, many wore crowns of flowers, and carried pennants and banners with resonant slogans such as ‘Give me Liberty or give me Death!’ Mrs Pankhurst’s empty carriage – she had been taken back to prison that day – followed the bier; it was accompanied by hunger-strikers out for their short reprieve before they too were rearrested, as decreed by the Cat and Mouse Act.

Some men, including Emily’s brother, Captain Davison, took part, but on the whole it was an assembly of women, reminiscent in their dress of classical virgin goddesses, guardians of the virtues, or of Queens of the May. The procession set aside the militancy of past heroic processions – there was no suffragette in armour on horseback figured as Boudicca or Joan of Arc. The WSPU was speaking gesturally, in a language forged over centuries, conveying virtue through allegory and personification. The suffragettes were placing their first fatality – and she was to remain the movement’s only direct fatality – at the centre of a modern ritual, a work of spectacular and dramatic self-portraiture. Lisa Tickner quotes one witness saying: ‘I should think all criticism must be hushed in the face of such devotion.’ Davison’s death had caught the imagination. The public mood was changing to sympathy for her cause.

The First World War started 14 months later, and thousands volunteered to die for their country. When it ended female householders were given the vote. Joan of Arc, the protesters’ mascot, emerged as an establishment symbol, all of a sudden embraced by male authority: she was canonised in 1920. The first church in the world dedicated to her name was in Highbury, while in Edwin Lutyens’s utopia, Hampstead Garden Suburb, she presides from the dome of the Lady Chapel in St Jude’s, painted by a returned soldier, who surrounded her with a parade of heroines from the Bible, figures of history, and contemporary women busy at numerous vital tasks. Even if, as some historians argue, it was the war and women’s war effort that gained women the right to vote, the power of Davison’s death raises questions concerning the importance of martyrdom for the success of a great cause. Saint Perpetua (d. 302), the subject of an astonishing Passion written partly in her own voice in the early fourth century, was held up as an ideal to me and my convent school classmates. We were invited to imagine her standing on the blood-soaked sand of the arena under the battering African sun with the crowd howling for sport and the grilles behind which the wild beasts paced and snarled ready to be lifted to set loose the animals against her. Martyrdom was a specific exalted form of female heroism and Davison knew it. ‘In the New Testament,’ she exulted in one of her last articles, printed after her death in the Daily Sketch,

the Master reminded His followers that when the merchant had found the Pearl of Great Price, he sold all he had in order to buy it. That is the parable of Militancy! … the perfect Amazon is she who will sacrifice all even unto this last to win the Pearl of Freedom for her sex … To lay down life for friends, that is glorious, selfless, inspiring! But to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!

*

The long cultural tradition of putting the tormented female body on show has today found lurid new expression. Pornography has become a central anxiety, and what is to be done confuses us. Porn burrows into the freedoms that have been fought for so hard: for sexual pleasure, for choice, for equality, for freedom of expression. Contemporary pornography is like a mimic insect that replicates another creature in order to deceive. You wanted freedom for women to have sex: well, here you are. A women’s protest group like Femen, which started in the Ukraine and has spread rapidly, performs a second twist on the reciprocal mimicry, and stages performances of naked, brazen profanity to turn the poisonous dart on the aggressor, just as the most brilliant mimic insects are camouflaged as venomous predators who are themselves disguised as harmless. Pussy Riot adopted a similar strategy, acting up as wild girls to attack the attackers and oppressors. These are the daughters of Emily Davison and of the suffragette movement.

Until now, I shared in the guilt of turning away from the difficulties Emily Davison’s case presents, of not inquiring into her story or including her in the pantheon of feminist heroines; and, after looking a little more, I still have misgivings. I want to cry out against the necessity to hallow a cause by blood sacrifice. The new emphasis on the accidental, unintended nature of her death reflects a more general turning away from martyrdom. Yet to die in plain sight remains the founding act of many revolutions: two and a half years ago, Mohamed Bouazizi, who sold vegetables from a stall in the small town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, poured paint thinner over himself and set himself alight outside the town hall in despair at the economic conditions he and his family and his compatriots were struggling with. He died more than two weeks later, on 4 January 2011. His pyre instantly lit protests in the region and then in the country and then across the Arab world. At the furthest polar distance from a street vendor in North Africa, stands the right-wing extremist Dominique Venner, a French historian and friend of the Le Pens, who shot himself in May in Notre-Dame. His act was a protest, he wrote in his suicide note, against immigration and the disappearance of French culture. A public death makes a demand at the highest pitch of intensity and gravity; in the form of suicide bombers, it is deployed with horrifying frequency. In Iraq more than 440 suicide attacks took place between 22 March 2003 and August 2006 and the toll keeps mounting. Yet I remember a time not so long ago when hijackers could be counted on not to want to blow themselves up and the plane with them.

In the era of rendition, extradition and various states of invisibility and statelessness, as discussed by Agamben in Homo Sacer and elsewhere, a different light can be thrown on Davison’s story to distinguish it from martyrdom. While the suicide dies, perhaps killing others too, she takes herself from the invisible margins to centre stage. So blood sacrifice is not the necessary act for change, but a symbolic event that reconfigures visibility and invisibility, redrafts exemption from law, and asserts rights to its protection. A gamble with death like Davison’s that day at the Derby, or an attempted suicide (throwing herself down the stairs in Holloway), is always a gesture as well as an act, and its symbolic character inheres in its unseating of authority. It pushes the centre off-centre. By a horrible paradox, it also asserts the liberty of the individual. In Guantánamo, more than half the prisoners are on hunger strike and are being force-fed. Their self-imposed privations assert that there still is a place for them to have sovereignty.

In the ranks of heroes and heroines created by bloodshed are those who kill themselves by intention, and they are not the same as those who are intentionally killed – executed – by judicial or other official state procedures. Joan of Arc did not want to die. She recanted, but withdrew her recantation almost immediately, saying she had only done so ‘for fear of the fire’, after she was condemned to burn at the stake. When offered permanent imprisonment as her reprieve, she chose the fire, but only then. She is not however a martyr in the ranks of Catholic saints – because it was the Church that killed her.

There are also accidental martyrs, identified and selected for fame after death. Then there are killings motivated by political and religious fury: Archbishop Oscar Romero, for example, was shot in 1980 as he was saying Mass in the cathedral of San Salvador, assassinated after speaking against the corruption and violence of the regime. He was taking a serious risk, he knew, but he didn’t think he could be murdered in cold blood inside his church. Significantly, the new Pope Francis has reopened the case for his canonisation. If it is successful Romero will be recognised officially as a martyr. But he did not intend to die.

The most eloquent witnesses of all are the survivors, who can raise their voices to confront the forces that desired their death. Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen in October, is this kind of heroine, because the savage attempt on her life has spread news of her cause worldwide. She now faces a different set of dangers, led by fame. Worldwide celebrity is a cruel impediment to a young woman who was simply asking to be allowed to go to school. But she was photographed for the cover of Time magazine’s feature on ‘The hundred most influential people in the world’, and it is hard to imagine how she will live through this and beyond, how she will be able to use the influence her ordeal has given her without herself being used up. But she is alive, and the value of being alive is what enthusiasm for martyrdom forgets.

[1] In this talk, Marina Warner refers to Rembrandt’s ‘Abraham’s Sacrifice’ (1635), the Lady Chapel paintings inside St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Marcelle Hanselaar’s ‘Loss of Innocence, Sacrifice’ (2011), ‘Spectators’ and ‘Protesters’ (2013).