Throw it out the window

Bee Wilson

  • Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr by Lyndsey Jenkins
    Biteback, 282 pp, £20.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 84954 795 6

In Holloway prison, in March 1909, Constance Lytton decided to carve the words ‘Votes for Women’ across her chest. She had been locked up for taking part in suffragette protests but found that, as an aristocrat, she was receiving preferential treatment from the prison officers, and she didn’t like it. Lytton had serious establishment connections. She was the sister of a peer, Victor Bulwer-Lytton, the second Earl of Lytton; her late father was the poet and statesman Robert Bulwer-Lytton, who had been viceroy of India at the time of the Great Famine of 1876. This was her first stay in prison, and she had been looking forward to seeing how badly women were treated there: instead she was placed in the hospital wing, where she was waited on by more lowly prisoners and offered more ample rations than the other inmates.

Constance Lytton with hunger strike medal, c.1912.
Constance Lytton with hunger strike medal, c.1912.

By writing ‘Votes for Women’ using her blood for ink and her flesh for paper Lytton hoped to prove that she wasn’t a lady of privilege but an ‘awkward customer’ who didn’t deserve special treatment. It wasn’t an easy operation: her ‘skin proved much tougher’ than expected, she later recalled, and ‘suitable tools’ were hard to come by. The prison provided inmates with a sewing needle and a darning needle, but neither was adequate to the task. She wasn’t keen to use a hairpin, as she only had a few and wanted them for her long tumbling hair; eventually she found one whose black enamel was coming off and got to work. After cleaning the hairpin with a stone, she spent a full twenty minutes trying to write on herself, but the background ‘material’ wasn’t as flat as she would have liked – a rib was in the way. She only got as far as ‘V’ before she started bleeding profusely. Still, it was a ‘very fine V just over my heart’ and it appeared even more ‘imposing’ once it was bandaged up by a prison officer. She felt, she said, like a craftsman. It may not have been quite what she intended – it looked ‘as if half my chest had been hacked open’ – but it did the job. She was transferred from the hospital wing to the main prison, where she felt she belonged.

The puzzle of Lady Constance Lytton’s life (1869-1923) is how to reconcile the first forty years and the final 14. From 1909 onwards, she was a suffragette of the most militant kind. Yet in the previous four decades, she had led a quiet, dutiful and extremely posh existence. Her life up to 1909, Lyndsey Jenkins writes in her sympathetic and extremely well-told account, ‘had given no hint of the rebellion to come’. She threw stones, agitated, got arrested and starved herself. She may not have been a charismatic leader in the Pankhurst mould, but she provided the movement with one of its boldest acts when she had herself arrested disguised as ‘Jane Warton’, a working-class woman, to expose the government’s double standards. Earlier accounts of Constance’s life have claimed that she was interested in prison reform long before she became a suffragette, but Jenkins has found little evidence of that, or of any great interest in politics. In her early twenties, Constance had said that the most terrible moment of her life had been finding herself alone at breakfast with Lord Salisbury, and unable to think of anything to talk about except jam. Yet the more Jenkins tells us of this first Constance, the more we see that being an aristocratic nerve-wracked Victorian spinster was actually the ideal training for becoming an Edwardian freedom fighter. She had only to turn her profound self-abnegation to a different end.

The hunger strikes started in June 1909 with Marion Wallace Dunlop, an artist, throwing fried fish, bananas and hot milk out of the window of her cell. Asked what she would have for dinner, she replied: ‘My determination.’ To start with, going on hunger strike seemed a brilliant ruse for securing early release from jail, since the government didn’t want the women to die behind bars. In September, the nature of the struggle changed when the home secretary Herbert Gladstone, William Gladstone’s son, ordered a new policy of force-feeding. Women were pinned down while prison doctors rammed long tubes into their nostrils or down their throats. The tubes weren’t always cleaned between feedings, and some women suffered chipped teeth, others permanently damaged digestion.

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