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.

At first, the forcible feeding of suffragettes was controversial, even among members of the public who weren’t sympathetic to the suffragettes’ own methods. More than a hundred doctors signed a letter to the Times calling it ‘unwise and inhumane’. Other doctors wrote to the British Medical Journal saying that the suffragettes were only being treated the way any other lunatics refusing to be fed would have been treated, and so – ironically – came close to accepting the principle of equal treatment for the sexes. One retired Irish prison doctor asked why a woman who threw bombs and assaulted the police shouldn’t be treated as a criminal, when a man who did the same would certainly be. The government had hoped that force-feeding would be a deterrent to suffragette action, but instead it became a new form of martyrdom, one that only the bravest would submit to.

Lytton said she ‘looked forward’ to it. Her moment came in Liverpool in January 1910 when a prison doctor put a steel gag in her mouth, inserted a long rubber tube and poured a vile mixture of ‘milk, gruel, eggs, brandy, sugar and beef tea’ through it – to add insult to injury she was vegetarian. She felt she was suffocating, and kept being sick until the tube was removed and she was left to clean up the vomit. The process was repeated many times. The prison governor said he had never before seen such a bad case of asphyxiation. She begged to be given less food or a smaller tube; after the sixth time, she thought she could stand no more, but then the words ‘no surrender’ came into her head and she submitted again. However much she suffered it seems she was better able to withstand the torture of tube feeding than some of the more gung-ho suffragettes. Sylvia was the only member of the Pankhurst family to be force-fed (Emmeline threatened to hit a prison doctor with a jug if he tried it on her). But for Constance, self-denial and pain came naturally.

By the time Lytton arrived for her first stay in Holloway, she was already acclimatised to both distress and confinement. And she had no trouble sacrificing her own wishes for the sake of a greater cause. For the first phase of her life, that greater cause had been her mother. Edith Lytton née Villers had been a society beauty in her day. When Constance was a child, Edith praised her beautiful eyes and hoped that ‘the lower part of her face’ would improve. The main quality Constance’s family seem to have noticed about her, from childhood onwards, was her goodness and tendency to do anything possible to alleviate the sufferings of others, particularly Edith’s. Not only was Robert Bulwer-Lytton a philanderer who publicly took up with an American actress but he messed up his financial affairs and left his wife with inadequate funds for the upkeep of Knebworth House, the family estate, after his death. From 1901, she and Edith lived together at Homewood, a draughty house far more modest than Knebworth, though designed by Edwin Lutyens, who was married to Constance’s sister Emily. Lutyens was said by his biographer to have seen it ‘as a doll’s house’: ‘The architect would suddenly remove the front and reveal at each end two women employed after their own hearts.’ In truth, however, both women in the doll’s house toiled to satisfy Edith’s heart. They took hip baths together in front of the fire and pursued strange, shared fads. At one point, according to Emily, they decided that it would be healthy to breathe as hard as possible through the nose. ‘So when they have nothing better to do, they both begin snorting violently for exercise, which is terrible to listen to.’

For Edith, this claustrophobic closeness seems to have been a comfort, but for Constance it entailed a constant suppression of her feelings. She had a short career as a book reviewer, writing about novels for the National Review and the Realm. The work made her feel ‘rampantly well’ for once. She would lunch frugally on brown bread and ginger biscuits and sit up working until the small hours. But Edith felt that the journalism took Constance too much away from home, and so Constance obligingly gave it up, just as she had once given up hope of studying piano at a conservatory. Her angelic qualities were most severely tested when she went to South Africa to visit her aunt and met John Ponsonby, who was working for her uncle, the high commissioner. Ponsonby had been born with a cleft palate and harelip, which he covered up with a bushy moustache, but to Constance, he was simply ‘adorable’. The trouble was that he had no money, and neither did Constance. They spoke of marriage, though she left South Africa without an engagement. Back in England, Edith strongly discouraged the match, banning Constance from writing to Ponsonby, a ban she would lift from time to time, just long enough to get Constance’s hopes up. False hope was also stoked by the Ponsonby family. They frequently entertained Constance in England while John remained stationed in South Africa, even though they had no intention of sanctioning the union. Constance would obsessively follow the news from the various African countries where he was posted – Uganda, Niger – and wrote incessantly of him in her diary. In 1900, she wrote to a friend that ‘what I hunger for most is to be able to serve those I love. I don’t want their respect, but that they should need me, whether as a servant or a toy or a wife.’

Ponsonby periodically returned to England – just long enough for Constance to worry that she didn’t possess a garment ‘that isn’t acutely hideousifying’ and to try to conceal from him the extent of her passion (‘hardly talked to him’, she proudly wrote to a friend), but not long enough to become engaged. Edith continued to tell her she must give him up. Constance confessed to a friend that she’d started to fantasise about sleeping with him out of wedlock. But she could not bear to think how Edith would take it if she were to have an illegitimate child: ‘It would be impossible to do anything which would give her moral pain.’ In 1902, Ponsonby let it be known to the Lytton family that he had fallen in love with someone else.

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The first hint of her conversion to the suffragette cause came on a holiday in 1908 when she met Jessie Kenney, a suffragette who described the humiliating conditions for women in Holloway prison: vermin-infected combs, drinking water contaminated with brick dust, cruelty from prison officers. Then her sister Emily introduced her to one of the leaders of the WSPU, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Constance proved swooningly susceptible to the attentions of the suffragette high-ups. When she stood in the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in 1909, waiting to be sentenced to that first stint in Holloway, she said she felt more proud than of anything in her life. Christabel Pankhurst – ‘unlooked-for honour’! – actually thanked her for her contribution. Once she had properly earned her stripes as a suffragette, they even put her on the payroll, paying her £2 a week as an organiser, enough for her to rent a small flat off the Euston Road and spend Monday to Friday away from Homewood and Edith. ‘Wondrous terms; in return I give all I have to give,’ she wrote to her aunt.

It might have been expected that Constance would join the more moderate, suffragist wing of the campaign, but to her family, it was no surprise that moderation wasn’t enough. ‘It was obvious from the first,’ her brother Neville said, ‘that she would become a militant, because militancy involved a greater degree of sacrifice.’ She would be as much of a perfectionist about her militant actions as she had once been about flower arranging. In October 1909, she and Emily Wilding Davison waited for Lloyd George to arrive at the Liberal Club, where he was due to speak. Constance held a stone, around which was wrapped a piece of paper declaring: ‘Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.’ She was determined that her stone-throwing should be ‘more zealously done, more deliberate in its character’ than ‘stone-throwing at ordinary windows’. In the end, she missed Lloyd George but she hit another car with her stone and was charged with disorderly behaviour and malicious injury, which made her ‘exalted’.

She wasn’t all solemnity and martyrdom, however. She was prone to the giggles, and had inherited her father’s aristocratic love of amateur theatricals. She applied all her am dram skills to the task of creating ‘Jane Warton’, her low-born alter ego. The photograph that survives of her in her disguise is both splendid and hilarious. She has thick pince-nez, a silk neckerchief and one arm lifted in triumph. To modern eyes, she doesn’t look poor so much as transvestite, with shades of Dame Edna. Yet gathering together all the elements of this ensemble designed to ‘put ugliness to the test’ in prison, took careful thought. She visited separate shops in Manchester for each item, so as not to raise suspicions, and asked ‘a frowzy little hairdresser’s shop’ to cut her hair in a short and unbecoming style, with ‘smooth bands down the side’.

It was thanks to this bizarre get-up that she finally achieved her aim of being force-fed. A few months earlier, she had got herself arrested in Newcastle and waited expectantly in the dirty cell holding her nostrils. But when the doctor came, he only tested her heart and left. She was released on grounds of ill health, but it was clear that the real reason was her family connections. In Liverpool, ‘Jane Warton’ would have a very different experience. Until the third force feeding, when she started to shiver uncontrollably, no one took her pulse or checked her heart. One of the doctors slapped her and told her that if she vomited again he would feed her twice. ‘Jane’ protested to the prison governor at the harshness of her treatment, however ‘abnormal looking’ she was ‘with short hair and a moustache’.

Once her secret was discovered, the harsh treatment of Constance-as-Jane became a national scandal. ‘Lady Constance Lytton’s Latest Freak’ was one of the newspaper headlines. Christabel Pankhurst pronounced it a signal victory over the government. Constance’s brother Victor was moved by her bravery and pressed home her cause in the Times and with his friend Winston Churchill, who was now home secretary. The differing treatment of the two women was a clear case of double standards, Victor said, and he called for a public inquiry to ensure that future ‘Jane Wartons’ were treated more fairly. The inquiry never happened, but Churchill did introduce Rule 243a, under which WSPU members would enjoy more lenient treatment in prison, so long as they were not guilty of any violent crimes. The rule stated that prisoners of the second or third division could enjoy first-division privileges – such as wearing one’s own clothes, and receiving letters and books from home.

Meanwhile, Victor took up his sister’s fight in Parliament, becoming chair of a Conciliation Committee that aimed to build a political consensus to deliver votes for women on terms that moderates could accept. The result was a draft bill that would give female property-owners the vote, but no other women; and if a man was already named as the property owner at a given address, his wife could not claim to represent it. It was hardly a radical proposition, but Constance’s friends welcomed it as a triumph, specifically as her triumph. If the Conciliation Bill had become law, Constance could, justifiably, have claimed that she’d played a direct role in giving British women the vote. Along with 10,000 other women, she marched from Embankment to the Albert Hall on 18 June 1910 in support of the Conciliation Bill. But although the Bill passed its second reading by a majority of 109 votes, Asquith eventually changed his mind and dropped it for a new bill offering universal suffrage for men.

It would be another eight years before votes for women finally became law, in the wake of the Great War. ‘Lady Conny’ faded into the past. In 1912, the suffragette leaders, having failed to secure the Conciliation Bill, embarked on a new strategy of sabotage and violence. On 1 March 1912, there was a mass smashing of windows in Piccadilly and the Strand. Women took hammers from their handbags and shattered shopfronts. But Constance wasn’t well enough to join them. Her already fragile health had been permanently damaged by her spell as Jane Warton. After a series of heart tremors and in declining strength, she collapsed with a stroke and was found semi-conscious on the floor of her flat on the Euston Road. Her sister Betty complained to the Times that Constance’s stroke was a direct result of her force-feeding. Constance returned to her old life at Homewood with her mother. She continued to follow suffragette activities from a distance and often gave money to those in trouble. In 1913, she sent flowers to Kitty Marion, a suffragette who was imprisoned for setting fire to a grandstand at a racetrack, in protest at Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby. Marion was force fed 232 times over 14 weeks. Constance wrote that she felt a love for her ‘which I cannot put on paper’. In 1914, Constance managed to write her book Prisons and Prisoners, a memoir of her years as a suffragette, using only her left hand – her right hand had been damaged by the stroke. In the book, she told the full story of Jane Warton and how the disguise was so ridiculous that even her fellow prisoners tittered – when she was arrested, it was all she could do not to laugh at herself. She wrote that during her nights of hunger in the cell, she dreamed of ‘fruits, melons, peaches and nectarines, and of a moonlit balcony that was hung with the sweetest smelling flowers’. And she wrote of the torture of the tube and the gag and the pity she felt for Jane Warton ‘as if I were outside of her’.

After the stroke, Constance once again sat in an invalidish room that smelled of flannel sheets and dog. When her nephews and nieces visited her, she would peel grapes and feed them to her Pekingese as she talked. She resumed her former interest in polishing things with Brasso and making everything spick and span. And she took up an old hobby of Japanese flower arranging. In the dining room at Homewood, she always kept flowers arranged in flat pans interspersed with twigs and stones: much superior, in her view, to the ‘old, long-established English fashion of massing together in a vase’. The great thing about a Japanese arrangement was the beauty of line, which enabled the viewer to get a perspective on each individual flower, rather than seeing them as an indistinct mass. ‘To the Japanese,’ she wrote, ‘every flower has its meaning.’