Some of the most poignant and harrowing accounts of suffragette activity and suffering are found in the book Prisons and Prisoners, written by Constance Lytton and published in 1914. It is witness to a remarkable gentle and compassionate woman who, at great personal cost, transcended her personal and social context…
Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923) was the third child of Robert Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton and Viceroy of India, and Edith Villiers, a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. Although born and raised in this privileged English ruling class, Constance Lytton came to reject it to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most militant group of suffragists. Perhaps there was still something in the blood: her paternal grandfather was the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a confidant of Mary Shelley, and her great grandmother was the author and women’s rights campaigner Anna Wheeler. She had certainly been confined by her aristocratic background. Indeed, after her father died in 1891 she had retired from society to care for her mother. She also remained unmarried, because her mother refused her permission to marry a man from a ‘lower social order’, while she would not contemplate marrying anyone else. As such, she well reflected the confinement of upper-class women.
Constance Lytton’s initial conversion to the militant suffragette cause was thus an example of many. As she stated, in Prison and Prisoners:
Women had tried repeatedly, and always in vain, every peaceable means open to them of influencing successive governments. Processions and petitions were absolutely useless. In January 1909 I decided to become a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Working for the WSPU and as a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, she made speeches throughout the country, and used her family connections to campaign in Parliament. Yet her commitment was more costly than others. For Constance Lytton was not only imprisoned four times, but she took steps to make sure that, as such a high-ranking woman, her treatment would expose the oppressive measures dealt out to her social inferiors. Initially imprisoned in Holloway prison twice during 1909, her weak health meant that she spent most of her sentence in the infirmary. When higher authorities then discovered her identity, she was released. The British Government was also well aware that her health problems and hunger striking could lead to martyrdom. Infuriated by such inequality of justice, Constance then chose the alias and disguise of Jane Warton, an ‘ugly London seamstress’, to avoid such special treatment. She was arrested in Liverpool after an incident of rocks being thrown at an MP’s car,imprisoned in Walton gaol for 14 days ‘hard labour’ and force-fed 8 times. After her release, although desperately weak, she wrote and lectured on her experience of the conditions which suffragette prisoners endured. Thereby she assisted in ending force-feeding. Her health continued to deteriorate however and she suffered a heart attack in August 1910,and a series of strokes which paralysed the right side of her body. Using her left hand, she carried on regardless, writing Prisons and Prisoners which became influential in prison reform.
Such resilience was typical. While imprisoned in Holloway during March 1909, Constance Lytton had also used a piece of broken enamel from a hairpin to carve the letter “V” into the flesh of her breast, placed exactly over the heart. “V” for Votes for Women. Her plan had been to carve ‘Votes for Women’ from her breast to her cheek, so that it would always be visible. But after completing the “V” she requested sterile dressings to avoid blood poisoning and the plan was halted by the authorities.
After the WSPU ended its militant campaign in 1914, Constance Lytton gave support to Marie Stopes’ campaign to establish birth control clinics. Yet she never fully recovered from her prison treatment, heart attack and strokes, and was nursed at Knebworth by her mother until her death in 1923, aged 54.
Endowed with a celestial sense of humour, boundless sympathy, and rare musical talent, she devoted the later years of her life to the political enfranchisement of women and sacrificed her health and talents in helping to bring victory to this cause.
(Epitaph inscribed on Lady Constance Lytton’s mausoleum in Knebworth Park)
Perhaps the key to her feminism and her greatest enduring message is found in her ‘Dedication to Prisoners’, at the beginning of Prisons and Prisoners:
Lay hold of your inward self and keep tight. Reverence yourself. Be just, kind and forgiving to yourself… Public opinion, which sent you to prison, and your gaolers, who have to keep you there, are mostly concerned with your failings. Every hour of prison life will remind you of these afresh. Unless you are able to keep alight within yourself the remembrance of acts and thoughts which were good. a belief in your own power to exist freely when you are once more out of prison, how can any other human being help you? If not the inward power, how can any external power help?
whose love transforms evil into good,
we give thanks for Constance Lytton,
and for all who have made costly sacrifices for liberty.
Grant that, inspired by their examples,
we too may take up the cross that is given to us,
that we and all your children may be free.
In the power of the resurrection, Amen.