This is an article that I wrote last year with my good friend David Scott concerning a suffragette extraordinaire!
Constance Lytton: Living for a Cause
David Scott and Faith Spear
Vision is often personal, but a cause is bigger than any one individual
People don’t generally die for a vision, but they will die for a cause
Vision is something you possess, a cause possess you
Vision doesn’t eliminate the options; a cause leaves you without any options
A good vision may out live you, but a cause is eternal
Vision will generate excitement, but a cause generates power
[Adapted from Houston (2001)]
In Prisons and Prisoners: Some personal experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, published 100 years ago this month in March 1914, Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton presented one of the most significant challenges to 20th Century anti-suffrage politics. In so doing she put herself forward as a “champion of women” (Lytton, 1914) in the hope that one day women would attain political equality with men.Prisons and Prisoners is a comprehensive and at times a harrowing personal account of her four prison sentences as a militant suffragette. The book is a compelling insight into the mind of a young woman consumed by a cause which would prove to be instrumental in prison reform and votes for women,as well as tragically being a contributory factor to her death.
Desperate to find some way of empathising with the other suffragettes, Constance Lytton had a desire to stand beside those who were fighting. She was with them not as a ‘spare part’ but as a comrade. Most famously, to avoid receiving special treatment and privileges as a result of her family connections, she took on the guise of ‘Jane Warton’ and in so doing personally experienced the horrors of prison, including force-feeding. Although her health suffered, her story is one which shows courage, determination and an undeniable dedication to equality and justice (Lytton, 1914).
Concentrating attention on political injustice and votes for women, Constance Lytton brought notice toclass and gender disparities in punishment and the struggles for the rights of women, always maintaining that the suffragette’s militant actions were political rather than criminal. This all from a woman that described herself as having an exaggerated dislike of society and of publicity in any form and yet remarkably was at the same time a militant suffragette who took part indeputations to Parliament and prolonged periods of penal incarceration (Lytton, 1914; Haslam, 2008).
Lady Constance Lytton is not the only woman from a privileged background who has written about her prison experiences. The famous Irish rebel, Countess Constance Georgine Markievicz (1927/1973), most well known for her participation in the 1916 Easter rising, wrote extensively about her time in prison. Indeed, her prison letters were published to huge acclaim and are still considered today to be of great political significance. In more recent times – October 2013 – Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK’s government economic service,published her account of her three and a half days incarcerated in HMP Holloway (12th-15th March 2013)and eight weeks inHMP East Sutton Park Open Prison (15th March – 12th May 2013). Her book, Prisonomics, which ultimately seeks to predicate penal change on an economic rationale rather than on humanitarian concerns, has not been so well received. The reaction is partly because it cannot be considered as representative of the lived realities of most women in prison,partly because of the privileged status she was accorded insideprison and thevast economic resources at her disposal,and partly because of the support she was given in writing the book and her failure to identify closely with the painful realities of other prisoners.Yet perhaps the most damning indictment comes when the book is compared to the prison writings of people like Countess Constance Markievicz or Lady Constance Lytton,for then it becomes evident just what is missing from Prisonomics.
Lytton’s experiences of imprisonment
After being arrested for being part of a deputation marching to Downing Street on 24th February 1909, Constance Lytton was sentenced to four weeks’ imprisonment in HMP Holloway. In Prisons and Prisoners,she provides extraordinarily rich descriptions of prisonconditions, daily routine, fellow prisoners and prison wardresses in Holloway prison at that time. Although initially held in the hospital wing because of her poor health, following acts of resistance which in effect amounted to self-harm,she was allowed to join other prisoners on ‘the other side’ in the main wings (Lytton, 1914). She had a brilliant eye for detail and provides a number of clear and vivid accounts of sometimes overlooked aspects of prison life. For example, she describes how her prison clothes, with broad arrows stamped over them, were often ill-fitting, stained, unironed and looking unwashed even after they had been to the laundry. Further, the poor design and cut of her prison shirt was not just uncomfortable but so bad it “looked like the production of a maniac” whilst her prison shoes were too small and painful to walk in (Lytton, 1914). The prison cells were small, bitterly cold and poorly ventilated, making it hard for prisoners to breathe, never mind stay warm. Beds were uncomfortable whilst pillows were “stuffed with thunder”, making sleep and rest difficult under the best of circumstances and, when compounded by noise, impossible (Lytton, 1914).
In Prisons and PrisonersConstance Lytton draws the reader’s attention to the lack of privacy, including the ironies of being in so many ways alone in prison yet at the same time not having the opportunity to retreat to a private space of one’s own. She recounts the monotony of prison daily routine where days collapse into each other and the general dragging of time engendering feelings of wastefulness. She complains about the rigid enforcement of petty rules and the judgemental opinions of wardresses which make prisoners feel like they belong to “a race apart” (Lytton, 1914). Insightfully, Constance Lytton also recognised the difficulties wardresses had in understanding how the pains of imprisonment shape prisoners’ experiences, for such things the prison official can only “witnesswithout sharing them”(Ibid). She rightly concludes that this results in a general failure on the part of prison officials to correctly read the feelings, meanings and actions of those they detain.
Constance Lytton acknowledged that her prison experience was mitigated somewhat by who she was. Despite the poor conditions she encountered, some improvements had been made on her arrival, including the supply of knives and forks which had not been available to prisoners in Holloway before her time there.As perhaps only an aristocrat would, she yearned for an authentic prison experience, and noted how other women prisoners seemed dejected, lifeless, listless, detached from each other and haunted by their own suffering, anxiety and bitterness (Lytton, 1914). On a number of occasions in her reflections on her time in Holloway prison,she uses her pen to poetically describe the abnormality, pain, sadness and venomous nature of penal incarceration, leaving the reader in no doubt of her repugnance of the penal machinery and its inevitably destructive results.
The prison from here looks like a great hive of human creeping things impelled to their joyless labours and unwilling seclusion by some hidden force, the very reversal of the natural, and which has in it no element of organic life, cohesion, or self-sufficing reason. A hive of hideous purposes from which flows back day by day into the surrounding stream of evil honey, blackened in the making and poisonous in result. The high central tower seemed to me a jam pot, indicative of the foul preserve that seethed within this factory for potting human souls (Lytton, 1914).
Despite all the bleakness of the prison experience, Constance Lytton emphasised above all else those moments when humanity and the human spirit were able to overcome the brutal indifference characterising daily prison routines. She writes about the kindness and compassion of other women prisoners (especially other suffragettes) and the brief glimpses of humanity that she saw hiding behind the “masks” worn by wardresses when performing their duties (Lytton, 1914). Indeed, for her such “rare occasions of gladness outweigh from their importance the much more numerous experiences of gloom, anxiety, anger and physical suffering” (Ibid). Yet she never became blinded by these brief moments of “gladness”, keeping her sights firmly upon carefully describing the “nightmare of horror” of HMP Holloway and a dehumanising system which trapped both prisoners and wardresses (Ibid).
Shortly after her release from Holloway prison, Constance Lytton was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment for a second time, on this occasion on Saturday 9th October, 1909 for throwing a stone at the car of Sir Walter Runciman in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Once imprisoned, she immediately went on hunger strike at HMP Newcastle. Although refusing medical examination, her health condition was still officiously checked and, afterabstaining to eat foodfor three of the days into her one month sentence (Monday 11th – Wednesday 13th October, 1909), she was released. Her release was ordered – according to Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone –because of concerns regarding her heart condition. Unlike working class women suffragettes on hunger strike in prisons, the aristocrat Constance Lytton had not been force-fed. The belief that her class background had shaped her treatment in prison led to a fundamental change in hertactics.
‘Jane Warton, Spinster’ and Walton Prison
The writings of Lady Constance Lytton on Holloway and Newcastle prisons are undoubtedly worthy of commemoration in their own right, but what she did next was truly remarkable, making Prisons and Prisoners one of the most unique prisoner autobiographies ever written. After hearing about the force feeding of a working class suffragette of her acquaintance, Miss Selina Martin, and another named Miss Leslie Hall, while on remand at Walton Prison in Liverpool, Constance Lytton hatched a plan that would entail,if necessary, “sharing the fate of these women” (Lytton, 1914). Her intention was to transcend her class background in an attempt to understand the lived experiences of working class women prisoners.In so doing, she hoped to express political solidarity with the suffering of less fortunate others and to use her own frail body as the central way of achieving this.
Whilst visiting Manchester in early January 1910, she disguised herself with a most ridiculous hair-cut, cheap glasses and even cheaper clothes and then rejoined the WSPU[Women’s Social and Political Union] as ‘Jane Warton, Spinster’ (Lytton, 1914). She had chosen her new name carefully:the first name was taken from Jeanne of Arc (Jeanne is translated as either Joan or Jane)whilst the surname was derived from her relatives the ‘Warburtons’ but shortened to ‘Warton’ to appear more ordinary.She hoped the real meaning of her name ‘Jane Warton’ would give her strength in what she anticipated would be difficult times ahead (Ibid).
‘Jane Warton’ was subsequently arrested on Friday 14th January 1910 after participating in a protest march about the force feeding of working class women suffragetteslike Selina Martin in Walton prison. ‘Jane Warton’ started her hunger strike in the police cells that Friday evening, a couple of days before she was to begin her sentence at Walton Prison. Just as she had done so under her real name, when in prison ‘Jane Warton’ refused medical examinations. There was, however, to be no further investigation into the health of working class suffragette ‘Jane Warton’ and 89 hours into her hunger strike, force-feeding began. Between Tuesday 18th and Saturday 22nd January 1910, ‘Jane Warton’ was to have liquidised food poured into a tube forced into her stomach through her mouth on eight separate occasions.
At 6.00pm, Tuesday 18th January1910 her first force feeding started. The medical officer and five wardresses entered her cell with the “feeding apparatus” (Lytton, 1914). There was no attempt to medically examine ‘Jane Warton’ and the half-hearted made attempts by the medical officer to induce her to eat unsurprisingly failed.
I offered no resistance to being placed in position, but lay down voluntarily on the plank bed. Two of the wardresses took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth… The sense of being overpowered by more force than I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth… He seemed annoyed at my resistance and he broke into a temper as he plied my teeth with the steel implement… He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would feed me through the nose.The pain of it was intense and at last I must have give way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet in length.The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back by back and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I was sick over the doctor and wardresses and it seemed a long time before they took the tube out (Lytton, 1914).
When the force-feeding was over the doctor slapped ‘Jane Warton’ on the cheek and left her cell (Ibid).
I could not move, and remained there in what, under different conditions, would have been an intolerable mess. I had been sick over my hair, which, though short, hung on either side of my face, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with it, but the wardresses told me they could not get me a change that night as it was too late, the office was shut. I lay quite motionless, it seemed paradise to be without the suffocating tube, without the liquid food going in and out of my body and without the gag in my teeth… Before long I heard the sounds of forced feeding in the cell next to mine. It was almost more than I could bare (Ibid).
‘Jane Warton’ continued to vomit following being force-fed on further occasions (Ibid). Her physical frailty was noted by the medical officer but remarkably when her heart was checked by a junior doctor,he exclaimed “Oh ripping, splendid heart! You can go on with her” (Ibid). From her fourth to eighth feedings the doctor and wardresses were more gentle, for they had realised that ‘Jane Warton’ was someone else in disguise, even though they remained unsure of her true identity. Her physical and emotional strength was virtually broken and at her feeding on Friday 21st she was “convulsed with sobs” (Ibid). Following outside intervention from her family,she was released from HMP Walton on the morning of Sunday 23rd January 1910.
Writing, reception and legacy of ‘Prisons and Prisoners’
When Constance Lytton (‘Jane Warton’) was finally released from Walton prison on 23rd January,a major political scandal followed immediately. The then Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, claimed that ‘Lady Constance Lytton’ had been released from Newcastle prison when she went on hunger strike because she had heart disease, yet in her guise as ‘Jane Warton’ had been subjected to force feeding and was released due to “loss of weight and general physical weakness”(Lytton, 1914; Haslam, 2008). Before Constance Lytton, some 35 other women suffragettes had been force-fed whilst on hunger strike, but none of these suffragettes were members of the ruling elite and their sufferings during force feedings had largely been ignored. Lady Constance Lytton’s treatment as ‘Jane Warton’ by contrast was a major political embarrassment, although the extent of the fall-out from her revelations and the concerted petitioning of her brother and sisters remain unclear. Although Herbert Gladstone ended his tenure as Home Secretary shortly after the release of ‘Jane Warton’, it is debatable whether the two events were linked.The personal consequences for Constance Lytton of her ‘force feeding’, sadly, are undoubted. Following herrelease, she was confined to her bed for six weeks because her heart was so weak, and in the autumn of 1910 a heart seizure temporarily paralysed her. Her health never fully recovered and although the initial paralysis eased,two more years of suffering from heart seizures followed (Lytton, 1914).
Remarkably, Constance Lytton somehow found the passion and energy to continue as by this time she had personal insight complete with understanding, but most of all a strategy, and yet again she was arrested and sent to Holloway between 21st – 28th November 1911. Although the sentence was for a month, members of her family paid the requisite sum for her release and so she served one week only. Tragedy was to strike her on 5th May 1912, when Constance Lytton suffered a stroke. In Prisons and Prisoners she wrote:
… had a stroke and my right arm was paralysed; also, slightly my right foot and leg. I was taken from my flat to my sister’s house … from that day I have been incapacitated from working for the Women’s Social and Political Union, but I am with them still with my whole soul (Lytton, 1914).
This remarkable and courageous woman wrote her book Prisons and Prisoners with her left hand as a result of the paralysis. She spent the final years of her life (1912-1923) an invalid at Knebworth, cared for by her mother and hired nurses, one of which she closely befriended. As the Letters of Constance Lytton, selected and arranged by Betty Balfour (Lytton, 1925) published posthumously in 1925 indicate, Constance Lytton was a prolific letter writer prior to her stroke in 1912, but following this was able to write only very few personal letters, showing us just how much of a struggle it must have been to write Prisons and Prisoners with her left hand. Christabel Pankhurst on 20th March 1914 wrote “Prisons and Prisoners is in itself a triumph of will – a great conquest of the spirit over bodily infirmity”. Indeed it was.
The story of Constance Lytton as detailed by her own hand, and that of others, caught the imagination of both her peers and fellow suffragettes. Her story was first to come out in a fictionalised form, as a thinly disguised character in the classic Gertrude Colmore (1911) novel Suffragette Sally. Her struggle also had a far reaching effect on legislation. This can be illustrated by the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge of Ill Health) Act, which became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. It was rushed through parliament in 1913 to allow the discharge of hunger-striking suffragettes from prisons as a response to growing public disquiet about the use of forcible feeding. This Act allowed for the early release of prisoners who were so weakened by hunger striking that they were at risk of death. However, they were to be recalled to prison once their health was recovered, where the process would begin again.Though hardly a victory, political pressure continued to mount and finally,in Constance Lytton’s lifetime, propertied women aged over 30 got the vote1918.
As a consequence of her actions ‘for this cause’ (Houston, 2001), Constance Lytton had many that were grateful for the sacrifice she gave. Below are some of the many testimonies:
The Outlook (28th January 1910) “Whenever the annals of the human race are preserved, this deed of hers will be treasured up as a priceless possession”
Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (28th January 1910)
“[her act] will be written in letters of gold upon the tables of human history”
MrsCoombe Tennant, (visiting justice, 1925, cited in Balfour, 1925)
“prisons today are different from what they would have been had she not gone down into hell.”
Constance Lytton died at the age of 54. At her funeral Emmeline Pethick Lawrence placed a palm leaf on the casket, with the statement:
Dearest Comrade – You live always in the hearts of those who love you and live forever in the future race which inherits the new freedom you gave your life to win (cited in Miles and Williams, 1999).
When looking back at Prisons and Prisoners 100 years on, it is clear that the book is not only an important historical artefact in terms of publicisingthe struggle for women’s equality but also as aremarkable testimony of one women’s experience of imprisonment. Prisons and Prisoners provides insights neglected by some penological narratives of that time and directly contradicts official reports and documents–most famously those of then Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone (see Haslam, 2008). Undoubtedly, Prisons and Prisoners continues to humanise prison studies and to enrich understandings of prison life, both past and present.
It also provides an antidote for those drawn to the publicity-craving celebrity autobiographies of the political elite imprisoned for their own corruption. When contrasting Constance Lytton’s Prisons and Prisoners with the more recent Prisonomics by Vicky Pryce (2013)it seems the two books provide almost a mirror image of each other. Prisons and Prisoners is a personally courageous attempt to uncover the terrible truth regarding the experiences of both ordinary prisoners and suffragettes. Rooted in radical and emancipatory politics, it questions imprisonment because it is a dehumanising environment creating unnecessary human suffering. In comparison Prisonomics central focus is upon the economic, rather than human, costs of penal incarceration. But what distinguishes the two books more than anything else is the political commitments of the authors to their given cause. Whereas a strong political commitment is evident in nearly every act undertaken by Constance Lytton as described in her autobiography it is noticeable in the main through its absence in the writings of Vicky Pryce. As such it is difficult to imagine commemorating the publication of Prisonomics in the next century.
Nonetheless Prisons and Prisoners, and what it attempted to achieve, isalso not without difficulties. Despite her best efforts, it was always an impossible ambition for Constance Lytton to entirely transcend class boundaries and gain an experience that could reflect the lived realities of ordinary women prisoners. Even as ‘Jane Warton’ she could never experience the restricted choices and power-differentials shaping pre- and post -incarceration for working class women offenders. Her understanding of working class women in prison was always informed by a pastoral and maternal ideology rather than by an ideology of political emancipation and resulted in a tone which in the main sought to foster sympathy for prisoners through their ‘victimhood’ rather than actualising change motivated by an understanding of prisoners as free-willed autonomous agents. Consequently, whereas suffragette women prisoners (Constance Lytton included) are presented as engaging in acts of resistance, working class criminal women prisoners are constructed as passive and unable to fight back against penal oppression (Lytton, 1914).
Furthermore, Constance Lytton made little progress in providing a platform from which the actual voices of either working class women suffragettes or ‘ordinary’ prisoners could be heard, although her stroke and subsequent paralysis in 1912 may have made such endeavours physically impossible. Nevertheless, in Prisons and Prisoners and in the wider writings of Constance Lytton (Lytton, 1909, 1910a, 1910b), we only ever hear her privileged voiceand significant though this is, it can only provide us with a partial narrative of that historical moment. Despite these concerns, the courage, bravery and commitment of Constance Lytton to expose the brutal treatment of working class women in prison, whatever the cost to her fragile health, must be recognised for the heroism it undoubtedly was. It represents a victory of the human spirit overwhat appear to be insurmountable odds and,100 years on, is a story that can inspire those working against dehumanisation and for human equality in all of its rich and wonderful diversity.
Balfour, B (1925) “Introduction” in Lytton, C. (1925) Letters of Constance Lytton, selected and arranged by Betty Balfour London: Heinemann
Gertrude Colmore (1911) Suffragette Sally Toronto: Broadview Press
Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Houston, B. (2001) For this Cause: Finding the meaning of life and living a life of meaning. Castle Hill: Maximised Leadership Inc.
Lee, A. (2008) Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1909) No votes for Women”: A reply to some recent Anti-Suffrage Publications. London: A. C. Fiefield
Lytton, C. (1910a) “A Speech by Lady Constance Lytton, Delivered at Queen’s Hall, 31st January 1910” pp 326-332 in Lee, A. (2008) Suffragette Sally by Gertrude Colmore Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1910b) “The prison experience of Lady Constance Lytton” in Votes for Women28th January 1910 pp 301-305 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Lytton, C. (1914) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster London: William Heinemann
Lytton, C. (1925) Letters of Constance Lyttonarranged by Betty Balfour London: Heinemann
Markievicz, C. (1927 / 1973)Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz London: Virago Press
Miles, P. And Williams, J. (1999) An Uncommon Criminal: The Life of Lady Constance Lytton, Militant Suffragette 1869-1923.Knebworth: Knebworth House Education and Preservation Trust
Pankhurst, C. (1914)“A Prisoner’s Book” inThe Suffragette, 20th March 1914, pp 323-326 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Pethick Lawrence, E. (1910)“Lady Constance Lytton” in Votes For Women28th January, 1910, pp 314-315 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
Pryce, V. (2013)Prisonomics London: Biteback
Scott, D. & Spear, F. (2014) “Constance Lytton/ Jane Warton Prisons and Prisoners: 100 years on” in Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, September 2014
The Outlook (1910) editorial of Votes For Women, 28th January, 1910 pp 311-314 in Haslam, J. (ed) (2008) Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton Toronto: Broadview Press
David Scott teaches at Liverpool John Moores University. He is a former coordinator of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control and an associate editor of the Howard Journal. He is currently completing a book for Palgrave entitled The Caretakers of Punishment: Power, Legitimacy and the Prison Officer.
Faith Spear is an independent Criminologist and is a member of the Reclaim Justice Network steering group and Vice-chair of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB YOI/HMP Hollesley Bay).
For further details, see Lytton (1909).
HMP East Sutton Park is a Grade II listed 16th Century building
Criticism includes the limited time she spent inside and her social background before and after prison.
 Undoubtedly relationships were distorted as both fellow prisoners and prison officers knew who she was and that she writing a book. She also brought more than £1490 in cash into prison. This level of economic resource can be contrasted to that of ordinary prisoners whose weekly wage is around £10-£15.
Four researchers were paid to collect data for part two of the book; much of the book refers to lifeoutside the prison; and whilst she writes about ‘lovely’ people, things and places (i.e. pages 49, 68, 74, 79, 98)and ‘kindnesses’ (i.e. pages 18, 42, 84), she distances herself from acknowledgingpainful prison realities.
For discussion on this see Haslam (2008).
 For further details on this classic text see Lee (2008).
The struggle for the vote for working class women continued until 1928, after Constance Lytton had died.