Lady Constance Lytton: The Lady and the vote

PUBLISHED: 14:14 24 July 2010 | UPDATED: 14:48 20 February 2013

Lady Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Lytton

She was arrested for her beliefs and force-fed by her jailers but Lady Constance Lytton was determined to fight for a better life for women, as Sue Fisher discovers

NO ONE could accuse Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton of leading a quiet life. Not only was he a more popular author than his friend Charles Dickens but he also became notorious for his bitter split from his wife Rosina - he even had her committed to a lunatic asylum at one stage.

'Victorian wives had no power, no possessions and their husbands could do whatever they liked with their things,' says Clare Fleck, archivist at Knebworth, the ancestral home of the Lytton family. Bulwer-Lytton spread his poison about Rosina so effectively that she was considered the black sheep of the family until recent years, when her portrait was hung back on the walls. But she had one fan - her granddaughter Lady Constance Lytton.

Lady Constance, the granddaughter of Bulwer-Lytton and Rosina, could have lived out her life as a comfortable spinster who remembered her father Robert's glorious days as Viceroy of India in the 1870s.

After his death in 1891, when Constance was only 22, she set up home with her mother Lady Edith, one of the Queen's ladies in waiting and moved with her mother to a house on the estate. Constance defied her mother by joining the most controversial and radical cause of the early 20th century, even going to jail and ruining her health for it. She became a Suffragette.

In 1903 Emily Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) but the establishment fought back with arrests and imprisonment. By 1908 Lady Constance, sick of her ivory tower, joined a protest and was arrested. Later she recalled how glad she was to have taken part and been at one with companions committed to the same cause. She was sentenced to one month in Holloway.

In July 1909 the Suffragettes came up with a new strategy - hunger strikes to protest against being treated as criminals rather than political prisoners. By the end of the year they were being force-fed in the most brutal and painful way which Constance later described as 'a living nightmare of pain, horror and revolting degradation', adding, 'There is also a feeling of helplessness, as of an animal in a trap.'

In October 1909 Constance was jailed again but released after three days of a hunger strike because of her heart problems. She was convinced older and weaker prisoners were not being treated so leniently and determined to become an 'ordinary' prisoner. For her next arrest, in January 1910, she disguised herself in cheap clothes and gave her name as Jane Warton. This time she was subjected to force feeding for four days before her real identity was revealed.

She then suffered a series of heart seizures followed by a debilitating stroke in 1912. Constance could only walk a few steps and wrote her moving book about her experiences, Prisons and Prisoners, with her left hand because her right was paralysed but in 1918 Constance was overwhelmed with joy when women finally won the vote.
Her health declined steadily over the years and she died with her sisters at her side in May 1923, at the age of 54. Constance was buried with the Suffragette colours laid on her coffin.

Article taken from September issue of Hertfordshire Life

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