Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr by Lyndsey Jenkins, book review

Portrait of an unsung heroine of women's suffrage

Lucy Scholes
Wednesday 15 April 2015 19:31
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When Lady Constance Lytton first wound up in prison as the result of her efforts in the Women's Social and Political Union – the militant organisation campaigning for votes for women set up by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 – she found her well-known name and aristocratic lineage meant she was not subjected to the same abusive force-feeding as those on hunger strike. To expose these double standards, she adopted a pseudonym and disguised herself in advance of her next arrest.

The scandal that followed was a cause célèbre for the suffragette movement which ensured Lytton's notoriety. She was loosely fictionalised as Mary O'Neil, the heroine of Constance Maud's 1911 suffragette novel No Surrender, and Lytton wrote her own book about her experiences in Prisons and Prisoners. Lyndsey Jenkins' biography is the first comprehensive account of her life.

Born into Victorian privilege – her mother was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and her father was Viceroy of India – she did not quite fit the criteria for the role of "angel in the house", since she had no husband or children to look after (though she did love cleaning – her birthday treat as an adolescent was to clean the lavatory). After trying potential careers as a book reviewer and musician, by her 40th year she had definitely become that other Victorian female stereotype: the maiden aunt.

"It seems like waiting, not like actually living," she admitted in a letter to her sister Betty. But all this changed after she encountered the suffragettes. Lytton developed a fixation with the cause, and a sort of obsessive hero-worship of the Pankhursts, Christabel in particular for whom she was "prepared to do anything to impress."

Jenkins weaves the story of Constance's life and vocation with a concise but exciting history of the women's suffrage movement. The tale of Emily Davison, who hid herself in a parliamentary broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census so she could give her abode as the House of Commons is fairly well-known. I was not so familiar, however, with the fact that a host of other "naughty" suffragettes spent the night roller-skating at the Aldwych so as not to appear on the forms.

As a well-written, historically sound biography, you cannot fault it but I was greedy for more of Lytton herself, her oddities and eccentricities, such as her weird involvement with Homer Lane, an abusive charlatan who practised a cod-psychoanalysis. Lytton is ripe for a second fictionalisation.

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