Prisons and Prisoners

Prisons and Prisoners

An Appreciation
By Elizabeth Robins

[Published in Votes for Women 
Friday, 3 Apr. 1914: p. 406
The second page of this issue,
Vol. VII, New Series no. 317
Transcribed from the online source available at Google's Newspapers
English Spelling and original punctuation retained.]

This document is listed in the "Reviews" section of Sue Thomas' bibliography, Item number 213. It is unusual for its messianic slant that has overtly Christian overtones. But Robins had visited Constance Lytton after her book was published the previous month. Other suffragists had already alerted readers to its importance with earlier reviews. Two years after release from her imprisonment, already with her health much affected, Lytton suffered a stroke, recorded in Chapter 26. As documented in my article on Robins' diary keeping during the suffrage years, Robins privately noted--"her terrible weakness, the dragging leg, the useless curled up hand, the panting laboured speech" (ER Diary, 29 March, 1914, as quoted in "Stiches in a Critical Time" Originally published 1988. Available at Stitches). 

The visit drove home to Robins how Lytton was still debilitated four years after her forcible feeding. According to her private diary, she is so struck afresh at the horrors of the court-approved torture as manifested in Lady Constance's handicaps-that she drafts letters to authorities urging that her book, Prisons and Prisoners, be acknowledged as testament of her sacrifice (ER Diary, 29 March, 1914). Now that the archive of Votes for Women is publicly accessible, we have more information about the importance of the impact of Lytton's own record of her experiences. The Jane Wharton incident had a full episode devoted to it in the six-part Shoulder to Shoulder dramatization, produced by Midge Mackensie in the mid-1970s. Judy Parfitt plays Lady Constance Lytton.

 Prisons and Prisoners


Lady Constance Lytton's book purports to tell us of "Prisons and Prisoners." It does, indeed, tell us more of these than any book yet known to us. But its true theme is Liberty. Its story is of a soul set free -- of how it found a way not only out of the bounds of physical incapacity, but out of a life well-guarded, out of a prison of Tradition, walled and bastioned behind defences impregnable since social defences were first set up.

One may say in all soberness that the book is a many-sided Miracle.

A miracle in overcoming the remoteness of the writer from that knowledge she went to find; a miracle in assimilation of what she found; a miracle in the power to make us (the prepared and the unprepared alike) companions on this Spiritual Pilgrimage -- and, most wonderful of all, to make us sharers, in some sort, in the attitude of mind in which the undertaking was carried through.

This is not only to have written a book, absorbing to the point of anguish -- it is to have written a book which will not leave the world as the world was before. It is to wield the power of Conversion.

Two differences mark this record off from that of other spiritual pilgrimages.

Not to be measured by any words I know is the gulf between the deeds recounted here and those done by the excellent Elizabeth Fry,* and all the Lords and Ladies Bountiful who from time to time have bent down from some safe place out of abundance to succour the needy, and by the might of a better fortune to redress the wrongs of the obscure.

But to abdicate all privilege! -- to get at the heart of these hidden ills, these obscure humiliations, these filthy and cancerous wrongs by demanding a share in them!...

And to carry this purpose out, not once, not twice, four times over (with a steadfastness to make one weep and then give thanks for the unconquerable soul) -- to do all this, as Constance Lytton did, not for sake of any accredited creed, nor satisfaction of personal vow, nor obligation of leadership, nor for any urging under Heaven, but that of the pitiful and valiant heart!

If to do this is not to do a new thing under the sun, any similar deed is then so far behind us, so old and poor in honour or remembrance, that the world had need of the new Revelation.

The second difference between this pilgrimage and the older sort -- fit complement to the new ideal of service -- is the new ideal in the matter of reward.

No one needs to be told outright for, implicit in every page of the book, is the fact that no gain, however spiritualised, would have counted with this Pilgrim unless such gain reached far beyond her own soul's good.

That old hope of the Saints, the White Robe and the Palm** -- how childish beside the guerdons demanded here! Not God himself could reward so cheaply His new saint. She would let fall her palm to hold out both her hands to the nearest woman in trouble. The stains on other women's garments would make of her own whiteness only a reproach.

She has taught her generation more, I think, than any other being about the Oneness of Woman -- that necessary stage on the way towards oneness with all mankind.

Let those learned in Ecclesiastical history, uttering judgments in the quiet of libraries and the privilege of pulpits, let the doctors of Divinity proclaim the value of the writings old and new, of the Fathers of the Church. For many of us, and for thousands upon thousands fighting the great fight down in the arena where society has flung them to the wild beasts -- the Gospel preached in "Prisons and Prisoners" comes as the most Christian utterance since Christ's own. 



[Editorial Insert] Fellows and other readers of the paper are reminded that they can purchase copies of this valuable book by Lady Constance Lytton from the Business Secretary, VOTES FOR WOMEN Fellowship, 4-7 Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, E. C., price 3s. 6d. each. It is particularly hoped that they will take this opportunity of obtaining it and sending it to other friends.

*Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was a quaker reformer who was well known for her prison reforms.

**White Robes and Palms references Revelations 7: 9-17.

The autobiography Prisons and Prisoners is digitized at Internet Archive Project Gutenberg, and Hathi Trust

Published by William Heinemann, 1914. 

Shortly after her forcible feeding as the disguised seamstress Jane Wharton, Lytton's own article appeared in Votes for Women, Jan. 28, 1910. Page 4

Images of Constance Lytton's letter to Elizabeth Robins thanking her for her tribute can be found online.

The London School of Economics absorbed what was the Women's Library or the Fawcett Library in East London.

At LSE, Lytton to ER.

The archive has misdated this letter as 1913, and it should be 1914. Click on the image to pull up the four-page letter.

Lytton thanks Robins for her article yet stresses that others who endured longer hunger strikes deserve more credit. She names especially Kitty Marion.