Autobiography, Activism, and the Carceral: An Analysis of the Prison Writing of Lady Constance Lytton

By Tilghman, Carolyn M. | CLIO, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Autobiography, Activism, and the Carceral: An Analysis of the Prison Writing of Lady Constance Lytton


Tilghman, Carolyn M., CLIO


The social enemy was transformed into a deviant, who brought with him the multiple danger of disorder, crime, and madness. (1)

Documents uncovered at the National Archives reveal that the votes-for-women movement probably became the first "terrorist" organisation subjected to secret surveillance photography in the UK, if not the world. (2)

Covert surveillance of militant suffragettes early in the twentieth century was a means by which Scotland Yard and Parliament kept tabs on the increasing number of unruly women who were demanding the vote. The disorderly conduct of these women, who not only were public nuisances, but also resorted to unladylike acts of arson, vandalism, and public assembly, was perceived as a major threat to national security, even though suffrage antics were joked about in the halls of Parliament. The actions of the suffragettes were labeled delinquent, whether they involved slashing the backside of Velasquez's famous painting of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery or simply gathering before the House of Commons with demands for political concessions. As a corrective measure, the state intervened; dissenting suffragettes were sent to prison.

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault argues that the development of modern institutions along with their associated discourses began over three centuries ago, bringing with them increasing state intervention into people's lives. (3) A defining characteristic of this intervention is how it imprints human bodies and behaviors in ways that are both productive and punitive, thereby creating delinquent behavior. Noting the disciplinary function of the state, Foucault asserts that the growth of the current prison system with its dual missions to incarcerate and to reform can function as a useful microcosm of modern social organization because the carceral extends its disciplinary operations beyond actual prison walls into society at large. As numerous scholars have pointed out, what is not addressed in Foucault's discussion of the carceral is how it manages prevailing social hierarchies, how it engages purposeful dissidence, or how it navigates multiple perspectives in a discontinuous network of power relations. The first two of these issues are within the scope of the following analysis since social hierarchies, particularly those of gender and class, and the dissidence they generate crucially inform the social organization of Edwardian England and are manifested in the production of suffrage autobiography as a whole. The third issue is outside the scope of this essay which narrows its analytical focus to the production of a particular autobiographical text and, therefore, a particular historical perspective.

The prison also figures as the central narrative frame and social metaphor in Lady Constance Lytton's autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners. (4) Lytton's rendering of her involvement with the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) has emerged as a seminal text for reconstituting the suffrage movement as public record, doing so, as Laura E. Nym Mayhall observes, amongst many competing and subsequently excluded suffrage texts. (5) In it, Lytton describes herself as a "superfluous spinster" who possesses too many privileges, strong family loyalties, and poor health, but who discovers a purpose for her life in social activism. An effective and highly influential piece of suffrage propaganda, Lytton's autobiography details her successive incarcerations in Holloway, Newcastle, and Walton Green jails for her part in the WSPU's militant suffrage campaign. After suffering a heart attack and stroke that partially paralyzed her and inscribed her body with her prison ordeal, Lytton decides to write about her prison experience.

As a rationale for the activities of the WSPU, her autobiography intentionally characterizes the British state as hegemonic in order, first, to draw attention to women's lack of citizenship and the inequitable treatment of women prisoners and, second, to laud and memorialize the WSPU as preeminent in redressing perceived wrongs. …

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