Autobiography, activism, and the carceral: an analysis of the prison writing of Lady Constance Lytton.
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. Accordingly, her autobiography employs rhetorical strategies that emphasize the state's control and the importance of individual self-control in the face of that control. In this spirit, she dedicates her story to prisoners. In her words:
Public opinion which sent you to prison, and your gaolers, who have to keep you there, are mostly concerned with your failings. Every hour of prison existence functions as a constant monitor of human failings both inside and outside of prison walls. And it will remind you of these afresh. (P&P, xiii)
According to Lytton, public opinion is an agent of the laws and customs that determine an individual's identity and social status in society, and it functions to identify those individuals who fail to measure up to established social and physical norms. In this way, public opinion can effectively curtail the free expression and material well-being of particular people, a situation that she finds especially true for women of the lower classes.
Recent scholarship has focused on the militancy, marketing, and spectacle of the British women's suffrage movement. Within this context, critical work on Lytton has discussed her expose of class prejudice in the treatment of incarcerated suffragettes and her use of her own imprisonment as a platform for opposing laws and conventions that refuse women citizenship rights. (6) At the same time, scholarship on Foucault's model of docile bodies, which are inscribed by disciplinary norms, has become a cultural industry. (7) What is rarely seen in literary criticism and what interests me here is how Foucault's conception of the carceral continuum, in tandem with his definition of "practical critique" and his later work on a "hermeneutics of the self," can be applied as an interpretive device for reading a political autobiography such as Lytton's. Specifically, how does Foucault's theoretical work inform an analysis of Lytton's prison autobiography, especially when she uses her words and her body as forms of dissidence? (8) Here, my goal is to mediate between Foucault's projection of a disciplinary carceral across society and autobiography as a literary genre in which Lytton positions herself as a noncompliant, political subject who employs narrative to change the disciplinary spaces that constitute women's social realities. In this "effort to think one's own history," (9) I employ the Foucauldian carceral as a lens through which to view Lytton's depiction of her prison experience. My purpose is to analyze her exposure of disciplinary operations that create and maintain the social inequities experienced by suffragettes and female prisoners, as well as the means by which these operations can be disrupted through activism and authorship.
For Lytton, the state's intervention into personal life can be harmful to women, and it must be mediated by their participation in decision-making. "It is useless," she argues, "to try and help the lives of a community without consulting the individuals whom you hope to benefit, and that to benefit the life condition of men does not necessarily benefit the life conditions of women, although their interests may be apparently identical as to social grade, locality, religious and other beliefs" (P&P, 7). As it stands, women have no voice in how their affairs are handled. According to Lytton, they are driven to delinquency because they are deprived not only of abstract rights but also of economic means and control over their bodies. This situation frequently results in women's loss of the material rights to food, health, and shelter, and of their ability to determine how their bodies are characterized and situated in social space. By using her autobiographical practice as a means to critique social hierarchies, Lytton radically politicizes the corporeal body, situating it strategically-impoverished, gendered, incarcerated--at the heart of relations of power. There, the body made visible in writing reveals both the ferocity and the failure of methods used by state-sanctioned institutions to keep women in their place. In this light, Lytton's purpose in shaping her autobiography around the themes of women's suffrage and prison reform is twofold: using her position as a member of the aristocracy as leverage, she exposes disciplinary mechanisms acting to normalize the behaviors and thoughts of Edwardian women according to their designated social classes. In addition, she drafts her autobiography as a medium through which she can enter into public discourse as an autonomous and politically active woman. At stake here is the ability to envision herself and other women as self-determining and functioning political subjects within the context of human rights discourse, on the one hand, and disciplinary reform, on the other. Accordingly, Lytton's autobiographical practice provides important insights about how the subject of autobiography is bound to notions of citizenship and human rights discourse, and how these factors, in turn, are bound to the developing technologies of normalization that, in their turn, are resisted by the localized customs, dissenting movements, and entrenched individualism that inform Edwardian society. Thus, when using autobiography as a medium for political resistance, Lytton's purpose is to challenge prevailing rationales that deny women citizenship rights. For her, the autobiographical act is an act of insurgency; it facilitates self-redefinition on both the personal and societal levels.
In October 1908, not yet entirely committed to the WSPU, Lytton approached then Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone in the hope of securing for incarcerated militant suffragettes status as political offenders instead of as common "drunks and disorderlies," afterwards writing the following to her mother: "It is wretched that you are distressed and unhappy because of me. I have not seen the Daily Mail, don't know what it says. Of course I did not give my name to any press man, nor make a bid for publicity. I have done nothing that you need to be ashamed of.... Devoted, always most miserable to grieve you, Con." (10) Lytton's apology for her actions is impelled by an intricate network of relationships with particular codes for refined behavior, guidelines for prudent judgment, and forms of appropriate discourse. Interestingly, the decorous behaviors and discreet speech acts permitted Lytton as an aristocrat are, in themselves, conventions in keeping with the writing of middle-class autobiography, a genre which grew significantly in the Victorian and Edwardian ages. Important among these is the private, profoundly egocentric, and confessional nature of an inner self to be revealed in text. In addition, there exists the presumption as well as the fear of a human being's essential culpability. In the words of Francis Barker, the bourgeois man in recording himself records "a terrible isolation," an acute paranoia, and a self irretrievably divided. (11) "Riven by guilt, silence and textuality. Forbidden to speak and yet incited to discourse, and therefore speaking obliquely" when speaking most plainly (9), the subject authors himself within the apparent transparency between the autobiographical act and his lived experiences.
Within this tradition, Lytton's autobiography works at the intersection of the body and the mechanisms of subjectivity. Inescapably, the text is a skin. It provides a boundary between inside and outside, it discloses as it conceals, and it permits exchange. But woman's corporeality especially cannot be contained and is by nature treacherous. In Barker's words, exiled, hidden from "public view" (14), the corporeal body is made other (mysterious, subversive, an enticement to sin), something to be guarded and written against. Thus, Barker says, "the calm order of plain speech" (7) depends upon the "sphere" where the "typical" man's "troubled subjectivity now appears to be sovereign" (14). Consequences arising from this anxiety about the body and public representations of the self are a crucial issue raised in Lytton's autobiography. She realizes that the body--the uses to which it is put in public and private life and the discourses that author its relation to reality--must be written about and resisted if women are to gain control of their own destinies. While incarcerated in Holloway Prison, she makes this point literally when she decides, in her words, to scratch "'Votes for Women' ... in my skin with a needle, beginning over the heart and ending it on my face" (P&P, 164). At this point, Lytton's body becomes a startlingly graphic extension of her autobiographical text.
In Edwardian England, privileged women like Lytton were held by others and frequently held themselves accountable for exemplary moral conduct; simultaneously, they were deemed prone to weaknesses, disorders, and treacheries of the body. Because of this fraught relationship to morality, the social behavior of Edwardian women--their dress, deportment, and speech acts--was monitored through family expectations, social rituals, and public opinion. As an aristocrat and an eminently respectable woman, Lytton is required to mind appearances and never, under any circumstances, make a public "spectacle" of herself--compelling her to write her mother a letter of apology about her WSPU involvement. Moreover, she must evade any reference to the corporeal body--to its parts, to sexual acts, or to bodily functions. In addition, she is asked to surrender self-interest, personal desire, or any claim to authority in her life and her autobiographical practice. In her autobiography, she refers to the rationale bolstering the immature and ornamental social function of privileged women as the "gilded bars" (P&P, 135) that immure her, along with other women of her class. These "bars" signify family values, cultural codes, and literary conventions that effectively narrow the perceptions, inhibit the actions, stage the social display, and curtail the self-representation of privileged women, transforming them into social parasites. "Isolated and detached," Lytton claims, "a woman of her class has little sense of kinship with other women; ... her whole life is spent in the preservation of appearances, and she seems hardly ever to pare down to the bone of realities" (P&P, 135). Of all the classes, she adds, aristocrats are the most useless. "Until these women can be educated as to the lives of the bulk of women, brought up against the laws with regard to them that now disgrace the statute book, made to feel the horror of custom which still undermines their own existence, and to burst through the gilded bars which hold their own life in bondage, they act upon the social organism in a way that is almost wholly harmful" (P&P, 135). Lytton's mission is to remedy this "maiming subserviency" in her own case (P&P, 40). She intends to educate herself about how the majority of Englishwomen really live. And then she plans actively to challenge laws, customs, and behaviors that she believes adversely affect women, whether they are imprisoned behind gilded, household, or prison bars.
According to Lytton, when moving from more to less privileged women within the social ordering of Edwardian society, the mechanisms for normalization are no less effective, but function somewhat differently. For working-class women without sufficient income or authoritative voice, lacking rights to their children, to their earnings, to property, or to protections from domestic violence, the curtailed freedoms, appropriate behaviors, and permitted visibilities are nearer to, in her words, "the bone of realities" (P&P, 135). In effect, the limits in place are not conducive to acts of self-representation (whether as the subject of universal rights, autobiographical practice, or daily life), but are more rigorously utilitarian, producing factory girls, parlor maids, typists, milliners, and working mothers who must supplement the family income but who have limited or no access to birth control. Yet in spite of the many material and psychological obstacles they face, these women exhibit the work ethic, competence, and social usefulness that Lytton finds lacking in women of her own class. Because they have husbands who can remember what it was like to be disenfranchised, because they engage in the worlds of work and money, and because they are necessary for the continuation of a strong race, working women hold the key to the future. Given their energy and their divergence from the superfluity of the aristocrat and the gentlewoman, these women have the potential to access and shape those spaces of freedom that the carceral either fails to reach or in which its machinery breaks down. In Lytton's words: "If women are to appeal effectively to a modern parliament for the rights of liberty and representation which so long have been recognized among men, it must be through the working woman, the bread winning woman" (P&P, 41).
As for the least fortunate, the destitute, mad women, prostitutes, habitual drunkards, and those who hide or kill their babies out of desperation, around them the prison visibly materializes as an institution, with its crimes, sentences, and instruments of punishment and deterrence. Here the totalizing influence of the disciplinary matrix described by Foucault materializes without the intervention of local custom or dissenting individualism. Yet the relations of power within this space are far from disinterested; prison space is hierarchical and gender inflected. Unlike those of men, women's prisons produce, as Lytton indignantly points out, an arena for the shaming of women's bodies and a cover for the sexual excesses of men. She describes the plight of desperate women who "had borne children by their own fathers," who had been "seduced by their employers," who had been sold into prostitution by their parents. Then she asks, "What was ... their choice from the start?" (P&P, 6263). Her point is that for these women, abstract rights, self-determination, and control over their own bodies are rendered extraneous. Here, surrounded by prison walls and under the diligent scrutiny of "cold officialdom," the female body, as an anomaly and in disarray, is constrained and hidden away. It is permitted no visibility in this space because of its ornamental effect or utility; instead, the unruly body is erased from public view. Thus, whether she writes with a pen on paper or a needle on her body, Lytton's purpose is to reintroduce to the public eye the injured bodies of women who have been unfairly hidden away.
According to Foucault, the production of norms and anomalies haunts the social body: individuals are produced, classifications are made, confessions are extracted, and deviations from the norm are corrected. To move through this body, from one end to the other, is to discover that there is no outside--that is, the exercise and the articulation of individuality (or of deviance) can occur only within the "carceral" and its "archipelago." "Prison," says Foucault, "continues, on those who are entrusted to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline. By means of a carceral continuum, the authority that sentences infiltrates all those other authorities that supervise, correct, improve" (D&P, 302-03). Obedience and invisibility are crucial. A voiceless and compliant body reproduces the norm; a self-assertive and noncompliant body inscribes its own delinquency and the necessity of its rehabilitation. This production and reproduction occur in a matrix that, Foucault says, "'naturalizes' the legal power to punish" and, in the process, "effaces" the "violence" and the "arbitrariness" of the relations of power (D&P, 303). If unqualified, Foucault's assertion precludes human agency and the relations of power become depersonalized, decentralized, and divorced from intention. Yet, as Lauren M. E. Goodlad points out, in reality, "power, however ubiquitous, does not circulate equally" as Foucault suggests (10). Instead, it is only when modified to account for social inequalities that the carceral becomes an instructive means for exploring social injustices. Thus, the Foucauldian "docile body" is here extrapolated to the unequal class and gender arrangements that Lytton describes as typical of her time, and the carceral is related to a theater that simultaneously produces and punishes unruly gendered bodies. At this point, a woman's body becomes noncompliant, and therefore dangerous, where and when it makes a spectacle of itself by crossing over into those spaces forbidding women visibility and voice--a crossing Lytton performs when she campaigns for women's suffrage and prison reform and then publishes her politically dissident autobiography. In effect, Lytton trespasses ideologically and materially extant social boundaries. Such a trespass occurs whenever a "respectable" woman ventures beyond the tidy visibility expected of her into the arenas of self-representation (such as authorship of her own identity and destiny or rhetorical control of an audience) and cultural authority (whether historical, juridical, religious, scientific, or financial) and engages herself actively in a writing practice that forms alliances, demands rights, and authors challenges. Such dissident activism and literature threaten social disorder. In response, governmental, judicial, and medical institutions will marshal forces and maneuver to put dissenting women back in their place.
In February and March of 1909, Lytton was imprisoned in Holloway Jail for the first time. Much of her autobiography describes this first incarceration. Opened in 1852, Holloway was one of the fifty-four Victorian prisons introduced by Sir Joshua Jebb, the British Surveyor General of Prisons who was influenced by Jeremy Bentham. (12) The prison's mission was to deter crime through the inculcation of conscious remorse for wrongs done and to rehabilitate prisoners into good and useful behaviors by diminishing and suspending rights and privileges. (13) Implementation of its mission statement involved systematic isolation, continual labor, and behavior modification. According to Paul Rock, in its design Holloway was a conventional radial prison modeled on Warwick Castle and on London's prototypical Pentonville Prison. It was constructed on the north side of populous London and laid out like a "great cartwheel" (RWP, 21), a huge panoptical "instrument of [enlightened] social engineering" designed to control and to survey (40). Once established, it concentrated and broadcast the imposing functional strength of the carceral network, "supplanting," Rock adds, "the seeming disorganization of the old jails and compters with a strict and rational regulation that accomplished the greatest effect with the least labour" (19). Exhibiting a massive punitive power, Holloway's tall, central tower formed a landmark that could be seen, as Lytton notes, "from the great Northern Railway on the line between Holloway and Finsbury Park Stations" at a remove of "many miles" (P&P, 187). In effect, Holloway's dark intransigence and sheer impenetrability when viewed across the British landscape offered, according to both Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash, and Sue Gutteridge, and Paul Rock, a "moral lesson" in stone--one designed to deter criminal acts and to inspire fear (IW, 40; RWP, 16-17).
In 1902, Holloway became exclusively a women's prison, and during some of this decade and a part of the next, one of its active uses was for the incarceration of London's militant suffragettes. As seen by them, Rock says, Holloway presented long "straight sight-lines" with controls issued from its center (RWP, 13). It contained six expansive wings in three pairs; each wing was self-contained and could be sealed off from the others; and each was four stories high and traversed by sixteen-foot corridors under wide arches with high windows emitting "dim light" (21). In her autobiography, Lytton adds that when viewed from the inside, "Holloway had a strange appearance, as of an enormous bird cage. The cells are ranged on either side of a barrack-like hall giving onto narrow galleries with iron rails. The different stories are reached by a small iron stairway in the center. These and the balconies are covered over with wire netting for the prevention of suicide" (P&P, 178). As an act which could represent either self-control or dissent, suicide was not permissible. In Holloway then, there existed a sense of isolation in space, of separation by rank, of numerous locked doors leading to the center, which was imbued with the invisible power to survey, to separate, to classify, to curb associations and malign influences, to threaten and impose penalties for non-compliance--in short, to exercise a total and demoralizing control over the bodies (and the subjectivities) of the inmates it housed.
In order to push the government's definition of equality to include women, especially lower-class women, Lytton decides that she must cross the continuum of the carceral city, moving from the plush confinement of aristocracy into the domain of the marked criminal. Therefore, when entering Holloway prison, she intentionally ventures into a space that is, according to Foucault, "heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself ... the protected place of disciplinary monotony," of "partitions," of "functional sites" under constant supervision, and of the "rank" that "circulates individuals" in a "network of relations" meant above all to avoid the "repetition of the offense," but doomed to failure (D&P, 141-46; 98). This space demands perfect order and absolute obedience. And, once one was inside it, Lytton says, "the sense of physical power seemed to wedge one in. It was clear that henceforth all one's actions would be initiated and carried out without choice, solely by necessity of obedience" (P&P, 63-64)--an obedience induced, Foucault explains, by means of strict "exercises ... time tables ... regular activities ... work in common, silence, application, respect ... the individual subjected to habits, rules, orders, an authority that is exercised continually around him and upon him, and ... in him" (D&P, 128-29). According to Foucault, from these incremental divisions, particular degrees, precise operations, reiterations of failure, and constant scrutiny, the delinquent is produced.
Lytton's autobiography painstakingly records the regimentation and the details of prison life. It explains classification processes (name, age, length of sentence, prior convictions) and admission procedures (the waiting cell, the medical officer, the bath, and the reading of prison rules). It details regulations of dress and distributions of objects in space, from the position of windows to the placement of beds. It observes how days are numbered and divided according to schedule, from wake-up to lights out. It details how routine (although not always useful) activities are performed--for instance, "morning was taken up with cleaning the ward," afternoon with exercise in the yard (P&P, 99, 101). It notes that behaviors, both explicit and implicit, must be learned--for example, the counterpane "had to be folded in a particular way," while "whispers [were] the only form of conversation allowed" (P&P, 93, 102). It notes that constant inspections must be undergone--"a superintendent officer," "the Senior Medical Officer," "the Governor ... the matron ... the Chaplain," all come before lunch on the first full day (P&P, 94-98). All-in-all, Lytton says, "one seemed to be dealt with much like goods at a custom house, certain facts about one being recurringly inquired after, investigated, noted in a book, and the goods then passed on for the same process to take place elsewhere" (P&P, 60).
Lytton is painfully aware that each procedure and regulation, each compartment and routine, each behavior and inspection is designed to limit and control behaviors, isolate bodies in close proximity, and eradicate dissent. Yet although her actions are strictly curtailed by prison routine, Lytton appropriates the details of prison life as material for her autobiography, doing so for several reasons: 1) to prove her accuracy and the overall reasonableness of her judgment; 2) to make shockingly explicit the forces used to keep women subordinate by detailing the imprisonment of "respectable" women; 3) to inscribe as public record the grinding, demoralizing, and bankrupt tedium of the penal regime; 4) to resituate the techniques of discipline within a context of resistance and then reinterpret these techniques as evidence to motivate those already well disposed toward the WSPU to act in the name of these reforms; and finally, 5) to expose publicly the "mysterious work of punishment," its monotony, but also, and especially, its perversity. Through Lytton's restaging of its routine operations, prison life moves from secrecy into daylight. This is what actually happens to people incarcerated behind prison walls, Lytton tells her readers: a closeted brutality against those who, by virtue of nonnegotiable circumstances, are more often the victims of social injustice than the irredeemable sources of vice that they are made out to be.
While much of Lytton's autobiography describes her first incarceration in Holloway, a crucial section details her imprisonment in Liverpool's jail. In those pages, Lytton explains her certainty that, as an aristocrat with a weak heart, she received preferential treatment while in prison. Consequently, she decides to expose the systemic class bias underpinning the treatment of prisoners, while also calling attention to the severe punishments dealt hunger-striking suffragettes who have been imprisoned for minor, politically motivated offenses. Determined to discover whether prison officials will, in her words, "recognise my need for exceptional favours without my name" (P&P, 235), Lytton travels to Liverpool in mid-January of 1910. Once there, she disguises herself as a poor seamstress and assumes the name of Jane Warton. She then stations herself in the middle of a crowd gathering to listen to WSPU speakers and is promptly arrested. Her offenses consist of asking those gathered around her to follow her to the home of the Governor of Walton Green Jail in order to protest the forcible feeding of "Suffrage prisoners" and of "dropping stones over the hedge" into the Governor's garden (P&P, 245). For Jane Warton's first-time infraction of the law, Lytton receives two weeks of hard labor as a third division criminal offender rather than as a first division misdemeanant offender. (14) Once incarcerated, and in tandem with other imprisoned suffragettes, Lytton refuses to eat. This decision to starve herself in defiance of state control provides yet another example of how she uses her body as an extension of her autobiographical text. And, just as Lytton had expected, on the fourth day of her hunger strike, without a proper medical examination, Jane Warton is forcibly fed by the Senior Medical Officer of Walton Jail. He is assisted by five wardresses.
Forcible feeding was urged by Edward VII, set in motion by Home Secretary Gladstone in September of 1909, and condoned by ministers of the Cabinet; the practice continued intermittently into 1914. (15) Its ostensible purpose was to save women's lives in spite of themselves, their poor judgment, and their imprudent conduct. Although forcible feeding was publicly sanitized as a necessary medical intervention and sanctioned by the judicial system, its real purpose was, as Caroline Howlett argues, to "fill up their [the suffragettes'] whole consciousness, leaving no room for abstract ideas or feelings of loyalty." (16) By invading their bodies, forcible feeding was a means to induce in women a docile subjectivity shaped by intimidation, boundary violation, and physical pain. Lytton's description of her own forcible feeding reveals the procedure's cruel and strategic annihilation of women's political alliances and their networks of support. Her description also demonstrates how forcible feeding worked to eliminate women's access to a viable, independent sense of themselves and to language for validating their experiences as political dissenters. By implementing methods already in practice, judicial and medical agencies in partnership with the British government set about regaining the upper hand, working to remove the threat of disruptive women. (17) When recounting her own brutal forcible feeding, Lytton states:
[The Senior Medical Officer] 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 got 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 my head 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. As the doctor left he gave me a slap on the cheek, not violently, but as it were, to express his contemptuous disapproval. (P&P, 269-70)
"It was a living nightmare of pain," Lytton says of this experience. (18) In her speeches, she adds, "I forgot what I was there for. I forgot women. I forgot everything except my own sufferings, and I was completely overcome by it." (19) By describing the "sheer barbarism" brought to bear upon her body as well as the bodies of other suffragettes (qtd. in Letters, 200; P&P, 287), Lytton's narrative demonstrates how in the process of forcible feeding, a vestige remains of the old theater of power, remarked by Foucault, wherein a king (a pope or a dictator) may utterly annihilate the body of any treasonable subject because he has the sovereign right to do so (D&P, 47-57). However, as Lytton realizes, this ritualized and arrogant display of power concentrated in the hands of the British officials is not easily tolerated by an increasingly secular and democratic people who pride themselves on the peaceful transference of power through orderly parliamentary procedure. Instead, the violence used to discipline the unruly body is occluded by a discourse of common rights and the spectacle of torture is privatized behind prison walls. But Lytton also realizes that the public's outrage and intolerance of torture upholds gender and class bias: it has less to do with violations of women's bodies than with how British citizens want their country to be presented to the world community, with the modern British state's distaste for centrality and power concentrated in the hands of a monarch, and finally, with its fears of an outside dictator.
In the treatment of suffragettes, an ironic reversal of the uses to which the spectacle of violence against the body can be put manifests itself. The technologies of domination that invest real bodies are closeted, hidden away behind bedroom doors, prison bars, or the barriers of poverty. At the same time, the public can consume mass-produced, stereotypical, distorted, and often degrading visual images of women's bodies. Divorced from women's control and concrete existence, these images are normative, and their function is disciplinary. Disseminated across public space, they encourage emulation. Moreover, given their legitimization and proliferation by those who can control technologies of domination, they impede and confuse any competing visual images of women. As Howlett points out, "Suffragist visual representations of forcible feeding inevitably risked being" misinterpreted (14). In fact, "images of women being punished or silenced were ... a staple of contemporary cartoon humor" (12). This given, forcible feeding's evocation of "oral rape" could appeal to the public's prurient interest by suggesting that "in spite of women's rebelliousness," they are still under control (14). As a result, Howlett adds, when exposing the acts of brutality committed against them, suffragettes like Lytton were often more comfortable with words than with images because "verbal accounts offered suffragettes a way to transform a torture that was intended to silence them into a place from which to speak" (16).
Both Lytton's autobiography and her speeches draw a fundamental association between the historical violence done to unruly bodies as a matter of sovereign right and the docile body demanded by the modern social order. To make this point, Lytton provides a telling example that illustrates how the female body can become a text from which to articulate the demand for material and abstract rights for women. In a speech given at Queen's Hall on January 31, 1910, she refers to the ruined health and the broken bodies of the suffragettes who have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of the British government. At this moment, she says, "there are ... women in prison watching the waning of the light and knowing that, when the light fades, it is only a question of minutes before torture--one can call it by no other name--is inflicted on their helpless bodies." But this "torture," she adds, remains hidden "at the bottom of a prison cell, where there will be no witnesses and no appeal." (20) In this light, the forcible feeding of British suffragettes can be read as a fusion between the modern focus on criminal intention--for example, the impulsion to induce the subject to act in complicity with his or her own subjection--on one hand, and the impress of an anachronistic regression to torture--for example, the direct use of violence to annihilate the criminal in the name of sovereign power--on the other. Although this association appears contradictory, Foucault argues that "sovereignty and disciplinary mechanisms are two absolutely integral constituents of the general mechanism of power in our society." (21) As such, disciplinary operations are justified as aspects of the immutable order of things in order to mask the material violence used against dissenting human beings.
When Lytton sets her aristocratic but also forcibly fed body on public display in her writing and speeches, a temporary breakdown in the regulatory mechanisms that organize Edwardian society occurs: customary operations of power are revealed as deceptive, fragmentary, or, where continuous, open to questions that vex their rationales. This breakdown brings to light the violence that funds the social conventions, political practices, and narrative frames used to keep women in line, while it simultaneously defines and produces female delinquents whom the ruling elite can then point to as abnormal. However, the system falters when the aristocratic body is marked with a punishment for delinquency that is intended only for a body of the lower class, as is the case reported by Dr. Marion Vaughan after her examination of Constance Lytton / Jane Warton. According to Dr. Vaughan: "The most superficial examination of the heart cannot fail to reveal the grave risk to health and life to which the patient was exposed during the forcible methods of feeding recently adopted in Walton Gaol" (P&P, 302). For the Home Office, Lady Lytton's case is an embarrassment; their response is to find that "the charges are without foundation" (P&P, 303).
In this way, Lytton's incarcerated and forcibly fed body localizes a particularly salient site for the struggle over the exploitation and control of human beings through the regulation of their bodies. In the execution of normative operations, those wielding power discover in Lytton, and in militant suffragettes generally, sustained and adamant demands for a fairer and more inclusive access to political rights. These demands are concurrent with, and symptomatic of, the slippage between abstract rights discourse and the varied, concrete, and often unjust realities of people living in a nation that produces such a discourse. So, in seeking to alleviate the disparity between the discourse on human rights and the material reality of women who aspire to such rights, Lytton chooses to inscribe her own body as a public text and to oppose her experiences in prison against those institutions invested in maintaining gender and class hierarchies. At stake is how women's bodies will perform the roles and circulate the meanings that determine women's place in the social order.
Like any discourse, criminality is a fluid medium. It contains a history of ideas that fluctuate over time and context. However, with the proliferation of penal expertise in the early years of the twentieth century, the ideas founding penology were fairly consistent. (22) While ironic in a system ostensibly devoted to the redemption of souls and the useful rehabilitation of bodies, in general, habitual criminals and other "deviants" (such as madmen, hysterics, prostitutes, homosexuals, mendicants, ethnic minorities, and suffrageettes) were thought to be degenerate aberrations from the norm, as is evidenced by the extensive classifications of their biological anomalies and evolutionary atavisms by medical, sociological, and scientific experts of the time. (23) Evidence of individual pathology embodied by the reprobate was based upon the judgment of prison authorities in collusion with medical experts who branded the offender with a written diagnosis of abnormality and then exercised the necessary means for rehabilitation. About the observations of these penal experts, Dobash, Dobash, and Gutteridge state:
It never seems to have occurred to such observers that the criminalized political actions of the suffragists were rational political acts requiring careful planning and coordination, or that the "pilfering" of working-class women could be based on a reasoned assessment of their impoverished circumstances. For the new positivistic behavioural scientist, women, and to a lesser extent men, were ruled by forces beyond their comprehension and / or control. The economic, social and political accounts of women and girls who committed crime were ignored or transformed into phobias, complexes, neuroses. (IW, 123)
Many Edwardians, experts and lay people alike, believed that these ruling "forces" infiltrated the souls and could be read from the facial and body types of the criminally inclined. This propensity to blame criminal activities on an individual's innate reprehensibility reflects a prevailing social attitude in early twentieth-century Europe, and it was evidenced to lesser or greater degree by the scientific experts whose paths crossed Lytton's during her four imprisonments. All too frequently, the officials she encountered in prison held views similar to those propounded by Caesar Lombroso, who argued that the innate pathology of particular individuals explained crime. For Lytton, this was unconscionable. Moreover, it was not just wardens and doctors who asserted women's predisposition to perversity; Lytton found that the clergy held similar views. For instance, during her first imprisonment in Holloway Jail, the chaplain emphasized in a morning sermon the inability of women prisoners to withstand temptation. Then, during Lytton's third imprisonment in Liverpool's Walton Green Jail, another chaplain "thought it wise to speak to her [Jane Warton] as a Suffragette" rather than as the typical 3rd division criminal offender: "'Look here,' he said, 'it's no good your thinking that there's anything to be done with the women here--the men sometimes are not such bad fellows ... but the women, they're all as bad as bad can be, there's absolutely no good in them'" (P&P, 265-66).
Remarks such as these concerning "fallen" women were commonplaces of the Edwardian society. (24) They mirror a conception of the "ideal" woman--unblemished and unapproachable--ensconced in a world of domestic order, genteel pursuits, and mild philanthropy. And they reflect the concurrent notion that since women were to assume roles as the mothers and the moral guardians, female delinquency, while less frequent than male delinquency, was especially pernicious. Therefore, given women's more superficial and less educable natures, the appropriate disciplines must necessarily be especially vigorous--a stance maintained in spite of the fact that the women in prison were usually destitute and that most were arrested as drunks, prostitutes, public nuisances, or petty thieves--that is, for minor infractions of the law. (25) Likewise, bolstered by ideologies of female subordination, the necessary rigor of the punishments imposed was not restricted to the poor and working-class women (although their treatment was usually more harsh), but applied to any woman who forgot her place. Lytton's descriptions of the unreasonable sentences given to mostly middle-class militant suffragettes--whose public disorderliness, she says, frequently involved no more than walking to the door of the House of Commons or dropping stones wrapped in papers on which was written "Votes for Women"--effectively make this point.
Instead of adopting the usual view that criminal behavior proved an innate tendency for wickedness, Lytton strained class loyalties. In agreement with suffrage policy, she created a subject position in her autobiography from which to represent imprisoned women as the victims of crime, not its perpetrators. For her, systemic social problems rather than individual pathologies were the major cause of female crime. Making this point, she remarks: "I realised how often women are held in contempt as Beings outside the pale of human dignity, excluded or confined, laughed at and insulted because of conditions in themselves for which they are not responsible, but which are due to fundamental injustices with regard to them, and to the mistakes of a civilisation in the shaping of which they have had no free share" (P&P, 13). This exclusion especially applied to rehabilitated women of the lower classes. No place in Edwardian society existed for them. They could not hope to live as respectable mothers and wives or to enter the homes of the privileged as domestic servants; there was no workable means for their reintroduction into society. (26) They could only repeat crime, thereby reinstating their criminality. Lytton asks, because women have few or no options, of what use is a democratic state to them? (P&P, 62-63). Her question challenges the right of governing institutions to punish poor women who find themselves in unbearable circumstances and educated women who will try to prevent this injustice from occurring after they gain the vote. Regarding the British government's typical practices, Lytton offers the following caveat: "success," she says, "is impossible for a social system that takes no heed to its outcasts, the pathological victims of national existence are the symptoms which can lead us to diagnose its fundamental flaws" (P&P, 136).
As this quotation indicates, Lytton discerns punitive mechanisms at work to instill "badness" as the core of incarcerated women's self-perception. She realizes that the internalization of culpability and the production of shame are instituted as regulatory discourses that claim to merely depict, with sheer objectivity, what they in fact determine. However, in reality, Lytton argues, economic disparities, material deprivations, sexual demands, family structures, social tensions, and legislated inequities work the relations of power. These relations often impel women to delinquent or criminal activity out of a desperation induced by the untenable circumstances and nonnegotiable environments in which they are situated. Consequently, individual pathology cannot be divorced from relationship and context, as many contemporary criminologists argue. For Lytton, the production of female delinquency is indissoluble from the socioeconomic context in which it occurs.
In the final analysis, Lytton's autobiography is more than simply a text written by a first-wave feminist who follows the Enlightenment discourse on human rights and its progressive teleology for women. Although her autobiography promotes universal suffrage and the emancipatory potential of reason, her exposes of the British carceral system and the plight of incarcerated women provide a disturbing critique of how bodies are controlled and subjectivities are constituted within a modern democracy. To this end, her autobiography discloses how the perception of self and others is influenced by disciplinary practices that invest bodies and pattern everyday realities in ways that are not always equitable. And it demonstrates how the constitution of a political or narrative subject is an operational construct which is inextricably linked to the production of abstract and material rights, socioeconomic status, and available narrative frameworks for some individuals and to the lack, limitation, or suspension of these things for others. In effect, Prisons and Prisoners reveals the means by which power can be translated across a carceral system in law, dogma, convention, and ritual, but also, and more importantly, it demonstrates how collective action, personal courage, and the use of autobiography as a form of dissidence can function as a means for redefining our place in the world.
University of Texas at Tyler
(1.) Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 299-300. Hereafter cited parenthetically as D&P.
(2.) Dominic Casciani, "Spy Pictures of Suffragettes Revealed," BBC News Online, October 3, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uknews/magazine/3153024.stm/.
(3.) While I maintain that Foucaldian analysis provides a powerful interpretive lens for examining social structures and operations that unfairly and inimically inscribe human bodies, behaviors, and subjectivities, it should be noted that the western European state, especially the British state, has not been as overriding or encompassing as is suggested by Foucault's genealogy of the modern prison. A cogent critique of Foucauldian theory's limitations for the decentralized forms of English governance appears in Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State: Character and Governance in a Liberal Society (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2003). Hereafter cited parenthetically as Goodlad.
(4.) Constance Lytton, Prisons and Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences by Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster, intro. Midge Mackenzie (1914; repr. London: Virago Press, 1988). Hereafter cited parenthetically as P&P.
(5.) I am grateful to Laura E. Nym Mayhall for her insightful comments on the complicated relationship between the production of suffrage autobiography and historical accuracy. As Mayhall observes, Lytton's autobiography is "suffrage propaganda at its most effective ... written at a time when that organization [the WSPU] was most under attack from the government, the press, the public, and other women suffragists." See Mayhall, "Creating the 'Suffragette Spirit': British Feminism and the Historical Imagination," Women's History Review 4.3 (1995): 325.
(6.) On the suffrage movement in general, see Diane Atkinson, The Suffragettes in Pictures (London: Sutton, 1996); Ian Christopher Fletcher, "'A Star Chamber of the Twentieth Century': Suffragettes, Liberals, and the 1908 'Rush the Commons' Case," Journal of British Studies 35.4 (1996): 504-30; Barbara J. Green, Spectacular Confessions: Autobiography, Activism, and the Sites of Suffrage (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997); Maroula Joannou, Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows: Women's Writing, Feminist Consciousness, and Social Change, 1918-38 (New York: Berg, 1995); Jane Marcus and Sally Alexander, eds., Suffrage and the Pankhursts (New York: Routledge, 2001); Laura E. Nym Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930 (New York: Oxford UP, 2003); June Purvis and Sandra Stanley Holton, eds., Votes for Women (New York: Routledge, 2000); Harold L. Smith, The British Women's Suffrage Campaign 18661928 (Oxford: Longman Group, 1998); and Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988). For work on Lytton, see Mary Jean Corbett, "Representation and Subjectivity in the Edwardian Suffrage Movement" in Representing Femininity: Middle Class Subjectivity in Victorian and Edwardian Women's Autobiographies (New York: Oxford UP, 1992), 150-79; Barbara J. Green, "From Visible Flaneuse to Spectacular Suffragette: The Prison, the Street, and the Sites of Suffrage," Discourse 17.2 (1994): 67-97; Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp, '"The Waning of the Light': The Forcible-Feeding of Jane Warton, Spinster," Women's Studies in Communication 22.2 (1999): 125-51; Marie Mulvey-Robert, "Militancy, Masochism, or Martyrdom: The Public and Private Prisons of Constance Lytton," in Votes for Women, 159-80; Michelle Myall, "'Only be ye strong and very courageous': The Militant Suffragism of Lady Constance Lytton," Women's History Review 7.1 (1998): 61-84; and Sue Thomas, "Scenes in the Writing of 'Constance Lytton and Jane Warton, Spinster': Contextualising a Cross-Class Dresser," Women's History Review 12.1 (2003): 51-71. See also Alyson Brown, "Conflicting Objectives: Suffragette Prisoners and Female Prison Staff in Edwardian England," Women's Studies 31.5 (2002): 627-44; and June Purvis, "The Prison Experiences of Suffragettes in Edwardian England," Women's History Review 4.1 (1995): 103-25.
(7.) For the relationship between Foucault and feminism, see Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby, eds., Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1997); Susan J. Heckman, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault: Rereading the Canon (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996); Margaret A. McLaren, Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (Albany: State U of New York P, 2002); Lois McNay, Foucault and Feminism: Power, Gender and the Self (Boston: Northeastern UP, 1992); Caroline Ramazanoglu, Up against Foucault: Exploration of Some Tensions between Foucault and Feminism (New York: Routlege, 1993); and Jana Sawicki, Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body (New York: Routledge, 1991).
(8.) Michel Foucault, "What Is Enlightenment," in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 45-46.
(9.) Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, vol. 2, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1985), 9.
(10.) Constance Lytton, Letters of Constance Lytton, ed. Betty Balfour (London: William Heinemann, 1925), 149. Hereafter cited parenthetically as Letters.
(11.) Francis Barker, The Tremulous Private Body: Essays on Subjection (London: Methuen, 1984), 10.
(12.) Jeremy Bentham, a founder of Utilitarianism, envisioned centralized prisons based on the panopticon, which Foucault uses as a metaphor for the organization of social space in D&P.
(13.) This section on Holloway is indebted to Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash, and Sue Gutteridge's chapters, "Penitentiaries for Women" and "Penal Regimes," in The Imprisonment of Women (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986); and Paul Rock's chapter, "The Noble Castle: Holloway as a Victorian Radial Prison," in Reconstructing A Women's Prison: The Holloway Redevelopment Project 1966-1988 (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996). Hereafter cited parenthetically as IW and RWP, respectively.
(14.) On the division of offenders according to the Prison Act of 1898, see Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement, 101.
(15.) The following urging occurs in a letter from the king to Herbert Gladstone: "His Majesty would be glad to know why the existing methods, which must obviously exist for dealing with prisoners who refuse nourishment should not be adopted." Qtd. in Midge Mackenzie, Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary (New York: Knopf, 1975), 130.
(16.) Caroline J. Howlett, "Writing the Body: Representation Feeding," in Bodies of Writing, Bodies in Performance, ed. Thomas Foster, Carol Siegel, and Ellen E. Berry (New York: New York UP, 1996), 7. Hereafter cited parenthetically as Howlett.
(17.) Howlett notes that forcible feeding was already practiced on the insane and so cast "a slur on the suffragettes' sanity" (17).
(18.) Constance Lytton, "Prison Experience of Lady Constance Lytton," Votes for Women, January 28, 1910, 276.
(19.) "A Speech by Lady Constance Lytton, Delivered at the Queen's Hall, January 31, 1910," Votes for Women, February 4, 1910, 293.
(20.) Qtd. in Votes for Women, February 4, 1910, 293.
(21.) Michel Foucault, "Two Lectures," in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. and trans. Colin Gordon (New York: Harvester, 1980), 108.
(22.) Experts discussed in/W include Mary Carpenter, Francis Robinson, Henry Mayhew, Caesar Lombroso, Henry Maudsley, Havelock Ellis, Cyril Burt, Sir Joshua Webb, William Douglas Morrison, and Dr. Mary Gordon (first female inspector of British prisons).
(23.) Perusal of Caesar Lombroso's and William Ferrero's work on female criminal types is a fascinating venture into the nineteenth-century scientific world of comparative brain and skull sizes, of facial and cephalic anomalies, and of tattooing. See The Female Offender (1895; repr., Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman, 1980).
(24.) In chapters 12 and 13 of The Female Offender, Lombroso carefully distinguishes between "born" and "occasional" criminals (147-217). The crimes committed by "occasional" offenders, who have the physical characteristics of "normal" women, are thought to be the result of women's innate gullibility, increased susceptibility to temptation, antipathy towards other women, or too much education.
(25.) Several texts make the point that women were usually incarcerated for minor infractions. See chapter 1, "The Imprisonment of Women in Britain and the United States," and chapter 5, "Experts and the Female Criminal," in IW; also, see chapter 6, "The Grim Fortress," in RWP; chapter 5, "Powerlessness and Crime--The Case of Female Crime," in Steven Box, Power, Crime and Mystification (London: Tavistock, 1983); chapter 1, "Reason for Crime," in Xenia Field, Under Lock and Key: A Study of Women in Prison (London: Max Parrish, 1963); and part 4, "The Woman That Nobody Wants," in Pat Carlen, Women's Imprisonment: A Study in Social Control (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983).
(26.) Women were sometimes released into institutions such as the Magdalen Asylums for prostitutes or into the care of respectable families before being released into society at large. However, most women had no money and no place to go after being released from prison.
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|Author:||Tilghman, Carolyn M.|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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