Lady Constance Lytton: Her final years
Katherine Dunstan, Education Officer, Knebworth House
On 5th May 1912, the suffragette Lady Constance Lytton was found alone in her London flat by her charlady, having suffered a severe stroke aged just 43. A member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by this time in her life she had been imprisoned four times, including once disguised as a seamstress named Jane Warton, when she was force-fed (see her entry on the map).
Immediately after her stroke, Constance was unwell for some time. She returned to Knebworth to live with her mother at Homewood (a house built for her mother by her brother Victor, 2nd Earl of Lytton). Nursed and cared for by her mother, Constance’s ill health meant that she had to live a quiet life and was mostly confined to bed. She continued to have occasional visits to London, and carried on her correspondence with family and friends.
Before her stroke, Constance had begun writing an account of her time in prison. With her right hand paralysed, Constance determinedly continued with her book, teaching herself to write left-handed in order to complete it. Prisons and Prisoners was first published in March 1914, with a second edition following in June 1914.
With the declaration of the First World War on 4th August 1914, suffrage societies paused their fight for the vote in order to concentrate on war work. Constance was a passionate advocate for the rights of others; her sister Betty Balfour recorded that she supported ‘passive resisters, Germans, war babies and ex-prisoners’ and that she sold many possessions in order to get money to donate to these various causes. Correspondingly, the archive at Knebworth House has very few materials relating to Constance. Constance took a particular interest in the Belgian refugees that came to live locally for the duration of the war, including having them around for tea.
Constance kept in touch with some of her suffragette friends, including Annie Kenney who lived nearby. She paid for a private asylum for fellow suffragette Jane Short (also known as Rachel Peace) and visited her. When some women gained the vote for the first time in the Representation of the People Act 1918, Constance was delighted.
In 1922, Constance was treated by the American psychoanalyst Homer Lane (who had been recommended to her by her sister Betty and brother Victor). After treatment began she saw a quick improvement, reporting better movement in her right hand, arm and foot and generally feeling happier in her own mind. She began to write a book of cookery dishes from around the world. Lane recommended that Constance moved to London as he felt that she would never be fully better while living with her mother. After Victor intervened with her mother, she moved to London in the week, returning to Homewood at the weekend. However, after a month she had to return to Homewood because of her health. She tried again five weeks later, but on arrival in London she was visited by Dr Marion Vaughan, who realised that she was very ill and close to death. Dr Vaughan informed her family, and Constance’s mother arrived the following day, Monday 21st May.
Lady Constance Lytton died in her sleep at 4pm on 22nd May 1923. Her funeral report stated that ‘It was a large concourse of all classes of people, rich and poor, for Lady Constance had spent the last eleven years of an invalid life in ceaseless acts of active self-giving and kindness, and some were there who felt bereft of the one friend who had stood by them in their darkest hour’ (The Observer, 27 May 1923, p.6). A palm leaf in the suffragette colours of purple, white and green was placed upon the casket.
Katherine Dunstan is the Education Officer at Knebworth House which has been the home of the Lytton family for over 500 years. Katherine’s role involves responsibility for the education programmes which are available to visitors, and in 2019 she created a Votes for Women education visit inspired by the involvement of Lady Constance Lytton and Victor, 2nd Earl of Lytton in the suffrage cause. For more details about education visits at Knebworth House, please visit https://www.knebworthhouse.com/education/.
Balfour, Betty (ed), Letters of Constance Lytton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
Campbell, Jill, ‘Lady Constance Lytton 1869 – 1923’ in Barnett-Sanders, Bethany and Lenton, Emma (eds.), Suffrage Stories: Tales from Knebworth, Stevenage, Hitchin and Letchworth (Stevenage: Stevenage Museum, 2019)
Miles, Patricia and Williams, Jill, An Uncommon Criminal (Knebworth: Knebworth House Education and Preservation Trust, 1999)