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Spotlight On...Cicely Hamilton

I’m so excited about my latest book purchase I just have to share it! I’ve just acquired a copy of Cicely Hamilton’s autobiography, Life Errant (London: J M Dent and Sons, 1935) so the latest Spotlight On is about Cicely Hamilton. 

Cicely Hamilton (1872–1952) is one of my writing heroines. She was a suffrage campaigner who joined the militant Women’s Social and Political Union founded by Mrs Pankhurst, and wrote the words for the WSPU anthem, The March of the Women, music by Ethel Smythe. Later critical of the dictatorial style of the Pankhursts, she left the WSPU to join the Women’s Freedom League, and edited their paper The Vote. In 1908 she founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and the Actresses’ Franchise League.

Cicely Hamilton's autobiography, Life Errant
She achieved success with her play Diana of Dobson’s in 1908, and went on to write a  number of suffrage plays with her friend Christopher St John (born Christabel Marshall, 1871–1960), including the comedies How the Vote Was Won and The Pot and the Kettle. In 1910 she wrote A Pageant of Great Women – I also own a copy of this rare text – which featured fifty two great women including Joan of Arc, Jane Austen, Angelica Kauffman, and Charlotte Corday. Cicely Hamilton herself played Christian Davies (1667–1739), who enlisted in the army as Christopher Welsh. Davies’s disguise was discovered by surgeons after she was wounded at the Battle of Ramillies.

The Pageant was performed around the country, including Bristol’s Prince's Theatre in 1910 and the Albert Hall, Swansea. Cicely Hamilton also wrote the book Marriage as a Trade (1909) criticising women’s limited economic choices which forced them into marriage for want of the skills or opportunity to do anything else.  

During the First World War, she worked for the Scottish Women’s Ambulance Unit, and then joined a touring theatrical company entertaining the troops. Many of her novels and plays deal with the issue of war and humanity’s capacity for violence, which she attributed to what she called the herd instinct, the “crowd-life” which overcame people’s “responsible individuality”. These included the novels William: an Englishman (1919), which has been republished by Persephone Books, and Theodore Savage (1922). Her 1926 play The Old Adam (also known as The Human Factor) explores the response of two warring nations when they acquire the technology to disarm one another’s weapons. You might expect this to be a cause for rejoicing, but Hamilton’s disillusionment takes the play in another direction entirely. Unable to use machines, men arm themselves with knives and clubs…     

In spire of her pessimism about the possibility of human progress, she continued to campaign for women’s equality. She was an editor of The Englishwoman, and worked on the feminist journal Time and Tide. She was active in the Six Point group in the 1920s, campaigning for better child protection laws, legislation to protect widows and their children, rights for unmarried mothers, equal guardianship of children, equal pay for teachers, and equal opportunities and pay in the civil service. 

One of the things Hamilton criticised the WSPU about was its obsession with dress and appearance, “its insistence on the feminine note”. In a witty tangle of gender identities, she once attended a fancy dress party dressed as George Eliot (Marian Evans), with her friend Christopher St John dressed as George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) in male costume.

William an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton is available from Persephone Books 


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