Cicely Hamilton

CicelyHamiltonMary Cicely Hammill (1872-1952) changed her name when she went on the stage to Cicely Hamilton, and that is how she always published. In 1908 she wrote How the Vote Was Won (with Christabel Marshall), depicting the future events which bring women the vote. Her science fiction novel, Theodore Savage: A Story of the Past or Future (London: Leonard Parsons, 1922), also published (in a “new, amended and remodelled edition) as Lest Ye Die (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928), is about a future war which destroys London and brings Britain back to superstitious barbarism. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction comments that “Hamilton is one of the first—and among the darkest—of those UK sf novelists whose vision of things was shaped by World War One, which they saw as foretelling the end of civilisation.”

Her father was of Scottish background, and her mother Irish. She was born in Paddington in London, the eldest of four children, and was from the age of three “a child whose nose it was impossible to keep out of a book” (Hamilton 3). At some point, and somewhat mysteriously, her mother disappeared from the scene. Hamilton wrote (in brackets, as if it was unimportant) “(As a matter of fact, the parting from my mother came early in life, but it was a parting whose finality was not recognised at the time)” (Hamilton, 6). She clearly left home, and later died; she may have returned to Ireland, or, it has been suggested, been committed to a mental institution: in either case it was not something that would have been talked about. It meant that for four years Cicely and her sister and two brothers were “farmed out” to a family who lived near Clapham Common, because her father was abroad. Lieutenant-Colonel Denzil Hammill commanded the first battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, and between 1881 and 1885 served in Egypt with distinction: he was on the Nile campaign which tried to rescue General Gordon in Khartoum. At Clapham Common, Cicely encountered the “stepmother mentality” at first hand, and hated it. At the age of ten she made a half-hearted attempt to drown herself, thinking that her siblings would be better off, and even thinking that if she killed herself the police would investigate and find that the children were not being well treated.

Hamilton was clearly an independent thinker from an early age. Later on she recalled:

I must have been very youthful—not more than six, if that—when I first rebelled against the idea that marriage was the only career for women. Some book which I picked up not only put the idea rather baldly, but put it with a jest at the expense of the unmarried woman. My ambition, at that age, being to grow up into a railway guard, I distinctly resented the idea that there was nothing for me to do but marry (279).

On her father’s temporary return from Africa, the children were transferred to maiden aunts (sisters of her father), and then Hamilton went to a boarding school at Malvern. She left in around 1889, and went to a school in Bad Homburg in Germany; she was there when Bismarck took the waters in Homburg. “I find the Hitler-cult of to-day the easier of comprehension because I came in contact with the Bismarck-cult in my youth” (Hamilton 20).

Her father died of malaria in Bonny in West Africa within months of Hamilton returning from her German school. The three eldest children had to earn their way: Hamilton became a teaching assistant, her sister became a nursery governess, and the eldest boy “was taken from his school and pitch-forked out to Manitoba” (Hamilton, 31). Hamilton did some writing, and some translation from German. But she wanted to get on the stage, and finally she did so. She had a career of touring the provinces in all kinds of productions that lasted ten years. And, though she resented losing her job because the manager wanted a part for his mistress (that happened twice), she did love the stage: “I have often walked away from the theatre singing to myself—singing just for happiness—because I have seen something that was really good, something that was delicate and strong” (Hamilton 44).

When she turned to writing she had to write for money: “for some years, the greater part of my output took the form of contributions to cheap periodicals, many of them catering for the tastes of the young. Sensation was their keynote; stories of bandits, pirates, savages, and detectives, preferably youthful detectives” (57). She made the mistake of accepting £100 lump sum for her first play, Diana of Dobson’s, which was actually a considerable success. It was taken on by Lena Ashwell, the first of the actress-managers, for the Kingsway Theatre. Ashwell would employ Hamilton again, in 1917, for the purpose of entertaining the troops.

“I was drawn into the Woman Suffrage agitation, and for several years I did a good deal of writing and speaking for the Cause,” she wrote (65). She also noted that she was generally viewed with some suspicion, because she was more of a feminist than a suffragist. “I wasn’t wildly interested in votes for anyone”; what she rebelled against was the idea that women were dependent, and destined for marriage and motherhood. She was suspicious herself of those who sought the right to vote by violence, which to her implied that voting itself was of secondary importance. Looking back from the 1930s, in Life Errant, she also recognised that Emmeline Pankhurst, was, on a smaller scale, the “forerunner of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini—the Leader whose fiat must not be questioned, the Leader who could do no wrong!” (68).

Hamilton was instrumental in founding the Women Writers Suffrage League in 1908, and later that year its sister organisation, the Actresses’ Suffrage League. Ellen Terry was among the distinguished actresses at the inaugural meeting of the ASL, and through her Hamilton got to make two of her strongest friendships: with Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy Craig and with Edy’s longterm partner, Christabel Marshall (who called herself Christopher St John). Hamilton wrote the play How the Vote was Won with St John; it was the first production in the name of the ASL, and it premiered in April 1909. Thereafter Hamilton would often go down to Smallhythe in Kent to stay in the house that Edy and Christopher shared with the painter Clare (“Tony”) Atwood.

In February 1909, Hamilton joined the editorial board of The Englishwoman, joining formidable women like Lady Strachey (mother of Lytton Strachey), and in that same year she published Marriage as a Trade, her most important and radical contribution to the feminist debate of the time, and, as Whitelaw says, a book that changed lives (94). And finally, in that same year, Hamilton helped found yet another organisation: The Women’s Tax Resistance League, which offered the same slogan to the patriarchy that the Americans had done to George III: “No taxation without representation.”

In the last years before the War, Hamilton was regarded as one of the leading speakers on the Cause. She was chosen to debate G.K. Chesterton in Queen’s Hall; her article “Man”, which attacked the patriarchal system, was published in The English Review; her play Just to Get Married (a dramatisation of her Marriage as a Trade) played in London, the English provinces, and New York; at Edy Craig’s instigation she wrote A Pageant of Great Women, which was produced across the country; and she herself was called on to act in a long-running play on the West End, George Bernard Shaw’s Fanny’s First Play.

All that came to an end with the Great War, during which Hamilton was away from England for almost five years, from November 1914 to August 1919. She returned to England from occupied Germany in August 1919, but left in spring 1920 to go to Geneva, to help organise a conference of the Women’s International Suffrage Alliance. She made many friends there, and in her autobiography talks about meeting an educated Turkish woman who had visited the camps of the Save the Children Fund in Austria. A chill went through Hamilton as she heard this woman explain that the task they faced was too much: there were too many thousands of children, and that therefore the sickly should be allowed to die. Hamilton decided to go for herself, and had to surrender all her cash at the Austrian frontier, and had to live on borrowed money while there. (She was rather surprised to be able to reclaim her cash when she left.)

During the 1920s she worked mostly as a journalist, pursuing causes that naturally gave her much publicity (and not a little notoriety), on such issues as abortion and contraception, and, in general terms, the struggle for women’s independence and equality. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby were in her circle of friends, as was Lady Rhondda, with whom Hamilton worked on the periodical Time and Tide, and H.G. Wells’s wife Jane. She continued to be interested in the theatre, and continued to write. Her last novel was Full Stop (1931), but throughout the 1930s she was writing books for J.M. Dent about the state of European countries, starting with Modern Germanies in 1931, continuing through Modern Ireland (1936) to Modern Sweden (1939). (Her last book, from 1950, was Holland Today.) Judging by Modern Germanies—or, as the full title has it Modern Germanies as Seen by an Englishwoman—these were highly readable accounts, well-researched, and with much personal observation. The emphasis was on culture: thus, the account of Germany started with a chapter on “The Cult of the Bare”—not just nudism, but also furniture, and the shaven head of the male—and then moves through chapters on transport, the theatre, the new athleticism (particularly of women), the youth movement, Jew-baiting, architecture, and so on. Modern Germanies came out first in 1931, and the 1933 edition had a postscript on the new Nazi regime. She disapproves of its militarism, and its anti-feminism, and clearly has her worries about the future. The book ends with a comment about the younger generation in Germany:

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that it will work off its combative energies—as Mussolini’s Black Shirts have so far worked them off—in drilling, reviewing and manoeuvring, and occasional demonstrations of fist-shaking! … And that having so let off its useful steam, it will tread with us the paths of peace! (Modern Germanies, 1933 edition, 269).

When the Second World War broke out, she joined the Chelsea Fire Service, and took her turn fire-watching, even taking an active role in helping to put out the blaze after a large number of incendiary bombs fell on Chelsea on the night of 16/17 April 1941. From 1945 until 1952 she edited the press bulletin of the British League for European Freedom. She died, after a long illness, at her Chelsea home, on 5 December 1952.

My main source is Cicely Hamilton’s autobiography, Life Errant (London: J.M. Dent, 1935), supplemented by Lis Whitelaw’s The Life and Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton: Actress, Writer, Suffragist (London: The Women’s Press, 1990). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography‘s entry is by Maroula Joannou.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s