Cicely Hamilton

From DNB Entry and other sources

(Mary) Cicely Hammill (1872-1952), writer and campaigner for women's rights, was born on 15 June 1872 at 15 Sussex Gardens, Paddington, London, the eldest of four children of an Irish mother, Maude Mary, nee Piers, and an Anglo-Scottish father, Denzil Hammill, who was a Captain in the Gordon Highlanders. Her mother disappeared from her life when she was 10, and is thought to have been committed to an asylum. Cicely was educated privately at St Leonard's boarding-school in Malvern and at Bad Homburg, a small spa town in Germany. She worked as a student teacher in the midlands but disliked this work. In 1897 she became an actress in a company led by Edmund Tearle, touring the country for some ten years and playing roles such as Gertrude in Hamlet, Emilia in Othello and one of the witches in Macbeth.

Hamilton joined the suffragettes of the Pankhursts' Women's Social and Political Union and wrote the words anonymously for the WSPU anthem, 'The March of the Women' (for which Ethyl Smythe composed the music) but disliked the autocratic way in which Pankhursts ran the WSPU and left. She worked for Charlotte Despard's Women's Freedom League and edited their paper, The Vote. Hamilton became a popular and effective public speaker for the women's suffrage campaign. The Common Cause of 13 April 1911 wrote that she 'dramatised for us the revolt of the idealistic woman against compulsory self-sacrifice. Her wit and her beauty and her beautiful dress all contributed to the impression that a woman is a thing of great value'.

As well as suffrage, the great passion of Hamilton's early years was the theatre, where she experienced prejudice against women actors and playwrights at first hand. Her first stage play, Diana of Dobson's (1908), was produced at the Kingsway Theatre by one of London's first actress-managers, the suffragette Lena Ashwell. It did well, with a run of 143 performances. The heroine, Diana, is a shop assistant who wagers that a wealthy suitor who proposes to her is incapable of earning his own living for six months. It has recently been re-published by Broadview Press.

In the same year Hamilton founded the Women Writers' Suffrage League with the writer Bessie Hatton, and the Actresses' Franchise League with the actress Elizabeth Robins. How the Vote was Won (1909), a one-act comedy, was co-authored with her close friend Christabel Marshall who wrote under the name of Christopher St John. The play is a modern version of Lysistrata set at the time of a women's general strike and ridicules the notion of coverture whereby English law assumed a woman to come under the protection of her nearest male relative. The drawing-room of Horace Cole, a clerk of modest means, is invaded by a series of distant, and hitherto economically self-sufficient, female relatives, each intent on persuading Horace to support her.

Hamilton's strongly-held convictions about women and economics were developed in her treatise Marriage as a Trade (1909), a robustly forthright, witty, and uncompromising outburst of indignation against the Edwardian family and the tyranny of marriage which women were often compelled to enter because it was the only trade for which they had received any training. In 1910 Hamilton was invited by the actress Edy Craig to write A Pageant of Great Women. The pageant, enthusiastically performed by women in London and in venues across the country, demonstrated the capacity to exercise leadership and featured fifty-two great women including Joan of Arc. Some parts were played by very well-known actresses including Ellen Terry. The other plays Hamilton published were Jack and Jill and a Friend (1911); The Cutting Knot (1911), which was turned into a novel as A Matter of Money (1916); a nativity play, The Child in Flanders, performed in 1917 and published later; The Brave and the Fair (1920); The Old Adam, also performed as The Human Factor (1926); and a play for children, The Beggar Prince (1936).

Just to Get Married (1911) was her first novel, and explored the duplicitous behaviour of women desperate to get married. The heroine Georgina Vicary who has consented to a marriage of convenience comes to admire her suitor and marries for love. Just to Get Married was turned into a play.

During the First World War Hamilton served with the Scottish women's ambulance unit and as an administrator in a military hospital outside Paris and from 1917 to 1919 she was a member of a repertory company organized by her friend Lena Ashwell which provided wartime entertainment for the troops. Senlis (1916) is a tribute to a small town which had been treated with great brutality by the Germans. Hamilton's experiences of the war made her disillusioned with the idea that human progress was inevitable, and she came to dislike what she termed as 'the herd instinct' and became impatient with some of the more liberal ideals of her youth.

William: an Englishman (1919) won the Femina Vie Heureuse prize. William, an idealistic socialist, and Griselda, an altruistic young suffragette, find themselves accidentally caught up in the outbreak of the First World War during their honeymoon in the Ardennes. When Griselda is brutally raped and murdered William comes to see his earlier beliefs as naive in the extreme and is converted to wholehearted support of the war effort. The book opens with some gentle mocking at the ardent pre-war campaigners for
Socialism, internationalism, pacifism, and votes for women. A young clerk, William Tully, inherits, to his surprise, sufficient money to enable him to leave his unsatisfying job and to become (in capital letters) ‘a Social Reformer’.He meets and marries Griselda, ‘his exact counterpart in petticoats’, whose notion of war is being ejected from a political meeting minus ‘her toque and quite half of her hairpins’. The couple honeymoon in an isolated rented cottage in the Belgian Ardennes. The date is late July 1914. Ironically the would-be internationalists speak no language other than their own, and thus do not know when war is declared. The idealism of, in the narrator’s affectionate description, the two ‘unconscious little humbugs’ (p. 43) is blown away by their confrontation with the realities of war. It is at an early stage in their ordeal that William, whose recent life ‘had been largely moulded on the principle that the love of one’s country was a vice to be combated and sneered at’, feels ‘the first faint sense of nationality’:
Not consciously as yet and with no definite sense of affection for England or impulse to stand by her and serve her; but with a vague, unreasoning, natural longing for home and the narrow things of home. (p. 93) Separated from each other, Griselda is raped by a German soldier, and although, thanks to the chaos of the early days of the war, William manages to find her again, she does not survive the arduous journey back to England. Despite his previous convictions, William is determined to enlist at the earliest opportunity. He tells a travelling companion: ‘“It seems the only thing to do. You can’t sit down and let it go on; when you’ve seen what I’ve seen, you’ve got to do what you can”’ (p. 166). As the narrator says: ‘There were many parallels to the case and conversion of William Tully in the first few weeks of the war’ (p. 171). He is shocked therefore to find his former comrades regarding the conflict as no more than ‘a red herring drawn by the cunning politician across the path of progress’ (p. 179). By the time he manages to get back to France, William’s health has been broken by his experiences, and the wheel comes full circle – the only job for which he is fit is being a clerk, performing routine, often pointless, tasks, which make him feel like ‘a squirrel spinning round in a cage’ . Nevertheless, having received mortal injuries in an air-raid, his character is shown by his determination to die with dignity: ‘all the moral strength he possessed went into the effort not to shrink, to be master of his body, to behave decently […]’. This has been re-published by Nicola Beauman's admirable Persephone Press.

Theodore Savage (1922) is a curious dystopian novel which is set at the end of civilization and again illustrates the human potential for destructive behaviour.

Hamilton's commitment to equality did not waver. In 1919 she became press officer for the International Suffrage Conference in Geneva. She supported herself as a journalist writing for newspapers including the Yorkshire Post and the Manchester Guardian, served on the editorial committee of The Englishwoman, and became a director of Lady Rhondda's feminist journal Time and Tide, through which she met Winifred Holtby. I'm pretty sure she was a close friend of EM Delafield's and is thinly disguised as 'Emma Hay' (Emma being a very suitable pseudonym for a Hamilton!) She also became a close friend of Lilian Baylis with whom she wrote a history of the Old Vic (1926). In the 1920s she was an early and active member of the Six Point Group which campaigned for the rights of children, widows, and unmarried mothers, equal guardianship, and equal pay in teaching and the civil service. She was also an impassioned advocate of birth control and a supporter of abortion law reform.

In 1931 Hamilton published Full Stop, an extraordinary novel which contained only one character and was concerned with the spiritual crisis of a politician who knows that he is nearing his death. Throughout the 1930s Hamilton travelled widely and published a series of commentaries on her impressions of Austria, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and Sweden, and nearer to home, England and Scotland.

Her autobiography, Life Errant (1935), was critical of her belief in the perfectibility of human beings in her early career although not of her commitment to feminism or of her decision to remain a spinster. She was awarded a civil-list pension for services to literature in 1938. Lament for Democracy (1940), published at a moment when the Second World War fared badly for the allies, was pessimistic about the fragility of democracy when faced with the threat of totalitarianism. Hamilton worked as the editor of the press bulletin of the British League for European Freedom from 1945 to 1952. She died from heart failure, after a long illness, on 5 December 1952 at her home, 44 Glebe Place, Chelsea, London.



Wealth at death 976 3s. 0d.: probate, 24 Jan 1953, CGPLA Eng. & Wales