Sunday, May 2, 2010

Buried in Santa Monica - A Visit with Dame Christabel Pankhurst

Laying flowers on the grave of Dame Christabel Pankhurst

I confess, the flowers were...borrowed

I've been writing a novel about the Suffragettes, and in the past year have become passionately involved with them - particularly the Pankhursts.  How interesting they are!  I was lucky enough to get an almost unobtainable tape of the brilliant BBC series Shoulder to Shoulder (1975), with Sian Phillips as Mrs. Pankhurst, and Patricia Quinn and Angela Down as Christabel and Sylvia.  Filmed about the same time as I, Claudius, it has never been made available in any format, and I only saw this exceptionally fine television drama as a grainy old bootleg tape made by a crew member.  Even so, it was stunning.  It's possible to hear a bit of the stirring Suffragette anthem, "March of the Women" (by Dame Ethel Smyth and Cicely Hamilton) and see a scene from Shoulder to Shoulder, here: 

So a clean tape must exist somewhere, and we can only hope it will be re-released some day. It's too good to be so lost and forgotten.

How these women fought, what courage they had!  Mrs. Pankhurst, ladylike and charismatic, using her refinement as a weapon; the beautiful powerful Christabel; the gentle dissident Sylvia.

Annie Kenney and Christabel

Fascinated as I have been with English Suffragism, it never occurred to me that one of these women would or could have ended up in Santa Monica (though my own life should have taught me that Santa Monica can happen to anyone).  The Pankhursts were a Manchester family, and Christabel was born in 1880, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst and lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst.  She was named Christabel after the poem by Coleridge:

'T is a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
The lovely lady, Christabel,
Whom her father loves so well,
What makes her in the wood so late,
A furlong from the castle gate?
She had dreams all yesternight
Of her own betrothed knight;
And she in the midnight wood will pray
For the weal of her lover that's far away.

Not very appropriate for Christabel, really, except for the line about her father. 


After Richard's death, Emmeline and her daughters founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), in 1903.  Christabel studied law and was awarded her LL.B. with first-class honors in 1906, but as a woman, could not be admitted to the bar or practice.  The Pankhursts took their activist campaigning to London, and led many protests, such as the massive gathering of nearly half a million women in Hyde Park in 1908.  The Pankhursts, like other Suffragettes, all spent time in jail; Christabel was the first to be arrested.  An extremely charismatic leader (the press dubbed her Queen Christabel),  she favored concentrating recruitment efforts on women of the upper classes, as they could be more influential, while Sylvia wanted to work for the poor working women in the East End. This led to a schism in the organization as well as in the family, and as the Suffragettes' actions became more militant, Christabel left for France and directed WSPU activities from there.

Christabel as a graduate lawyer

After the war, women in England finally gained the vote in 1918, and Christabel was an early woman candidate for election to Parliament but lost by a slim margin.  The Parkhursts then went separate ways; Sylvia, who was a Socialist, bore an illegitimate son and moved to Ethiopia, while Christabel became an Adventist, member of a movement that believed in the Second Coming and the approaching end of the world. She wrote books with titles like The Lord Cometh!, and lectured widely. The death of her mother in 1928 was a great grief, but she recovered, adopted a daughter, and in 1936 was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire. In 1940 she moved to Santa Monica, where her daughter was living, and a biographer writes that she was seen as "a strange combination of former suffragist revolutionary, evangelical Christian and almost stereotypically proper 'English lady' who always was in demand as a lecturer."   

An elderly widow who was murdered by a serial killer left a comfortable income to Christabel in her will.  But Christabel's own death was mysterious:  she had never been ill in her life, but in 1958, her housekeeper found her dead, sitting in a chair, with nothing to show how she had died. 

So that's how she came to be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery on 14th Street in Santa Monica.  This is a place I've driven by countless times, seeing a stretch of grass and graves out of the corner of my eye, but never investigating.  Until now.  Paul and I drove in to look for Christabel, but found it quite an interesting historical adventure.

Woodlawn Cemetery
The pavilion devoted to the Brotherly Protective Order of Elks.  Statues of elk dance around the periphery.  Only in California!

Woodlawn Cemetery is old - it's been there since soon after Santa Monica was settled, in the 1880s (folks, this is ancient in California terms!).  And having been built in a time when there was actually space out here, it's sprawling, 26 acres with 60,000 graves, many of them of minor movie stars or local historical figures like Abbot Kinney, who founded the delightfully louche city of Venice, California.  Here are some interior scenes:

Paul at the "Library of Living Memories"

A very old cemetery map

A very modern "Find a Grave" system

A former library colleague of Paul's was transferred to the cemetery (not a euphemism for his demise; he just has acquired an enviable permanent job), and he and the other very kind young staff members sent us on our way to find Christabel, outfitted with maps.  It actually wasn't easy, and took some, er, digging... 

Paul searching...

She's under the tree

Found her!

It was a lovely sight to see
The lady Christabel, when she
Was praying at the old oak tree.

I don't think it's an oak tree she's under, though; looks more like a eucalyptus.

First bonus question:  Could Jane Austen have read "Christabel"?  Possible, it was published in 1816, though written much earlier, and she died in 1817.  But although it's considered an early inspiration for vampire stories, it wouldn't have affected Austen's satire of the Gothic in Northanger Abbey.

Second bonus question:  Should Paul rename his cat Catullus, and call her Christabel?  She's much more of a Christabel than a Catullus.

Catullus or Christabel?

Third bonus question: Should we adopt a fourth cat? I have my eye on a little tortoiseshell that looks like the younger sister of ours. I would call her Quatre...

Next post:  Another Suffragette, and a necklace...


Barbara said...

Such an interesting and fascinating post today, Diana. Fancy that she was buried in Santa Monica. I had no idea either, of course. A very poignant reminder and topical for us Brits that we should exercise our democratic right next Thursday! Barbara

christy somer said...


Thank You for the suffragette History and great photo Tour this early Sunday AM~~~sitting back in my chair I'm there~~~~~~and Of course yes definitely adopt the little "Torti" ~~~and Yes I prefer *Christabel* for the Kitty~~~~~;-)


Ellen said...

Lovely blog. It reads so lucidly and easily and you get a lot in -- about the library, and California culture too, as well as basically unknown information about Christabel.

That which reads easily and conveys much lightly can take a long time to prepare -- especially with pictures.

Reading about how a woman could get a degree as a lawyer and then be prevented from practicing at the bar reminds me of the life and story of Emily Kempen-Spyri who I wrote about in one of my first blogs for my new blog:

Also of your example (in an email) of Lady Constance Lytton who died of the treatment she received: thrown in prison, let to rot when she was very sick.

I feel the ferocity of the male response to women wanting to vote (and they were brutal as well as murderous) shows the vote is important and about power - I'd see it as gaining access somehow to something that can help them outside their families or the male in question. If not immediately, in the long run. That males could act on the long range this way shows how they want to control women and also families as a group did (like Mary Ward wanting to control all the people in her family). When jobs opened up for a while (I'd put it) for women about 140 years ago, the people who had them to offer were willing to hire women in big numbers: they saw the women would come cheap and be docile, but you might think the same man would not do this for the reasons he'd beat his wife before he let her vote. But no: making an immediate profit was more important, or the job less threatening than that vote.

So men did not line up to prevent other men from hiring women. Remember the behavior of men in the 19th century included duelling which was a way of mortally threatening other men (or humiliating them if they did not stand to the appointment) in order to enforce your point of view. In present traditional societies, men do still behave that way in groups to prevent women from gaining any access to the public sphere.

Ellen Moody

Clif Moberg said...

This is a wonderful website page! Christabel was a fantastic person, and those who like her and admire her share the spirit that was given to her and which she developed, to her credit. Thanks again. -- Clif Moberg

Kita said...

Hmm. I wonder whether she knew my Great Grandmother Christabel Wilcox Conner, who was born in Santa Clara in 1878... They might have crossed paths. The poem was the inspiration for her name, too. I wonder, though, whether the father who chose that name read the whole (unfinished) poem, as the ending changes the "whom her father loved so well" into an ironic past tense.