John Galsworthy at Lewes Prison
The concept of Writers in Prisons has flourished in Britain in the last decade. But, like so many other initiatives on the treadmill of penal history, permission for writers to enter prisons is by no means a recent innovation. There are those who had the primary experience, of course, Bunyan, Defoe, Wilde, Behan, Orton, who made use of it for literature. But there are also those, following in Dickens' footsteps, who visited and, as a result of their experience, earnestly engaged with the idea of prison reform.
When I was writer in residence at Lewes Prison in Sussex at the end of the 1980s, I discovered I had had an illustrious predecessor, the author of The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy. In 1909, having already 'gone over' Dartmoor two years previously, and written two sketches as a result, The House of Silence and Order, Galsworthy obtained permission from the Home Office to go over the prisons at Chelmsford and Lewes. His first visit to the castellated flint and brick prison at Lewes, nestling picturesquely in the Downs, was in July of that year.
These exploratory visits brought home to the playwright the iniquitous nature of solitary confinement. At that time prisoners sentenced to penal servitude still served the initial part of their sentence in isolation. The length of 'the separate', as it was known, was dependent on the prisoner's record - a draconian nine months for recidivists, six months for intermediates (those with only a few previous convictions) and three months for the star class - first time offenders. In the 1900s Lewes Gaol was one of the prisons where the separate system was operated, where prisoners could be accommodated in isolation before being moved on to complete their sentences elsewhere.
On the strength of his initial findings, Galsworthy appointed himself champion of the convict's cause and began to call for the abolition of solitary confinement. He entered into correspondence with the Prison Commissioner Sir Evelyn Ruggles Brise and gained his trust. In September 1909, he was allowed to return to Lewes to interview the convicts themselves in private and to hear their own first-hand accounts of the effects of solitary confinement. He visited the inmates in their cells, and conversed with each one for ten minutes to quarter of an hour, his declared object being - 'to get behind the formal questions and answers to the real man's feelings'. He set down their responses in his notebook:
I've never felt right since — it's got all over me. (This man cried all the time.)
It's no life at all. I'd sooner be dead than here. (This man was tearful and quavery).
It's made me very nervous ... I keep picturing things and walking about. It sends men up the pole.
If a man had the spy-hole open even.
I sit reading and don't seem to take in the words.
I go towards the window and something seems to pull me back.
It would not be uncharitable to detect a secondary motive in Galsworthy's apparent concern for the plight of the segregated convict. Unbeknown to the authorities, by the time of his second visit, Galsworthy had already drafted three acts of his play Justice. What he felt he needed to complete it was detailed research of prison life and first-hand experience of prisoners.
The play itself, which Galsworthy styled a tragedy, concerns the plight of a young clerk, Falder, who has defrauded his employer in order to obtain the money to rescue a woman, Ruth, with whom he has fallen in love. Ruth and her children are being maltreated by her husband. Falder is caught and sent to prison where the experience of solitary confinement drives him to the edge of his sanity. In the final act, unable to adapt to life again after the trauma of prison, he is reunited with Ruth, only to discover she has been forced into prostitution. Returning to his former employers in search of work, he jumps to his death after being rearrested for providing false references. It is a melodramatic piece, with rather sketchy characterisation, and a tediously long and unnecessary trial scene.
But what is remarkable about the play is the almost photographic realism with which Galsworthy captured the prison environment. Nothing seems to have escaped his attention. In fact, he seems to have imported the architecture and regime of Lewes Prison wholesale and undigested into his play. Even the cell-labour — rush-mat making — the separate prisoner was obliged to perform to gain his daily reward 'marks' was lifted from Lewes. At one point in the play, a makeshift saw, an escape tool, has been discovered by one of the warders. The Governor consigns this to 'the museum', 'a cupboard displaying a number of quaint ropes, hooks and metal tools with labels tied on them. This 'museum' is still housed in Lewes Prison today. Act Three closes with a scene in Falder's cell. The prisoner's habitat is described in minutest detail by this most naturalistic of playwrights, right down to the reading matter on the table.
FALDER'S cell, a whitewashed space thirteen feet broad by seven deep, and nine feet high, with a rounded ceiling. The floor is of shiny blackened bricks. The barred window, with a ventilator, is high up in the middle of the end wall. In the middle of the opposite end wall is the narrow door. In a corner are the mattress and bedding rolled up (two blankets, two sheets, and a coverlet). Above them is a quarter-circular wooden shelf, on which is a Bible and several little devotional books, piled in a symmetrical pyramid; there are also a black hair-brush, toothbrush and a bit of soap. In another corner is the wooden frame of a bed, standing on end. There is a dark ventilator under the window, and another over the door. FALDER'S work (a shirt to which he is putting button-holes) is hung to a nail on the wall over a small wooden table, on which the novel Lorna Doone lies open. Low down in the corner by the door is a thick glass screen, about a foot square, covering the gas-jet let into the wall. There is also a wooden stool, and a pair of shoes beneath it. Three bright round tins are set under the window.
In this scene Falder is shown suffering the effects of 'the separate'. He scrapes along the distemper line on the wall, he gasps for breath, he hammers on the door, unable to bear the isolation.
Between two o'clock and getting up's the worst time. Everything seems to get such a size then. I feel I'll never get out as long as I live.
The suggestion in the play is that white-collar criminals have a tougher time of it in prison than blue collars, for whom it is an integral part of their culture. It brings to mind the clandestine words of sympathy whispered to Oscar Wilde in the exercise ring at Reading Gaol: 'I'm sorry for you: it's harder for the likes of you, than it is for the likes of us'.
Elsewhere in Justice, various criminal types from the lower classes are presented - the old lag Moaney who has fashioned the escape tool, the garrulous Irishman O'Cleary who feels the lack of the sound of his own voice, old Clipton, the prison philosopher. But these are no more than cameos, thumbnail sketches perhaps of the inmates that Galsworthy interviewed at Lewes, serving only to authenticate the lugubrious prison environment in which to place the 'sympathetic' character of Falder.
Justice was premiered on 21st February 1910 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. For the delectation of a fashionable London audience, a Lewes Prison landing and cell-interior were meticulously reproduced on stage. The evening was a triumph for Galsworthy. The gallery stayed on after the safety curtain had been lowered, even after the band had left, calling for the author. They chanted in the manner of latterday promenaders: 'We want Galsworthy. We want Galsworthy. We mean to have him. We won't go till we get him.'
Eventually the lights were lowered and the theatre was in darkness. But by this time, the rapturous reception had turned into a duel between the gallery and the management. The chanting continued unabated. Commissionaires tried to persuade the hooray Henries in the gallery to leave, but this merely added to the sport. Part of the stalls and even a few in the circle stayed on to watch how it would end. Finally, half-an-hour before midnight, a lady in the stalls managed to secure a moment's silence. She asked if there was anyone left in the house to say whether Mr Galsworthy was present. Harley Granville Barker, the director, came on stage beaming, flushed with champagne, to announce that the playwright was no longer in the house. And so the first-nighters went home without a glimpse of their new champion, and the furore, which has eerie undertones of a prison riot, subsided.
Shortly after the successful premiere, Galsworthy entered into correspondence with the new Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, urging him to readdress the issue of solitary confinement which his predecessor Gladstone had already significantly reduced, but not abolished. Initially, Churchill, who had heard rumblings from the Home Office over the contentious argument of the play, was skeptical of 'the airy and tenuous clouds of sentiment and opinion' that it had whipped up. He defended Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise's record on prison reform. Galsworthy, for his part, was quick to register his admiration for Ruggles-Brise, the man who had paved the way to his prison researches in the first place. He expressed regret that the writing of Justice had incidentally caused the Prison Commissioner public embarrassment and vexation. Through these polite acknowledgements Churchill and Galsworthy gradually developed a postal rapport.
In one letter Galsworthy gave this unguarded view of the staff and inmates he had encountered on his visits:
This system is being administered and defended by men who are, quite obviously, just that type of man the least likely to appreciate the essence and extent of its torture - that is to say, they are men of good nerve, strong will power, probably with large resources in themselves; conscious that they would themselves be able to support it with a certain equanimity; and temperamentally incapable of undrestanding what it must mean to the neurotic or vacuous beings that form the half at least of our prisoners.
From the press that surrounded Justice and from its theme, Churchill judged that the mood of the country had turned away from 'No Pampering for Convicts', and he began to urge prison reform in Parliament. Galsworthy supported him in the national press. By July, Churchill had announced legislation that would reduce solitary confinement even further - to three months for recidivists, and only one month for intermediaries and the star class. His speech in the House went so far as to compliment 'the various able writers in the Press' and 'exponents of the drama' for having brought the issue to the attention of the public. He did not mention Galsworthy by name, but he wrote to him privately to say:
There can be no question that your admirable play bore a most important part in creating that atmosphere of sympathy and interest which is so noticeable upon the subject at the present time. So far from feeling the slightest irritation at newspaper comments assigning to you the credit of prison reform, I have always felt uncomfortable at receiving the easily-won applauses which come to the heads of great departments whenever they have ploughed with borrowed oxen and reaped where they have not sown. In this case I can only claim a personal interest which has led me to seek the knowledge of others.
Galsworthy did not begrudge the politician a share in his success. Just as he had sought the vernacular of the convicts in Lewes Jail to enable him to write the play that would prick the nation's conscience, so in turn the legislature had naturally made use of his dramatically polished words to effect reform. The highest and lowest departments of society were thus enabled to communicate through the liberal offices of the writer. The System, he may have concluded, now worked smoothly.
Another literary anecdote must be told, however, before we join Churchill in congratulating Galsworthy, the first writer to be invited into Lewes Prison, on his spectacular success as a prison reformer. Later that same year, 1910, Lady Churchill, Winston's mother, threw a party in London to bring together the distinguished author and her son. The evening is not remembered for Galsworthy's conversation with Churchill, but for his conversation with another. At dinner the playwright found himself seated next to Eddie Marsh, Churchill's Private Secretary, the friend and future biographer of Rupert Brooke. He asked Galsworthy the question: 'If the Archangel Gabriel came down from heaven and gave you your choice; that your play should transform the prison system and be forgotten, or have no practical effect whatever and be a classic a hundred years hence, which would you choose?'
Galsworthy did not answer at once, thinking back perhaps to those tearful men in the cells at Lewes, already preparing for the night. Then he said: 'The classic a hundred years hence.'
The plaudits for Justice continued throughout 1910. Amongst the voluminous correspondence concerning it the author received a letter from a stranger, a lady. He replied to her request:
As to the proposal of a demonstration in favour of Prison Reform at the Duke of York's Theatre I feel certain that it will be impracticable. Apart from other reasons, it would - to tell the truth - be introducing a principle which I personally should much regret to see introduced. The principle of directly mingling political and social matters with dramatic art. However eager one may be for definite reforms in whatever department of the state, it would never do to try and achieve them, at the expense of the wide and permanent influence of drama. The moment such a demonstration took place in a theatre, where a play such as mine - a presentation of life, and its significance - was being performed, a great blow would be struck at the influence of drama as an impartial revealer.
The Archangel Gabriel, it seems, did not grant Galsworthy's wish. Justice is no longer performed, and the writer is far better remembered for other works. There is no doubt that he and his play expedited the abolition of solitary confinement in English prisons. But the whole episode does highlight one of the main pitfalls of prison reform - that its proponents may be just as cunning and self-seeking as any convict. Did Galsworthy really wish to improve the lot of the prisoner, or did he see the state of the prisons and their revelation as an opportunitry to enhance his own work and reputation? Later, Galsworthy came to live in Sussex, at Bury House, in a village on the Arun. There is no record that he ever revisited Lewes Prison.
First published in the Printer's Devil