Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth
23rd May 2014
Bryan and Mary Talbot previously collaborated on Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, an award-winning memoir/biography of James Joyce’s troubled daughter. For this latest graphic novel they have joined forces with acclaimed illustrator Kate Charlesworth.
Orphan Sally Heathcote is a maid-of-all-work in Emmeline Pankhurst’s Manchester home, and so is privy to the planning of militant feminist action. On moving to London, she becomes increasingly involved in the campaign for votes for women.
Sally may be a fictional character, but she is surrounded by real-life key figures in the movement: the Pankhursts, the Pethick-Lawrences and Emily Davison among others.Sally may be a fictional character, but she is surrounded by real-life key figures in the movement: the Pankhursts, the Pethick-Lawrences and Emily Davison among others.
It was an inspired idea to use a working class woman as the central character, given that the key figures are more privileged and mostly members of the upper classes. Her job also means she often overhears enlightening conversations.
Sally is a believable and immensely likeable character with a forward-thinking attitude for a working woman in Edwardian England. She is incensed by problems contemporary women can relate to – such as sexual harassment at work – and stands up for herself, clearly empowered by the movement she’s developing an interest in.
The book shows the lengths the suffragettes went to in order to get the vote, enduring hunger strikes and force-feeding in prisons, violent riots and dying for the cause while the government stubbornly refused to pay attention. We also see how women’s suffrage was interconnected with other movements, such as the fight for workers’ rights and the elimination of poverty.
Several pages show Sally in 1969, as she rests in a nursing home reminiscing about her youth. As well as the struggle for women’s votes, the young Sally is caught up in her own love story involving a man dedicated to the cause.
Then everything is complicated by the First World War. A rift forms within the Women’s Social and Political Union, as pacifists come up against those who regard objectors as cowards. Sally is forced to choose sides; reject socialism and pacifism to stand by the woman who helped her thrive, or move to a more liberal faction of the cause.
Unsurprisingly given Bryan Talbot and Kate Charlesworth’s involvement, the artwork is incredibly beautiful. The panels are expertly laid out and there are plenty of small details worthy of close scrutinising. The palette is mostly black and white with choice colours picked out – the red of Sally’s hair, for example, and the purple, green and white of the WSPU.
As we’ve come to expect from Jonathan Cape Graphic Novels, the book itself is an item to be coveted. Printed on quality paper, it’s also a pleasantly wieldy size at slightly larger than A5.
Mary Talbot is an academic with expertise in language, gender and power and she is clearly in her element writing on women’s suffrage. It’s definitely worth reading her footnotes at the end of the book, which provide interesting background information and show her attention to detail and accuracy. The timeline of events is another welcome addition.
The history of women’s emancipation is undoubtedly of interest to many people, but books on the subject may seem daunting to those who are not inclined to read academic texts. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette succeeds in making it more accessible, while also creating a compelling and uplifting work of fiction in the form of Sally’s story.
A triumph of imagination and research, this book should be read widely by people of all ages. It would be great to see it in school libraries, and ideally on a syllabus for young people unfamiliar with this important period in women’s history.