Talbot, Mary M, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014.
Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a graphic novel that follows Sally Heathcote, a fictional young woman from Manchester who works for the Pankhurst family before they move to London. The story of the suffragettes, from the early days in Manchester through to World War One, is told through the eyes of Sally, a young working class woman who grew up in the workhouse. The book is thoughtful, historically accurate and beautifully illustrated; and a refreshing alternative to traditional depictions of the suffragettes.
Protest and graphic novels are not strangers. I recently reviewed Fight the Power on this blog, which tells the story of many key examples of historical protest in the English-speaking world. V for Vendetta is a well-known example, with V masks becoming a common feature at marches and demonstrations across the world over the past few years. The recent Comics Unmasked exhibition at the British Library had a whole section on the connections between comics, graphic novels and dissent, which showed that comics frequently constitute protest as well as just representing them.
In a nursing home in Hackney in 1969, an aged Sally dreams about her youth as a suffragette. After leaving the workhouse, Sally became a domestic servant for the Pankhursts. She moves to London several years after the family, and eventually gets a job working for the WSPU. All of the major features of the history of WSPU are then told through Sally’s own experience of them. She is arrested and imprisoned, where she embarks on a hunger strike and is force-fed, like many real-life suffragettes did when they were refused the right to be treated as political prisoners. She joins the Young Hot Bloods, a secretive militant group within the WSPU, and participates in the bombing of a house belonging to Lloyd George. The divisions within the women’s suffrage movement are seen through Sally’s eyes, as is the death of Emily Wilding-Davison, who was killed by the King George V’s Horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Apart from the fictional main character, Sally Heathcote is historically accurate and incredibly well researched, with several pages at the back of the book dedicated to explaining the historical sources and contexts of particular events in the story. Also, some speeches and newspaper articles in the book are lifted directly from genuine historical documents. The story does not idealise the WSPU, depicting many of the movement’s weaknesses and divisions. Throughout the book, Sally talks with a mancunian accent, and her story illustrates the class prejudices that were present amongst the leading members of the WSPU. The splits and acrimony between the Pankhursts and many of their closest allies are also shown. As a result the book is a balanced account of history, showing that maintaining solidarity across differences is one of the most difficult challenges faced by a social movement.
Sally Heathcote is not perfect however. Frequently with graphic novels I struggle to tell some of the characters apart, and I find myself failing to develop a connection with the characters, gaining little insight into their emotions and motivations. Although Sally can always be identified by her bright red hair (colour is used sparingly and to great effect within the book), I often couldn’t identify which of the other main protagonists were speaking. This difficulty may be accentuated if the reader is not familiar with the leading members of the women’s suffrage movement. In addition the reader never gets an explanation as to why Sally is so committed to the WSPU. As the book progresses we learn she is headstrong and brave, and feels like she owes a debt to Emmeline Pankhurst for hiring her when she left the workhouse, but she never actually says why the right to vote is so important to her. I think this is a major oversight, as it is harder to identify with Sally if you don’t understand her motives.
Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a poignant, realistic tale of struggle at the turn of the twentieth century. The Suffragettes are possibly one of the most well-known social movements in British history, so it must be a daunting prospect to try and tell their story from a fresh perspective. Sally Heathcote, with it’s unusual format and brave protagonist, does a pretty good job.