Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette

Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

Jonathan Cape

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting this work for many months; Bryan and Mary talked about it at last spring’s Dundee Comics Expo then again at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And with the huge success of their previous Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (scooping the Costa literary award, first time ever for a comics work) I suspect there’s a wide range of readers, including many who are not normally comics readers, waiting to read it too. This time Mary has collaborated with artist Kate Charlesworth – Bryan worked on layouts, Kate on the finished artwork – and the result? Oh yes, my friends, well worth waiting for.

Manchester is the moral conscience of England.”

Turn of the century Britain and orphan Sally Heathcote has escaped the workhouse to a job, ‘in service’ to a household headed by the formidable Mrs Pankhurst. Both Pankhurst and her daughters are already busy with others coming and going, their house in Manchester a busy meeting place, and right away the creators show us this is going to be a more nuanced story – this isn’t just about equal voting rights (important though that is), the suffragette movement was born also from people (some men as well as the legions of women) who were sick of the vast inequalities in Britain. Heart of a vast empire and yet while many made large amounts of money and earned titles from those imperial efforts huge swathes of the population lived in abject poverty, going hungry, living in slums, little education, no healthcare. Unions in the vast factories of the industrial north of England, such as in and around Manchester, were forming and were one of the places where women started to come together collectively to wield influence and have their voices heard, and the quest for equal suffrage for women went hand in hand with many other noble concepts – eliminating poverty, care for the sick, rights for workers. The Talbots and Charlesworth are at great pains to show the interconnected nature of the movement, that it was socially driven by many blights in society.

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Servants overhear many things in the grand houses of course, and Sally picks up on a lot of what is going on. She’s well treated (it’s inferred Pankhurst took her from the workhouse and gave her respectable employment) and she’s learning of a much wider world. So when the Pankhursts decide the fight needs them to be in London and not in the union heartlands of the north, where the embryonic Labour Party (partly funded by some of those women’s unions) is starting to gather strength, she’s heartbroken. She finds new employment with some help, but suffers horrible sexual innuendoes and attempted abuse from the men of the house, both the master and some of the other male servants. Horrid though this is though, it gives her the drive to leave and head to London, and it is while searching for work their that she find the headquarters of the movement and some of her old employers, and it isn’t long before she’s happily working among the women there, and becoming increasingly active in the protest movement.

It’s quite something to watch Sally – and the movement – grow. She becomes more confident, from the first timid, ¬†shy attempt to raise a question about votes for women at a local Liberal party meeting (she is thrown out almost at once) to the determined woman not just marching in the streets but a confident, powerful young woman who will eventually stand there in public making speeches herself, not to mention carrying out more daring acts. As the body politic (including, to their eternal shame, a Liberal government that included supposed Liberal heroes like Lloyd George) simply ignores the growing demands of the suffragettes and legal, peaceful demonstrations get rough treatment from police and from crowds of angry men, the movement starts to become increasingly militant, and here we see it all from the inside view of Sally, from breaking windows to setting fires and more. The jails begin to fill up, opinion is divided, some say the militant action loses them public sympathy, others, like Pankhurst call for “deeds, not words”. Splits appear within the movement and tensions rise. Then the hunger strikes begin…

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Demanding to be treated as political, not criminal prisoners, the suffragettes arrested and imprisoned begin a series of hunger strikes. At first it seems to be winning them ground – weakened woman are released from prison by a government reluctant to be seen as essentially killing women in prison. Until the forced feedings begin. In a turbulent tale full of both uplifting moments and terrifying ones, this scene is among the most awful to read, and it’s probably no coincidence that as Sally’s prison time begins the sepia tinged look of the other pages gives way to heavy black borders, ominous, threatening. The security and confidence that comes with acting in concert with comrades sharing the same goal is suddenly wavering – now she is on her own, isolated, in a dank cell.

The true test – when alone, surrounded by those who despise you, imprisoned, do you hold to your moral stance or break? Sally is not one to break, but again this subtle story doesn’t try to give us some ridiculous super-heroine, fearlessly facing her foes regardless of odds. No, Sally is scared. She should be, anyone would be, and she is – it’s very realistic and beautifully managed and it makes the reader believe in the character all the more, makes her more real, more vulnerable, more human. It also put me in mind of the prison scene with Evey in V For Vendetta (a scene I always consider the emotional heart of V): terrified, alone, but clinging to that belief not to give them that “final inch” of themselves; where Evey had the letter sneaked into her cell Sally has one uplifting moment where she hears others in nearby cells singing suffragette songs and a note scrawled on the wall “courage, brave heart”.

And when the forced feedings begin you feel utter shock and horror. There’s no other term for them but a violation of the body, a form of rape – brutal invasion of the body against its will. And like rape this is very much about power – here pretending to be about caring for the women and stopping them from starving, which makes it all the more horrendous. But it is a violation and a demonstration of power, the authorities showing their will over the imprisoned women. It is barbaric and truly horrific to watch the scene, the more so because while Sally may be fictional we really care about her by this point and, worse still, we know this is based on real accounts, that this was done, often repeatedly, to many women who simply had the temerity to be considered equal citizens. It gets worse with the infamous ‘cat and mouse’ act, allowing the authorities to release suffragettes who were becoming too weak, wait for them to recover a little on the outside then re-arrest them without trial and take them right back in and start it all again. And again.

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The book doesn’t present absolutes in terms of wrong and right, however – right from the start we see that certain personalities, such as Mrs Pankhurst, could be hugely divisive. In many ways remarkable and implacable in resolve, standing in the face of all against her, but like many sometimes so concerned with ‘the good fight’ that they become blind to everything else and will use anyone and anything in the service of that fight, even if it hurts and alienates good allies and friends. We also see that despite the union movement that a huge chunk of working men are as hostile to women’s rights as the ruling class males are, and indeed a large number of women, who consider the suffrage demands to be very ‘unwomanly’. We also see our determined Sally carry out all sorts of activities but eventually wondering at some of the methods Pankhurst is demanding they now use – it’s another way in which Sally becomes so very human to us, she had her ideals but she also has her doubts and worries, she isn’t relentlessly singe-minded, her time among so many activists has taught her to question and think for herself, and that includes thinking about the movement. No whitewash here presenting nothing but good, noble women against an evil tyranny, there are nuanced levels, there are good and bad men and women on both sides, and there are some who are so determined to do ‘right’ that they will use any ends (again on both sides).

It’s an absolutely fascinating and compelling look at a very important piece of recent history (consider most of this took place only a century ago – seems unbelievable to modern eyes, but yes, only a hundred years ago this was happening, many of us had grandmothers who remember a time when women weren’t allowed to vote). And like last year’s astonishing March Book One (detailing a personal history of the US Civil Rights movement – see review here) this isn’t static history, this is living history; this is history that is never done and dusted, it permeates the present and influences the maps of the future. It isn’t only about one goal really, about equal voting rights for all, irrespective of class and gender, it’s about equality and fairness across all of society, it’s about our rights to legally protest, to be heard, to demand change and to be listened to, to participate in the democratic decision making, to demand that the laws of the land not be used to enshrine discrimination against one section of society (a fight still going on, think of how we have only just created equal marriage rights for gay people). And like all good histories it echoes with resonance to the here and now – police being used to stifle peaceful, legal demonstrations in our major cities? We’ve seen a sad series of such events in recent years with the notorious use of ‘kettling’ and the like. Those in power, frightened at losing some of that power, stooping to creating reprehensible legislation to ‘legally’ commit immoral acts against protesters, or covert police surveillance of members of the movement, all sadly familiar to today as well (at one point Sally comments on the police having new cameras they use to take pictures of your from a distance to keep an eye on you – the distant ancestor of our current wall-to-wall CCTV Big Brother state).

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But this isn’t just a story of the movement and struggle against the odds, hardships to overcome. This is a personal story too, this is Sally’s story, and that’s our way into this Britain of a century ago, and as a mechanism for engaging the reader and making these historic events more personal, more emotional, it works brilliantly. Most of the pages use a pretty subdued colour palette, with a sepia type dominating, but one colour that always stands out is the copper-red of Sally’s hair. Be it an intimate, close up scene or a sweeping view of a huge crowd of protesters marching the street, our Sally is always visible with that hair, she’s our anchor in the turbulent tides of the period. It’s also a tale of the ways being exposed to new ideas and new people changes us, helps us grow, it’s a story about friendship and even love. As the civil rights demands for women escalate the same tired, frightened old men who govern also find themselves facing the First World War (and coping about as successfully with that as they did with women’s suffrage). The two collide, causing more friction between elements of the movement, but also becoming part of that¬†tumultuous time that would, ultimately change British society forever.

And don’t think it just changed the lot of women, proper, universal suffrage for all men (not just the well off and property owners) emerged out of fear of the women’s movement, a transparent attempt by the government to recruit more allies -somewhat similar to the South African government in the dying days of the loathsome Apartheid regime expanding voting to select non-whites (such as those of Indian descent), as a desperate way of trying to fortify their own position, make new allies to hold off the perceived threat. Ultimately it would lead to more equal rights for all, something I’m sure many of those in the suffrage movement would have been proud of. The story is framed by a very old Sally, now with her grown daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, decades later, another nice, emotional touch, but also a way of reminding us that the fight for civil rights and equality for all never actually stops. It was once said the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. So too with our rights – hard-won rights, literally fought for and then defended in both fine, stirring rhetoric and, when needed, with blood. Because there’s always some idiot who thinks you can draw a line around one group in society – women, immigrants, people of a different religion, gays – and treat them differently.

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This is a beautifully constructed tale – unsurprisingly well-researched given Mary’s academic background, but so much more than just an accessible way of learning of a hugely important piece of our history. No, Sally Heathcote is much more than an impressive slice of social and political history, it’s a beautifully done human tale. If you’re not emotionally invested in Sally by the end of it then there’s something wrong with you; to be honest you’ll probably fall in love a little with her, it’s hard not to. The artwork is lovely, Charlesworth teases some terrific ‘performances’ from her cast; you can visually see Sally’s growth from shy young housemaid one step from the poorhouse to confident, determined woman in her expression and her stance. Kate also captures that resolute look on the face of Mrs Pankhurst, as determined and terrifying as staring down one of the terrible dreadnoughts of the era (contrast with Sally’s young, eager, open face and smile), while the backgrounds behind those characters is lovely, from the grand neo-classical meeting halls of those Edwardian big cities to fine small period details, like the iconic shape of an old Thames sailing barge going past Parliament. Or serious scenes executed with a light touch, such as a pair of Suffragettes trying to knock on the door of Ten Downing Street, to be told angrily “no, you can’t see the Prime Minister” (those of us of a certain age can doubtless recall when you literally could walk right up to Number Ten’s door, seems unbelievable in today’s post 9-11 society, but we could…).

Without a doubt one of the most compelling, emotional, vital reads you will have this spring. It has funny moments, touching moments, it has moments that will make your blood boil at the injustice of it, and moments of tenderness that are heartwarming. Pleasingly the book also comes with extensive footnotes to explain more of the socio-historical context of some scenes, a timeline and suggested further reading sources – ideal for anyone wishing to use it for educational purposes. It’s only April and I already know this will be on my Best of the Year list come December. I found it so fascinating I read it twice in one week, and I think this is one of those wonderful books that you know you will come back to again over the years. Simply wonderful, uplifting work.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog