Book reviews, musings and waffle from a British lit addict

Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a gripping inside story of the campaign for votes for women. A tale of loyalty, love and courage, set against a vividly realised backdrop of Edwardian Britain, it follows the fortunes of a maid-of-all-work swept up in the feminist militancy of the era. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is another stunning collaboration from Costa Award winners, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Teamed up with acclaimed illustrator Kate Charlesworth, Sally Heathcote‘s lavish pages bring history to life.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went to an all girls’ secondary school as a teenager and we studied a social/economic history syllabus instead of what I think is a more common world history syllabus, with a whole term spent focussing on the history of the Suffragettes. In theory, I really ought to remember a reasonable amount about women’s efforts to obtain the vote and yet I don’t. I remember some key dates/facts and could probably get by in a light conversation on the topic (not that there’s likely to ever be such a thing but still) but by no means as much as I’d like to. I’ve been trying a little bit over recent months to get into non-fiction and I have a few books that I’m really looking forward to but I wouldn’t back my fledgling interest to survive a bout with a detailed book on women’s suffrage. Enter Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, a part fiction, part non-fiction graphic novel story of a young woman who was involved in various organisations’ efforts to secure votes for women.

Sally Heathcote is a fictional suffragette, who at the opening of the novel is a maid in service who ends up working for the Pankhurst family.  As historical events unfold, Sally conveniently manages to continue to find herself at the heart of the action. While there wasn’t specifically a Sally Heathcote who travelled to London to work for the Women’s Social and Political Union or other political pressure groups, there were undoubtedly numerous women who did flock to the organisations to contribute their efforts to the groups’ work, challenging their previous role in society and Sally’s actions all feel entirely consistent with a young woman of her position at that time and not a strained storytelling device.

The book is only a couple of hundred pages but it manages to neatly cover all of the main events of the suffrage movement and show how women might have responded at the time (the death of Emily Davison is particularly thoughtfully covered).  What Sally Heathcote: Suffragette does extremely well is  different groups that were all trying to secure women the right to vote.  Alongside the fairly militant WSPU (the group led by the Pankhursts and perhaps the most famous), there were other, arguably more peaceful organisations without subtly different aims, all of them often lumped together as “the Suffragettes”.  Talbot does a brilliant job of introducing these groups by portraying Sally as a conflicted suffragette, committed to securing women’s rights but not sure about the best methods and engaging with efforts as best she can.  As an introduction to the history and political climate of the era, it’s really solid.

The book is also unflinching about WSPU members’ treatment in prison during their hunger strikes following arrest and the forced feeding that women were subjected to and the horror of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which saw women released from prison when they were deemed in danger of becoming a martyr for the cause and re-arrested when they were thought to be healthy enough to ultimately serve their full sentence.  I think all too often we refer to women ‘fighting for the right to vote’ without remembering that women suffered for it and the images and the telling of that in this account are raw and heartbreaking and incredibly powerful.

Speaking of, the illustrations are mostly in grey scale, with some colours used occasionally for emphasis (mostly organisations’ colours, including the now iconic white, green and purple, and Sally’s ginger hair). It’s a style that I’m always a fan of and one that works well here.  The palette imbues the narrative with the gravitas and…weight that it deserves and avoids the graphic novel medium making it seem a little frivolous. It can make the other female characters a little difficult to identify by image alone but mostly they’re identified by name and it doesn’t become too much of a problem.

I don’t really want to spoil the book so I’ll just say that the last few panels are really impactive. They’re quiet compared to the drama of the main chapters but the stark contrast between the struggles that are so vividly portrayed in the rest of the pages and the last few statement that Talbot makes is stunning and absolutely perfectly judged.

Overall:  I was a fan of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette before I got to the last few pages and those moments really made it something memorable.  Books like this should be given to young women as an accessible account of what women (and men!) went through to secure the rights for women to vote, especially in the year that the country will commemorate centenary of the first British women to get the vote. Highly recommended if you want a either an introduction to or a refresher on a still very relevant and fairly recent period of UK history.

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Pictured Edition published by Jonathan Cape (an imprint of Random House) in May 2014

Date finished: 07 January 2018

Source:  Library