Sally Heathcote: Suffragette By Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot - book review


Mary and Bryan Talbot became the surprise success story of the 2012 Costa Awards, winning the Best Biography Award for Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. It was the first year that graphic novels had been nominated, and the dual biography of Lucia Joyce and Mary  herself met with great critical acclaim from all quarters. Her follow-up, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, is destined to reach even greater heights.

Sally Heathcote is a working-class maid in turn-of-the-century Manchester, in service to Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the British suffrage movement. As Pankhurst is drawn to London and into further militancy as she strives towards her goals, we follow Sally as her eyes are opened to the possibilities to which throwing off injustice could lead.

Exploring this divisive time within the suffrage movement is no simple task, with pacifism discarded in favour of increasingly radical acts in the face of an uninterested and mocking government. Nor was the right to vote the only concern, as it was intertwined with the issues of rights for workers, equal pay, poverty, and healthcare, with men and women on both sides.

Talbot deals with these complexities with a deft hand, weaving a tale around fictional Sally that encompasses both the bright and dark moments of the movement. Sally visibly changes from a young and naïve girl, horrified at the behaviour of men and their entitlement, to one who is giving speeches of her own before baying crowds, carrying out acts of violence, and contemplating the militancy of her actions.

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, focusing on the oft-forgotten daughter of James Joyce and her shameful treatment, displayed  Talbot’s interest in gender politics and, perhaps more specifically, how the treatment of women in the past still resonates in our contemporary world.

Her second book certainly advances this thought process, as the violent suppression of pacifist demonstrations, the belittling and casual sexism thrown towards women by men of all backgrounds, and a government turning deaf ears upon the most disenfranchised, all have their echoes in our lives today.

The beauty of graphic novels is their  ability to communicate complex political ideas in a deceptively simple fashion – what could be a terribly interesting yet easily forgotten historical narrative becomes instead an  engaging personal tale that haunts the reader long after the final page has turned.

As we travel through years of political and social struggle, Sally leads the way as a relatable touchstone and a reminder that these events were very, very real. Pages of annotations at the end of the book painstakingly reveal the history and sources throughout, while real headlines and reproductions of newspaper articles are dotted across Sally’s years, further immersing the reader in the overall story.

The touch of the British comics legend  Bryan Talbot is evident in these layouts,  effortlessly focusing the reader’s eye upon the points of action and controlling the pace to great dramatic effect – the very first page, with one caption and a well-used foreground, almost tells the entire story in one glance. Later, a shift to black borders for two key  moments of terror subtly underscores  Sally’s experiences without jarring with the reader.

But it is Kate Charlesworth’s artwork that really captures the passion and frustration of the movement, with her soft washes, dynamic expressions, and that wonderful use of minimal colour. The bulk of the book is in pretty greys and whites, but Sally’s shock of red hair is coloured at all times. Easily identifiable too is Pankhurst, always with a touch of purple, and colour is also used to highlight the various banners, the sudden red of a struck flame or nose, and the flowers that hold a sharp secret.

When Sally is caught and sentenced, she duly begins her hunger strike as part of the campaign. The government response to this was well known – brutal force-feeding – but knowledge can never match the experience. Seeing these horrors through Sally’s eyes brings home just how much these women went through in a way no mere text ever could. Our protagonist is not drawn as a hero, but as a frightened and determined young woman, fading fast before our eyes as she is tortured.

To combat the suffragettes, the government would release the hunger strikers at their weakest, allow them to build their strength a little, and then recapture them for more of the same – a chilling game of cat and mouse. When the suffragettes finally get their meeting at 10 Downing Street, the ensuing panels gradually strip back the characters at play, melting their shadows and features into that of defenceless mice and taunting clawed cats.

Striking back with action rather than words changed everything. The cats will always fear the mice.