#Bookshelf: A Review of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (@tim_hutchings)

This week, the Church of England finally voted to allow women to become bishops. 100 years ago, the whole country was still struggling to decide if women deserved the vote. “Sally Heathcote: Suffragette”  is a fantastic tale of the fight for women’s suffrage, carefully-researched and beautifully illustrated. It’s had great reviews, too. If you’re interested in the history of women’s rights, this is definitely a book to look out for.

Wait, illustrated? Yes, OK, fine – this is a comic book. You can call it a “graphic novel” if that makes you feel more grown-up. The idea that comic books could be acceptable reading material for adults still raises a few eyebrows in the UK, but it really shouldn’t. The flood of big-budget Hollywood movie adaptations over the last 15 years has done a lot to introduce comics to a wider audience, but the history of adult-oriented comic books dates back much further – at least to the world of “underground comics” in the 1960s and 1970s. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the boundaries of what comics could discuss and how complex their stories could become were pushed back by serious, intricate, occasionally grim books by authors like Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. “Sally Heathcote: Suffragette” contains truly shocking (and historically accurate) scenes of violence, without being exploitative or sensational: the fight for the vote was often brutal and cruel, and comics can reflect that reality with real emotional power.

Sally Heathcote is a working-class girl from Manchester who finds work as a maid in the household of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the suffrage movement. Travelling to London with the Pankhursts, Sally becomes involved with the campaign, marching in parades, stitching badges, waving banners and eventually giving speeches of her own. The suffragette movement struggles to win any attention from the political establishment, and voices within the campaign begin advocating for a change in strategy: not just petitions, but hunger strikes, smashing windows and burning down the Prime Minister’s house. As these rivals struggle for control of the movement, Sally has to decide which friends to listen to. She is attacked by police, beaten and arrested and goes on hunger strike. She loses old friends because of her militant campaigning, but also falls in love with Arthur, a younger man in the organisation.

Sally herself is a fictional character, but she lives in a world full of accurate historical characters, events and details. Most of the characters in the book are real historical figures, some well-known and some forgotten. Writer Mary Talbot is an academic who has published books on gender and media studies, and her research here is fascinating. The book even ends with 20 pages of notes, giving extra details to make sure the reader can tell fact from fiction. Mary Talbot has been asked why she bothered to invent a fictional character at all, instead of just telling the story as history. In response, she explained that our history of the suffragette movement is incomplete: the best-known characters are all middle and upper class, but that isn’t what the movement was really like. By inventing Sally Heathcote, the book is able to reclaim a place in the story for working class women. In a sense, fiction can be more accurate than biography.

The artwork of this book is excellent, too. Each page was designed by Bryan Talbot, one of the most famous British creators of comic books (if you like the idea of steampunk badger detectives, you should go read Grandville immediately). The drawings were created by Kate Charlesworth, an illustrator and cartoonist. The style is realistic and very attractive – there’s a wonderful full-page drawing of Newcastle,  which would make a great poster for my wall. Almost everything is sketched in shades of grey, but there are occasional moments of colour. Sally’s hair is always red, to help the reader to identify her, and the rest of the book is touched with the suffragette colours of purple, green and white.

My only criticism of this book relates to the ending… and I can’t spoil that for you, can I? Go read it, and then talk to me later.

If you haven’t tried reading a comic book before, go find this one! If you’re a fan of history, politics, feminism, civil rights, great drawings or pretty views of Newcastle, you’ll find something here to enjoy. 

About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.