First, a brief recap. We’ve liked graphic novelist Bryan Talbot for donkey’s years and count the signed copies of The Tale of One Bad Rat and Grandville (I say signed, Talbot draws lovely little pictures in each of the books he signs) we own among our most treasured possessions. Last year he collaborated with his wife on Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, a biographical piece of work that engaged with Mary Talbot’s own past even as it told the story of James Joyce’s troubled daughter. They have now collaborated on a second book (to an extent – an interview Mary has given over at Forbidden Planet indicates that Bryan Talbot provided page layouts and lettering that the artist Kate Charlesworth picked up and finished – Bryan Talbot was busy devoting his attention to the latest, still forthcoming Grandville book, Grandville Noel), and it is even more apparent what Mary Talbot – who is also the author of Language and Gender, Media Discourse: Representation and Interaction and Language and Power in the Modern World – brings to the party. Sally Heathcote Suffragette is, as you probably expect, a deeply feminist work. So if you’re, say, Jeremy Clarkson, this probably isn’t the book for you.
Sally Heathcote is a fictional character (Talbot talks about following in the footsteps of Dickens and Victor Hugo, dropping a fictional character into a real world setting) but the rest of the book is, I am fairly certain from the list of sources at the back, deeply researched and as factual as can be. What we have here is the history of the votes for women movement and what a surprising and shocking history it is. I have to admit that I really did not know much at all about the votes for women movement. I didn’t know about the infighting between different suffragette groups. I didn’t know the extent of the violence (perpetrated by the state on the women, perpetrated by the women on the state). I didn’t realise how long it took. It’s a real eye-opener, I’ll tell you – and it makes you look at the modern protest movements afresh – sometimes, you realise, Government prizes property above long overdue change and sometimes windows have to get broken.
We follow Sally from the present, where she is a resident in a care home, back to the start of her career, where she is a maid, and watch as her political awareness is awakened (imagine if a character from Downton Abbey started espousing the rhetoric of the votes for women movement – that is what it feels like). We also, cleverly, get to see something of the changing alliances within the movement as people move closer together or apart (it’s one of the great tragedies of the world that the Right always seem to be unified in their ugly attempts to make the world a better place for the rich, for frackers, for property developers etc and the Left are always so fragmented and riven with infighting). There are moments in the book (brief moments) when a lack of knowledge of the Suffragette movement might make you feel like you don’t quite know what is going on (this reader certainly felt that way) but Mary Talbot provides a rich and informative set of annotations at the back of the book that really helps (although, it should be said, we are instructed to read the book first and then come back to the annotations later – don’t cheat).
All told, it’s a powerful book, a real eye-opener as I said earlier. The graphic novel equivalent of Steve McQueen’s film, Shame. There is much in here that had me shaking my head, unable to believe that all of this happened barely a hundred years ago. The great attraction of the book is, irrespective of your interest in the journey that women took to get the vote, you will still find much that is compelling, much that is thrilling, much that inflames your ire here (there is a great scene that feels very Bryan Talbot-y where all of the women in the room become mice as the politicians in the room become cats). You will also hopefully reach the end of the book and feel rage when Sally’s niece dismissively says she probably won’t vote anyway. Or maybe you’ll think that at least she is free to choose. Either way, the book is a triumph.
Any Cop?: If you enjoyed Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, it’s highly likely you’ll get a similar kick out of Sally Heathcote Suffragette. This also feels like the kind of book that would make a great movie too.