Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Sally Heathcote,Suffragette by Mary M. Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot

There are two things this graphic novel will not tell you easily. First, that it's entirely a work of fiction -- "Sally Heathcote" is not a real person. (That is buried in the backmatter, and easy to miss, since she interacts closely with so many real people, many of whom know her well in this book.) Second is the question of what exactly the three co-authors each did on this book. 

Sally Heathcote, Suffragette is worthy and historical and true in the right ways and politically committed and powerful in its advocacy. It's also a bit dull and schoolbook-ish, a parade of dates and names from a century ago with only a thin thread of narrative to connect them and a lot of half-explained internecine politics that were hugely important to the suffragette movement at the time but are of mostly scholarly interest now.

It's brought to us by Mary M. Talbot (a scholar and academic with expertise in gender study), Kate Charlesworth (a cartoonist and illustrator who I don't think has previously done a graphic novel-length story), and Bryan Talbot (Mary's husband and a comics- and graphic-novel-maker of many years' standing). As far as I can see, the only clear thing is that Mary Talbot didn't draw any of the pages.

(I've just done some Googling, and found from an interview that Mary Talbot wrote it as a full script, Bryan Talbot laid it out and did some light editing and adapting, and Charlesworth drew the final art. There's no reason the book couldn't actually tell us that.)

Finally, on to the actual story. Sally is a working-class girl from Manchester, in service in the home of Mrs. Pankhurst, who is then and will continue to be a major force in the suffragette movement. Sally is smart and motivated -- and, not less important, rightfully angry about the oppression of women and the lower classes at the time -- so she educates herself and joins the cause, before long moving to London. (We lose track of what she actually does for a living, which is slightly unfortunate -- hers is a class story as much as a women's story, and her class, unlike the Pankhursts and their ilk, always have to work for their bread.)

There's a lot of dates and marches and meetings with Parliamentary representatives and raucous speeches, covering primarily the years from 1896 to the beginning of the Great War in 1914. It pointedly does not end with (some) women getting the vote in 1918, and doesn't dramatize that moment at all. In fact, the ending fizzles more than pops -- this is a long, ongoing struggle, so there's no one moment of victory, but Mary Talbot doesn't seem to even want to show a minor victory. There is a very sparse frame story of Sally at the end of her life, but it doesn't put the rest of the story into any perspective -- it seems to exist just to show when she died. and use that later time as a  contrast to Sally's activist years.

Frankly, this seems aimed at young women who don't realize that their sex didn't always have the vote, with the hope that they'll dig into the history and learn more about how the franchise expanded from lords to rich men and on to nearly everyone in modern Britain. As such, it does reasonably well. As an actual story with a shape and structure -- including a beginning and an ending -- it's much more problematic; it lacks most of that. It starts in the middle of an unexplained inter-suffragette power struggle, drops back in time to pick up Sally's earlier days, never explains that initial conflict, and meanders forward from there before stopping at the outbreak of war for no clearly apparent reason and jumping to Sally's death in the hopes that will look like an ending. (It does look like one, yes.)

I expect Sally Heathcote, Suffragette to be adopted a lot, passed around quite a bit, and read randomly for pleasure not at all. That's absolutely fine, but potential readers -- particularly those who enjoyed the Talbots' more conventional historical book Dotter of Her Father's Eyes -- should take note that this does not provide a similar experience.

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