Sally Heathcote: Suffragette
Mary Talbot (writer), Kate Charlesworth (artist), Bryan Talbot (I assume co-writer to some degree, though it appears to be predominantly Mary’s work).
Sally Heathcote is a (fictional) working-class girl from the Edwardian era who finds herself involved with all the main suffragette figures and actions of the time. Through her story we get to see the story and the personalities of the suffragette movement from the inside. We don’t learn a lot about Sally herself – her own feelings and motivations are a blank slate, she’s just the point-of-view character who tells the story.
And that’s one of the key points about the book: it’s not a story as such. It’s more like one of those dramatized history programmes you get on the telly. There isn’t a linear narrative of Sally’s (or anybody’s) life, rather it portrays the history of the suffragette movement in a series of isolated dramatic scenes. So if you’re going in expecting a graphic “novel” you’re going to be disappointed I suspect. I think that in a way I was disappointed myself because it wasn’t a proper “story”, but as I reflect more and realise what it actually is that I’ve just read, I realise I’m not disappointed at all – quite the opposite.
Because if you’re interested in the historical detail of the subject, you need to read this. (And if you’re not interested, you will be after you read this and have your eyes opened.) Because it does a fantastic job of telling the history in a detailed but accessible way. All I knew of the suffragettes I learned at school, and that knowledge was very broad and superficial. This book delves into the personalities and actions, humanising the people (they weren’t all saints, and there was plenty of in-fighting and back-biting within the organisation) and putting the actions into a historical context, and it taught me a huge amount.
There are moments when the story of the character does take over, but even these serve to add to the historical background (for example, the details of Sally struggling to make ends meet as a working-class girl in London).
The art by Kate Charlesworth is beautiful and educates you all by itself in its wealth of period detail. You can spend ages looking at the background detail of isolated panels. Considering that it’s a small-format page (roughly 6 by 9 inches) and uses a 9-panel grid for most of the book, that’s very impressive. And the whole thing is coloured with a subdued, almost sepia, pallet, with just odd splashes of bold colour to make a point. And as is typical in a Talbot book, the panel layout itself adds to the job of storytelling – though interestingly Bryan attributes that to Mary this time rather than himself. Physically the book is beautiful too, a hardcover with thick paper stock, and with copious end notes to give more background to the events on the page.
Look, this is just really good. Go and buy it, ok?