Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is an admirable attempt to make what is already a pretty interesting social and historical movement even more interesting and accessible to a wider audience by choosing to frame it by narrating the life of fictional suffragette Sally Heathcote as she moves from orphanage to service in Mrs Pankhurst’s household to being swept up in the militant WSPU organisation.
I think this book does a decent job of trying to translate historical fact into a narrative fiction, with the invented, gutsy Sally interacting with infamous figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison. In doing so, the narrative covers exciting militant activity (rallies, bombings, vandalism, protests) without losing some of the detail of the more horrific historical realities of the backlash such action faced. For example, it debates the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act which tried to legislatively tackle the problem of the hunger strikes that many suffragettes undertook whilst imprisoned. It makes no bones about featuring the forced feeding of prisoners via tubes with a series of images which disgusted me – and rightfully so!
For all of this endeavour’s merits, I do still wonder if the graphic novel format was the best for the job, in the end. True enough, it attempts to make history more accessible by framing it through an engaging narrative of love and loyalty, as opposed to presenting a series of facts on the WSPU- for this I (myself not a fan of history as it is largely taught in school) am grateful and I therefore enjoyed the concept of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette immensely. Whilst the art style wasn’t necessarily my personal preference, I did see the merit of it as the story unfolded, as newspapers and pamphlet graphics then blended in quite seamlessly to the art within the panels themselves. My main critique of this novel lies in the sheer amount of text necessary to tell the story. Even despite its graphic novel form, I was not expecting an entirely minimalist style with little to no words – I think it would be near impossible to do so in this instance – but it was extremely text heavy considering it was intended also as an artistic endeavour. Even so, despite this saturation of text, I sometimes felt as though I was missing something – that I didn’t quite get a reference or understand the complete historical importance of certain fleeting characters or events portrayed.
As a stepping stone, this graphic novel should and probably would encourage its readers to become more interested in the movement for suffrage and so investigate further sources and resources. In that noble endeavour, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette certainly succeeds even if, as a graphic novel product, it may have faltered at times.