It's the hats. In century-old photos of women's suffrage activists, there's something just plain dowdy about the headgear. Teetering atop laboriously pinned-up hair, groaning under the weight of improbable foliage, the hats can't help but make suffragists seem irredeemably stodgy to modern eyes.
Of course, "stodgy" was just about the last word associated with them at the time, especially in Britain. Raucous public meetings, acts of vandalism and at least one suicide — to say nothing of the infamous jailhouse force-feedings — made the suffragettes, as they were called, notorious throughout the land.
Writer Mary M. Talbot and artists Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot clearly hope to reignite that notoriety with Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, a rousing and historically accurate graphic novel. (It boasts not just footnotes, but scholarly references as well.) They largely succeed. By depicting suffragettes' most death-defying escapades in comic form, they manage to breathe new life into the story. They overcome the bad-hat jinx.
At the time, of course, massive hats were standard among upper-class women, so activists' ostentatious toppers served to identify them and their cause with the highest classes of society. But not all women who worked for the vote could afford queenly headgear. Some were mill workers, mine workers and seamstresses, a fact that Mary Talbot, the book's writer, is eager to highlight.
The fictional Sally Heathcote begins her activist career as a simple housemaid to Emmeline Pankhurst, the real-life founder of the Women's Social and Political Union (colors: purple and green). Mary Talbot has placed her protagonist in a particularly fecund milieu, for Pankhurst and her daughters were Britain's leading women's suffrage activists at the turn of the 20th century. By listening in on their meetings, Sally — whose own hat, like her economic status, is modest — is swept up in the boisterous movement.
At first Sally just cheers at rallies and embroiders purple-and-green campaign buttons. Attending a public meeting was more dangerous than it might sound, though, with ruffians ready to manhandle the women in the crowd. In one episode, some men even seize a woman and toss her in the air. The real danger of such a prank is evident in Charlesworth's illustration: The terrified victim is first hemmed in by a circle of clawing hands, then sent aloft as she screams. (She's rescued by another suffragette, who punches one of the brutes in the jaw and pops two more with her trusty umbrella.)
When one rally descends into a melee — its chaos deftly conveyed through Bryan Talbot's clever panel work — Sally is arrested. She goes on a hunger strike and is ultimately subjected to force-feeding: She's shackled to a chair, fitted with a special gag and has a tube pushed down her throat.
Such episodes are perfectly suited to the comics form. If Mary Talbot were writing about American suffragists, she wouldn't have gotten to sketch nearly as much life-endangering vandalism. In Britain such extremism kept the public transfixed, and Sally's experience in prison changes everything for her. It's her stint behind bars that "makes" her in the movement, entitling her to march in a special section in the parades and facilitating her entrance into a secretive cabal known as the Young Hot Bloods. With the YHB she begins smashing windows and even, in one stirring passage, helps plant a bomb at then-Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George's (empty) country house.
The Lloyd George explosion, depicted as a spatter of white against orange and black, is one example of the thoughtful use of color throughout the book. The basic black-and-white scheme is alleviated by flashes of color around important characters and events: Sally, for example, has red hair. At one parade, a woman holds a bouquet of orange, yellow and red flowers — until she pulls out an axe and hacks wildly at a wooden barrier, screaming, "Votes for women!" A suffragette board game gets some color, too, as do the cabbages flung by hecklers at a rally. The WSPU's banners, of course, are always purple and green.
It's details like this that make Sally Heathcote, Suffragette such a success. Every story point, every illustrative strategy betrays exceptional thought and care. (Remember: footnotes.) Sure, the basic material is sensational, but the authors truly make the most of it. Say goodbye, bad-hat jinx.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.She's on Twitter:@EtelkaL.