Review: SALLY HEATHCOTE: SUFFRAGETTE by Mary M. Talbot

A graphic novel about the suffragette movement seemed like the perfect recipe for me. I love graphic novels and I love gender studies. So why did I only give it two stars on Goodreads?

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette follows Sally who becomes involved with the Suffragette movement and meets some of the big personalities and participating in important milestones in the history of the movement. We also see her own private struggles, such as being harassed by people working at the same houses as her. All this is framed by an older Sally lying in a bed with oxygen tubes, dreaming about her past.

I really expected to like this book because I am very interested in feminist issues, graphic novels are one of my favourite mediums and as an artist I appreciate a lot of art. But unfortunately I was really disappointed by it. The art was probably the best thing about it, and even that was on the safer side, considering that a visual medium gives you an opportunity to “break the rules”. One might argue that since it tackles a real life movement and episode in British history, it should be done realistically, but seeing that Sally Heathcote is not a real person and that it all takes place inside her head as a dream, there was an opportunity to take advantage of this. Besides, lots of graphic novels cover real life events and are biographical and not all of them are done “realistically”.

I could have forgiven that, though, because it is still well-crafted. But seeing that it accompanies a rather lackluster story, it feels like it is a bit detached from the whole thing. Normally, I have to fight myself to not finish graphic novels in one sitting because I am a sucker for visual story, but here, I put it down after reading it on the bus to university one day and did not pick it up again until a couple of days later. I was not extra busy then, I just did not feel the urge to return. I did not connect with the character, the story seemed messy, not making a proper coherency or common thread to link it all together. It does try with the whole older version of her having dreams about it, but it ends up feeling more like a flashback than a dream because it does not take any chances with artistic expression and because we only see the sleeping Sally a couple of times so it just feels out of place.

By far the biggest problem for me, though, was the ending. It ends very abruptly during WWI when Sally’s fiance goes off to fight in the war, and we return to the older Sally, now joined by her adult daughter and her 18-year old granddaughter. While they talk, the book ends. I am aware that the Suffragettes succeeded in getting women’s right to vote shortly after WWI, but I would have liked to see the aftermath. Only women over 30 who was eligible to own property were allowed to vote from 1918, it took a decade to include everyone between 21 and 30 as well, why was it not important to deal with this issue? And since the book had tried to also make it Sally Heathcote’s personal story, why could it not have showed her dealing with her fiance’s death in the war, rather than having her daughter expose it to the granddaughter while Sally herself was still asleep? It comes across as the author thinking that the important part was now out of the way so the rest of her life was not important enough to show.

I wanted to like it, but in the end, the book is a sum of its parts and that sum just comes across as a much too little effort to work on this subject and it is a pity. Honestly, it is ok. Just ok. And with so many graphic novels depicting real historical events in creative ways, “ok” just did not cut it for me, even when dealing with the topic of women’s rights.

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