Interview: Mary Talbot on writing about Suffragette movement ahead of 2014 Edinburgh Book Festival event
Graphic novel Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette explores militant campaign to give women in the vote
This article is from 2014.
Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette is the follow-up to Mary and Bryan Talbot's Costa Award-winning graphic novel The Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. Created in collaboration with Edinburgh-based illustrator Kate Charlesworth, it explores the militant campaign to give women in the vote through the fictional character of Sally Heathcoate, a maid-of-all-work in the estate of Emmeline Pankhurst. Mary Talbot and her co-authors will be discussing the book at the Edinburgh Book Fringe.
What drew you to writing about the Suffragettes?
My interests centre on gender politics, broadly speaking, and when I finished scripting Dotter of her Father’s Eyes I immediately started casting around for another substantial topic. It occurred to me that late Victorian/Edwardian feminism was an area I knew very little about, so I started reading around.
How did writing a fictional story, albeit one set against a real historical backdrop, contrast to the non-fiction of Dotter... ?
In a way, it was easier. I used a fictional character to explore the historical setting so that I could range more freely than if I’d restricted myself to one historical figure and their biography. And of course, there wasn’t an autobiographical element to feel uncomfortable about!
How did the character of Sally emerge? Was she based on any figures you came across in your research?
The Pankhursts did have a maid who’s mentioned occasionally. Sally isn’t closely based on any one person, though. She’s a seamstress, like the Derbyshire suffragette, Hannah Mitchell.
What contemporary relevance do you think the story of Sally and her fellow Suffragettes has?
Political activism, radicalization, direct action – these are highly relevant issues for us today.
How did you divide the work?
I researched and scripted the whole thing panel by panel before Bryan and Kate came on board. Bryan then did detailed page layouts and all the lettering. Basically, he worked out the visual storytelling – he’s amazingly good at it. Then Kate took over to produce the splendid finished artwork.
It looks wonderful – the limited use of colour within a black and white pallet is very striking. What was your thinking behind this approach?
In the initial script, I simply indicated black & white artwork with purple, white and green used to pick out the various WSPU banners etc. Bryan was concerned about the need to distinguish the many, similarly dressed female characters (long skirts, big hats etc). In particular he wanted to make Sally stand out and had the brilliant idea of her signature red hair. Kate immediately decided that Mrs Pankhurst should always wear purple. It just developed from there.
The use of different media, from telegrams and newspaper reports to cinema news reels, is very interesting. What was the thinking behind this?
I wanted to make the period come alive and be recognizably modern. It makes it visually interesting and varied, too. The sources for those newspaper articles were very poor quality – grainy and scratched – as they were mostly taken from old microfilm. Bryan painstakingly reconstructed them.
Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth & Bryan Talbot, Fri 22 Aug, 1pm, Free