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Suffragette story told in new graphic novel from prize-winning Sunderland couple

Their first venture together landed a major literary prize. David Whetstone talks to Bryan and Mary Talbot about their follow-up project, launched in May


Bryan and Dr Mary Talbot had been married for years and each had become highly successful in their fields, he the award-winning graphic novelist and she the respected academic.

Then they teamed up and, to pinch a graphic novel sterotype: Wham! Their first book together won the coveted Costa Book Award in the biography category in 2012.

The book, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, with words by Mary and drawings by Bryan, wove together two father/daughter relationships, that of the writer James Joyce and his daughter Lucia and that of Mary and her own father, James S Atherton, an eminent Joycean scholar.

“A strikingly original graphic memoir which links two lives in a highly imaginative way,” raved the judges. “A gem of a book.”

But what then? Mary, who had retired from her lecturing post at Sunderland University, recalls: “I was looking for another project after finishing Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes back in the summer of 2010.

“I wanted something that I could really get absorbed in over a long period of time and that I wouldn’t get bored with.”

What she came up with will soon be clear to all. The Talbots’ second collaborative title, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, was to be launched at the British Library in London on May 2.

“Once I started reading up on the Suffragette movement I was completely hooked,” says Mary.

“I knew this would keep me fully occupied for the next few years.”

We are talking in the couple’s big 1850s terraced house in the heart of Sunderland. The couple, though both born in Wigan, came to the city when Mary became reader in language and culture at the university in 1997.

Ten years later Bryan released Alice in Sunderland, a handsome graphic book documenting the connections between his adopted city, Lewis Carroll and the author’s famous stories inspired by young Alice Liddell.

With her academic interest in language, gender and power, you would imagine the suffragettes were a natural topic for Mary Talbot but she says that, while she had heard of Mrs Pankhurst (Emmeline Pankurst, one of the most prominent campaigners for women’s suffrage), there was much that she didn’t know.

“I knew next to nothing about it,” chips in Bryan candidly.

The new book, spanning the years 1908-14, is a beautiful thing. It is actually the result of a three-way partnership which is why there’s a third name on the cover, that of Kate Charlesworth, an Edinburgh-based illustrator, cartoonist and writer.

Bryan, who says he works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, had just started on the next novel in his Grandville series, set in a world populated by animals as people and with a badger detective inspector called Archie LeBrock. He, then, was pretty tied up.

But an arrangement was arrived at whereby he would sketch out the pages and then forward them to trusted friend Kate who would complete the drawing. Later Bryan shows me his outline drafts to compare with Kate’s additions and it’s clear she was extremely faithful to his directions.

Meanwhile Mary was digging into the women’s suffrage movement, turning to the Women’s Library in London and to local studies centres in Sunderland and Newcastle, and finding out all sorts of fascinating facts.

“Suffragettes were way ahead of their time because they had a huge range of merchandise, tea sets, games, enamel badges and even retail outlets,” she says. “Mrs Pankurst used to do haberdashery.”

She discovered there was a suffragette board game called Pankosquith, mischievously blending the Pankhurst name with that of the Prime Minister of the day, Herbert Asquith.

Mary invented a fictional protagonist, Sally Heathcote, rescued from the workhouse by Mrs Pankhurst to work in her Manchester home as a ‘maid-of-all-trades’.

Through her eyes we observe all the significant moments of the campaign, including the death of North East suffragette Emily Wilding Davison at the Derby in 1913 and the various clashes with authority – one of them in Newcastle when Lloyd George, as Chancellor, came to present his ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909 and was heckled by campaigning women.

The beauty of the graphic novel format is that Bryan, working from contemporary material, can recreate these incidents in truly authentic style.

There are newspaper headlines and billboards from the time, faithfully recreated, and even the famous Pathé footage of Davison’s death, which Mary and Bryan believe she did not intend to happen.

Bryan shows how he squeezed the panels tighter on each page in the prison sequences to give the impression of bars. It was also his idea, having been given Mary’s dialogue and script to work with, to make Sally a redhead so she always stands out against the period monochrome.

“I was amazed, actually, that there was so much of it,” says Mary of the suffragette campaigning.

“It was widespread, across every social class. It wasn’t just a middle or upper class thing. It was more complicated for working class women to get involved because they could lose their livelihood.”

Many of the suffragettes, if they went on hunger strike, were force-fed, although equal treatment wasn’t meted out to all.

Mary says the well connected suffragette Lady Constance Lytton was arrested but not force fed, so she got herself arrested again dressed in working class clothes and subsequently underwent the pain and indignity of a tube being thrust down her throat.

What the suffragettes actually achieved, since their wishes were not granted until after the First World War, is still open to debate. But there’s no doubting the women’s courage or, from a modern perspective, the right that was on their side. Mary Talbot promises “a poignant ending”.

The May 2 event in London will also see the launch of a new DVD about Bryan’s work, called Graphic Novel Man. Meanwhile an exhibition in the city will also feature artwork from the new book and artefacts from the BBC TV drama series about the suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder, which was shown 40 years ago with Sian Phillips as Mrs Pankhurst.

Bryan, Mary and Kate will be at Waterstone’s in The Bridges, Sunderland, at 6pm on May 9 to talk about and sign copies of Sally Heathcote: Sufffragette (tickets £3, redeemable against the price of the book which is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99).

Find more details on www.bryan-talbot.com and www.mary-talbot.co.uk


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer