Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

  • By Rachel Holmes
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 976 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
  • February 1, 2021

This lengthy account of a trailblazing suffragist buries its subject until details about the era in which she lived.

Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel

Sylvia Pankhurst is not a name we know in my lefty enclave of Montgomery County, Maryland, but she’d be easily recognizable here. A suffragist, activist, and socialist born in the late-Victorian era, Pankhurst occupied the intersectional space between feminism, social justice, labor rights, and decolonization in early 20th-century British politics, presaging the radical politics lefties love and are often derided for.

Pankhurst brought together lineage, talent, and determination to craft a political life that biographer Rachel Holmes, without saying as much in Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, depicts as clearing the path for the likes of Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and Black Lives Matter.

The Pankhursts were the first family of British suffragism. Sylvia’s mother, Emmeline Pankhurst, was England’s best-known suffragette. Indeed, the term “suffragette” was invented in 1906 by the London Daily Mail to ridicule the members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organization Emmeline founded and led.

Sylvia’s father, Richard Pankhurst, was also a radical and one of the original signatories, in 1880, demanding the right to vote for women. His early death in 1898, when Sylvia was 16 and in charge of the household (Emmeline and older sister Christabel were away in Europe), left her deeply disaffected, though she continued in the family business for many years, helping her mother and Christabel in their political-reform work.

The Pankhurst siblings had little formal education. Their parents held that rigid schooling would do more harm than a childhood of free-thinking and lived experience. Most of Sylvia’s official training was in art, in which she had precocious talent and won scholarships all the way to the Royal College of Art in London. Her first major commission was to decorate Pankhurst Hall, a labor meetinghouse in Manchester named after her father.

Later, as she became more involved in politics and had to make a living, she would move away from drawing and painting to writing, for which it seemed more people were willing to pay. She wrote prolifically — books, pamphlets, articles — and edited a newspaper, transferring her skills into performative action, capturing the public imagination, and driving the powerful mad.

As a suffragette, she was repeatedly sent to prison, where she used the hunger strike as a weapon against her captors. Later, she would write movingly about both the act of hunger striking and the violence of being force-fed by her jailers. Her incarcerations were brutal; once, she was sentenced to two months of hard labor for causing £3’s worth of broken glass. All told, she went to prison 13 times.

Sylvia was present at the birth of the Labour Party, which arose from the twin social movements of workers’ and women’s rights. Her parents were materialist Marxists, and she was personally inspired by Eleanor Marx, granddaughter of Karl. Sylvia saw and heard firsthand about the disappointment of suffragists with the Liberal Party, the primary opposition to the Conservatives at that time.

She was also there when the suffragists themselves broke up over the issue of prerequisite property ownership and other matters. And she was front and center when Labour Party leaders excluded women from their agenda. The one dissenter in the latter issue was Keir Hardie, the charismatic founder of the Labour Party and a Pankhurst family friend.

While in art school in London, Sylvia embarked on a long, intense affair with the older, married Hardie which lasted until his death. Later, she lived for 30 years with Italian anarchist Silvio Corio, believed to be the father of her only child. Sylvia’s unconventional personal choices eventually led to a break from her family.

Her activism was as fiery as it was sometimes contradictory. She opposed the British war effort in 1914 but was at the forefront of the fight against Hitler and fascism. She supported the Bolshevik Revolution but broke with the Soviet Union. She also fought for independence for the British colonies and remained a thorn in the side of the ruling elite that could not muzzle her. In her later years, Sylvia emigrated to Ethiopia with her son. She died there in 1960.

In the tradition of Robert Caro, Holmes’ account of Sylvia’s remarkable life sprawls over 900 pages. At one time, the marathon biography was reserved for chronicling empires, as in Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But Caro’s epic, three-volume treatment of Lyndon Johnson set off the modern age of authenticity, in which the minutest details of a subject’s life are considered illuminating and, therefore, necessary for inclusion.

Holmes’ lengthy accounts of the Pankhurst homes; the servants (often relatives in disguise); the food they ate; the new-age business Emmeline ran into the ground; the endless family feuds; and the later aspects of Sylvia’s public life feel positively Carovian. Unable to separate the person from the period, the author has written less a biography of one woman than a comprehensive account of the time in which that woman lived.

Holmes does offer fascinating specifics about Victorian lifestyle habits and the patriarchal system that, by turns, indulged and thwarted women’s progress. She also ably relates the Pankhursts’ downward slide into the working class (whose cause they’d long championed) and the death of two of Sylvia’s brothers in an age before the widespread use of antibiotics.

But Sylvia presents a biographer’s dilemma: Here is a trailblazer whose voluminous writings and bold actions should assure her place in history, but she has faded into obscurity. Yet to revive her prominence and put her achievements in proper context, the author must capture the era in which her subject lived. In portraying that era in the same exhaustive detail as she does her subject, however, Holmes has created an unfocused doorstop of a book that may intimidate casual readers.

It’s a shame because Pankhurst is a worthy subject — a bold, counterculture Brit who advocated for real social change. A slimmer, more targeted volume might have better achieved the author’s presumed goal: to make Sylvia Pankhurst once again widely known.

Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.

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