Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel, by Rachel Holmes

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

I recently watched the Ethiopia episode of Afua Hirsch’s excellent series African Renaissance, in which I was startled to see an interview with Sylvia Pankhurst’s daughter-in-law, Rita Pankhurst. With her son, she was sitting in the garden of a house which looked like it could have been in any prosperous home counties town. But this quintessentially English scene was in fact being played in Addis Adaba, where the remaining Pankhursts still live, following Sylvia’s arrival there in 1955.  It illuminated an aspect of Sylvia Pankhurst’s life that demonstrated her global vision and her ability to transcend the boundaries of race as well as sex, and showed that she was far more than the doughty campaigner for women’s suffrage in the early years of the century. In fact, it is arguable that her early advocacy for women’s rights was only a preamble to a life dedicated to fighting for human rights all over the world.

This new biography by Rachel Homes, subtitled “Natural Born Rebel”, will certainly be the definitive book on its subject for many years to come. It is a mighty work, of close on a thousand pages, comprehensive in its coverage, and meticulous in its research. In graceful yet vivid prose, Holmes describes a life lived to the full, packed with incident, which ranged geographically from the cramped quarters of a small house in Victorian Manchester to America, the Soviet Union, India, Africa, and all over Europe. In the course of her wanderings, Sylvia Pankhurst engaged with many of the towering political figures of her day, from Churchill to Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Haile Selassie. She was one of the twentieth century’s great internationalists, and this biography explores that perhaps less well-known aspect of her life very thoroughly as well as giving appropriate attention to the formative years as a member of the radical Manchester family into which she was born in 1882.

It’s the sheer variety of Pankhurst’s life – or perhaps lives – that animates this biography. By turns suffragette, pacifist, anti-fascist campaigner, and finally recipient of the splendidly-named Queen of Sheba award for her service to Ethiopia, she was an energetic and engaged activist, passionately pursuing her beliefs wherever they took her. Holmes rightly compares the young Sylvia to present-day figures such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai. The impact that Sylvia, along with her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel had on the political landscape of the time cannot be overstated. But whereas the other Pankhursts will remain indelibly associated only with the Women’s Social and Political Union, Sylvia’s legacy goes far beyond the suffrage movement, and it is in the account of her later years that the Holmes biography is most enlightening. Using previously undiscovered letters and private correspondence, Holmes details the vicissitudes of a complex and exuberant life. The picture that emerges is of a formidable, determined woman, who defied both the social conventions of her times and the constraints of her family to live according to her own rules, and whose efforts improved the lot of countless people across the globe.

The narrative of Pankhurst’s life that unfolds in this really very gripping account is one of constant change. As the author puts it, “ In her perpetual quest for alternative ways of being and living, she tried to imagine a better future for feminism and its children,” and that sense of a continual struggle for the improvement of her own and others’ lives is what drives the narrative. Beyond the rupture with her family over the younger Pankhurts’ increasingly militant tactics in the suffrage struggle, Sylvia developed as a pacifist in the First World War (in contrast to her mother and sister, enthusiastic recruiters both) and later embraced communism. Her relationship with the Italian anarchist Silvio Corio lasted over thirty years, and led indirectly to her interest in Ethiopia, following Mussolini’s  invasion of the then Abyssinia.  Along the way, she produced books, journalism, plays and poetry on many topics.

Sylvia Pankhurst’s extraordinary life is very well-served by this exemplary biography. In the short space available here, it is not possible to convey the range and  depth of the book, but virtually every page contains some revelation or interesting snippet of information, so that the reader may well find, as I did, that the act of reading takes longer than expected, as one follows up allusions and references: from articles in The Workers’ Dreadnought to her book on the idea of an international language; from speeches at Hyde Park Corner to correspondence with Lenin; from her involvement in the Easter Rising to her crucial role in establishing Ethiopian independence.

Rachel Holmes has produced a brilliant and exhaustive account of this fiercely committed life. It ends with a touching vignette on the streets of Addis Ababa with Pankhurst’s grandson, who takes the author to the Sylvia Pankhurst Café on Sylvia Pankhurst Street, where a crowd gathers with their affectionate memories of a woman who remains an exalted figure in their culture. This book is a worthy memorial to her.

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Rachel Holmes, Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel  (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1408880418, 976 pp., hardback.

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