The Pankhurst family

2008-04-23 00:00

A NEW novel from Michiel Heyns is a cause for celebration. Author of The Children’s Day, The Reluctant Passenger and The Typewriter’s Tale, he has, as he did in the last of those, turned his attention to historical figures for his subject matter. Then it was Henry James; now it is the Pankhursts and their circle.

It is perhaps a curious choice — Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were admirable rather than likeable, and Helen Craggs, later Pethick Lawrence, is a shadowy figure, prominent in the suffrage movement almost 100 years ago, but largely forgotten now. However, Heyns has made the central figures in his novel Emmeline, her second daughter Sylvia and Helen, who each narrate a section.

The central event is not the struggle for votes, or the civil disobediences, imprisonments and hunger strikes. It is the life and death of Harry Pankhurst, the youngest Pankhurst child, disregarded by his mother, adored by his sister Sylvia and who fancied himself in love with Helen. The narrators deal at length with him and his relations with each of them. And then there is Christabel Pankhurst, her mother’s favourite and here a peripheral villain, always a presence in the narratives.

The Pankhurst clan, in Heyns’s version anyway, take being a dysfunctional family to a new level. Emmeline is described as someone who “took up arms first and then found an enemy”. Votes for women was her first cause; that won, she actively supported conscription in World War 1, then took up the prevention of veneral disease, all the while moving further and further to the political right. Christabel, in later life, proselytised for the imminent second coming, while Sylvia worked for Ethiopian independence. The similarities between mother and daughters are plain to see — all needed a cause. Poor old Harry became one of Sylvia’s.

The Pankhurst family nature causes Heyns something of a problem. With the exception of Helen, Harry and one or two minor characters, his dramatis personae are deeply unlikeable. Sylvia does have her good side, but all three Pankhursts are so indigestibly humourless that it is hard for the reader to feel much other than irritation. I found myself wondering if their sheer nastiness, as portrayed by Heyns, does too much to diminish their undoubted achievements, but they probably deserve it.

Trouble is, it also has an effect on Heyns’s usually endearing humanity as a writer, which made his novel on Henry James such a gem. He could poke gentle fun at The Master, but still pay him homage. It is hard to do this with characters who, in the flesh, would make most readers run for cover. Nonetheless, Bodies Politic is a fine novel — just a pity about the Pankhursts.

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