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.

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.

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