Home Art & Culture ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel,’ by Rachel Holmes: An Excerpt

‘Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel,’ by Rachel Holmes: An Excerpt

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Sylvia knew intimately the price to be paid for taking sides.

Her sustained and reluctant militance was motivated by rational pragmatism, not impulsive passion. In matters that were beyond even the best attempts at resolution by democratic consensus, such as achieving equality for women and fighting the ascendant forces of fascism, there was as Orwell put it, ‘no strong reason for thinking that any really fundamental change can ever be achieved peacefully.’

Sylvia’s life offers a voyage through the question of what makes a partisan and with what consequences. Asked how she would like to be remembered, she answered, ‘As a citizen of the world.’ This passport required the constant taking of sides, active reassessment after experience and the guts to stand out against dominant opinion. Sylvia held consistent values: and she constantly changed and evolved in order to protect and maintain them. It was not intransigence but continuous adjustment that enabled her to hold a steady course. As any mathematician of rocket propulsion knows, the only way to reach a goal is through constant and continuous course correction.

All civil wars begin in the family. Personal political tragedy sits at the centre of Sylvia’s story.

Privately argued differences between Sylvia, Christabel and their mother developed into public battles. Then full-scale sex and class war broke out between them. Her mother sided with her elder sister and, more than once, expressed her regret that Sylvia continued to carry the family name. When Mrs. Pankhurst heard in 1916 that her anti-war socialist daughter had organized a peace demonstration in Trafalgar Square, she sent Christabel a telegram, “Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia’s foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public.”

The greatest tragedy was not, however, the largely inevitable ideological fault line that broke the family’s political unity. In 1928 the forty-five year-old Sylvia gave birth to her first and only child Richard. From the beginning of their relationship, Emmeline had disapproved of Richard’s father Silvio Corio, a brilliant Italian anarchist exiled to London who became Sylvia’s life partner of thirty years and whom as she told the News of the World, ‘she was very much in love with’. ‘My parents,’ Richard explained, were old-style libertarian socialists … Following the practice of many who shared their political and philosophical point of view … they never married.’ Emmeline found this unacceptable. When she heard that Sylvia was pregnant by Corio with no intention of marrying him, she refused to speak to her ever again.

Born in the Victorian age, Sylvia lived until the advent of the Swinging Sixties. Her life could be used as the definition of indefatigable. In her seventies, she became a European migrant to Africa, emigrating with her son and her Persian cat to Addis Ababa, where eventually she was to be buried in a full state funeral in an Ethiopian Patriot’s grave on the instructions of her friend the Emperor Haile Selassie. The seven ages of Sylvia, beginning in Victorian Britain and ending in the modern transnational African Renaissance in Ethiopia, are an odyssey through the key events and epochs of twentieth-century history. Sylvia’s epic journey was undertaken through the diverse idioms of modern struggle in all its grand successes and dismal failures. A scholarship student at the prestigious Royal College of Art, she was also a prolific writer, of political and economic journalism, fiction, poetry and plays. She was the author of a library of books and a phenomenally effective newspaper editor for half a century. She wrote about the need for public maternal health care in Britain and designed a blueprint for a national health service; about anti-Semitism in Britain and Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws in Germany; about apartheid in South Africa; about the capitalist oil wars in the Middle East and about the Israel-Palestine conflict, which she believed might determine the political future of humanity.

Adolescent feminist militant, student extremist, hunger striker, street fighter, sometime communist, anti-fascist, champion of the Bolsheviks and African liberation movements, opponent of all forms of racism and an Ethiopian patriot, her life spans decades of the word at war. From the reform of trade unionism and anti-colonial movements; from fighting fascism to the social transformations and new artistic practices they brought about, Sylvia was a shaper of the modern world. Pick any year and you will find Sylvia at the heart of the fray, writing it all up inexhaustibly as she goes.

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