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The British Activist Who Was a Spiritual Ancestor to Today’s Teen Radicals

After numerous historical, fictional and cinematic treatments, the story of the suffragist movement is familiar, though always captivating: plucky women smuggling themselves into Westminster in furniture removal vans, chaining themselves to railings and smashing windows. But Sylvia Pankhurst’s work for equal rights extended far beyond votes for women. Her life’s project lay in a fight against fascism, imperialism and racism, insisting, in Holmes’s words, on the value of “principled and powerful collective protest as the only channel available to those systematically excluded from power.”

Holmes, the author of several other books, including a biography of Eleanor Marx, charts Pankhurst’s attempts, following the Russian Revolution of 1917, to transform British socialism and set up a communist party in her own country (a subsequent falling-out with Lenin didn’t stop her from being arrested multiple times on suspicion of working for the Soviet government). Of most lasting significance, personally as well as politically, were her staunch opposition to Mussolini — even when many in Britain were courting his favor — and, especially, her work on behalf of Ethiopian independence. In her 70s, she emigrated to Addis Ababa with her son, Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst, and his wife; when she died there in 1960, she received a full state funeral, and a bustling thoroughfare was renamed Sylvia Pankhurst Street. She dedicated her magisterial cultural history of the country to Haile Selassie, her close ally; he assured her that her “unceasing efforts and support in the just cause of Ethiopia will never be forgotten.”

At more than 900 pages, Holmes’s book is packed with detail, but marred by so much repetition that the reader is left with the impression of a vast amount of material not fully marshaled into narrative form. At times, her paragraphs feel like notes hastily compiled and not fully digested; moments of high drama are interrupted by digressions that leave the reader grasping to fillet meaning from a barrage of information. Holmes’s writing is prone to sweeping overstatement — “in sum, Richard Pankhurst was the living incarnation of every pioneering, radical Victorian cause”; his daughter is “possessed of almost magical reserves of optimism, hope and the physical and emotional energy required to support them” — and replete with clichés: Talents are “rare,” storms “threaten to break,” speeches are “barnstorming” and activists’ souls are “made of such stern stuff.” The word “radical” is so overused as to lose all meaning, applied to everything from the views of W. E. B. Du Bois to an English folk ballad, from Mancunian socialism to a vegetarian restaurant.

Despite its length, Holmes’s book tends to skate over opportunities for psychological insight into its subject, in particular her personal relationships. Potentially seismic quarrels tend to be reported then resolved in the space of a few lines, with little attention paid to the erosions and ambivalences that shape dynamics over a lifetime of shared experience. We’re tantalized by the promise of “an intense period of explicit love letters” exchanged in 1911 between Sylvia and Keir Hardie, the first leader of the Labour Party, but when these are eventually quoted, what Holmes promoted as “sexually explicit longing, separation anxieties and profound reflection on the nature and quality of their bond” turns out to consist mostly of opaque dreams and avowals of socialism as “the cure for all ills.” Holmes assures us that theirs was “a fully fledged love affair, passionate, ecstatic and tormented,” but doesn’t really interrogate the effects on Sylvia’s self-esteem of a relationship with a man 26 years her senior who seems never to have considered leaving his wife. We learn even less about her “soul mate,” Silvio Corio, an exiled Italian anarchist with whom she had her son, beyond the fact that “their commonality was the desire to try and make the world a better place.”

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