21 MARCH 1987, Page 31

Eccentric and inconvenient

Victoria Glendinning

E. SYLVIA PANKHURST: PORTRAIT OF A RADICAL by Patricia W. Romero Yale, £17.50 At the name of Pankhurst every knee shall bow. Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters put their reputations and even their lives oir the line in their cam- paining for women's suffrage. They were odd women and Sylvia, the second daugh- ter, was the oddest of the lot. The problem for biographer Patricia W. Romero, as for her readers, is deciding just how seriously to take her.

Sylvia took herself extremely seriously. A born radical, she always embraced 'the most thorough and extreme version' of the numerous causes she took up. She was `self-centred, opinionated, immature, obsessive, highly strung' and invariably fell out with her fellow campaigners and col- leagues. It may disconcert feminists to learn that a famous figure in the early women's movement was so frankly tire- some, but it should not surprise them any more than it will surprise male chauvinists. Rebels and pioneers are by definition eccentric and inconvenient persons.

`The history of the women's suffrage movement has been interpreted by many', writes Romero, bracing herself to run over the course for our benefit yet again. Her contribution to our understanding of the WSPU and all that is an analysis of the internal dynamics of the Pankhurst family. Sylvia's activism was often in opposition to that of her mother and her sister Christ- abel. (A third sister, Adela, sensibly emi- grated to Australia.) Sylvia was jealous of pretty Christabel, the favoured eldest daughter; some of her more extreme courses of action were desperate bids to win her mother's attention and approval or, when that failed, to express her de- fiance.

Both Christabel and Sylvia were brilliant self-publicists. Christabel took her suffrage campaign into bourgeois drawing-rooms, hated sexuality, and would not even appear on a platform with a man. Young Sylvia was a talented artist and a Bohe- mian; she had an enjoyable affair with the ageing Labour leader Keir Hardie — as Romero puts it, she 'inflamed his passions' — and was soon as involved in industrial disputes as in votes for women.

Financed by a loyal female friend with a chequebook, Sylvia established herself in London's East End, where she edited a magazine and organised working women into running their own factories, shops, and cheap restaurants. She took over a pub as a child-care centre and renamed it 'The Mother's Arms'. Even when she was near death after hunger-striking in Holloway for women's suffrage, she had the show- manship to have herself laid, on her release, on the steps of the House of Commons — and yet she could forget that cause overnight, switching her attention to her Poplar mothers, or to the anti-war movement, or the Russian Revolution: she was an organiser of the first Communist Party in Great Britain.

Her communist period was characterised by 'hysterical rhetoric', in her biographer's view. She optimistically urged crowds in Trafalgar Square to 'seize the Govern- ment' and establish their own soviets. Lenin apparently had Sylvia Pankhurst in mind when he wrote his pamphlet 'Left- Wing Communism: An Infantile Dis- order'. She was soon chucked out of the Party. Meanwhile she had become attached to an Italian anarchist, Silvio Corio, by whom she had a child in 1927. She was by then 45. The child was the last straw so far as her mother was concerned, particularly as Sylvia, who could do no- thing quietly, gave interviews to The News of the World about the joys of mother- hood. She never married Corio, though they stayed together in an ambiguous partnership that Romero has not been able to plumb. Visitors to 'Miss Pank- hurst's' home generally assumed Corio was 'some kind of handyman'. (It sounds an ideal arrangement to me.) In the 1930s she fought fascism, and fell in love with Abyssinia (or Ethiopia) at the time of Mussolini's invasion. Though she did not visit Africa until nine years after her crusade had begun, the independence of Ethiopia was to be the only cause she never relinquished in favour of something new, and it brought her 'the sustained love and appreciation she had been seeking throughout her many past campaigns'. She gave the British Foreign Office hell, ex- hausting them with memos about the rights and wrongs of her adopted country; a special file had to be opened, labelled `How to Answer Letters from Miss Sylvia Pankhurst'. In return for her blind loyalty, Haile Selassie gave her an income and, on her death in 1960, burial in the cathedral in Addis Ababa.

`Her capacity for self-deception and her ability to give to others were equal and unlimited'. She claimed a central role in every movement that she joined, whereas her fanaticism and difficult personality kept her always 'on the fringes'. She was shameless, indefatigable: she wrote a 638- page book about India without having been there. She used in her lectures and writing statistics 'which suited her pur- pose', regardless of their accuracy; she argued 'from emotion, her statements sup- ported by fragmentary pieces of informa- tion collected along the way'.

These are the faults of indiscipline, ignorance and naiveté. When her father died, any money available was consecrated to the education of the only boy in the family. Sylvia was a bundle of energy and ambition, banging about. Education might have harnessed that force. As it was she did pretty well. This is a decent, well- researched, rather tame biography. It is also a mild exercise in demystification. Given the wild eccentricity of the subject, a more robust approach would have been in order. We could have had more fun.