Since childhood I have always been what used to be known as a 'late-developer' in the mid-C20. So it's not entirely surprising that my name did not appear on the cover of any book until 1992 when I was 51.
The book was Sylvia Pankhurst. From Artists to Anti-Fascist which I edited with Sylvia's son, the late Professor Richard Pankhurst. I'd been introduced to Richard by Walter Kendall, author of the celebrated The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21: The Origins of British Communism – the inspiration for most of what I've written about socialism in Britain.. We were all then, in the late '80s, looking forward to a biography of Sylvia by the American, Patricia Romero.
But when it came out in 1990 the book – E Sylvia Pankhurst: Portrait of a Radical - didn't seem to do full justice to its subject and we disagreed with some particular aspects of Romero's interpretation. Could another biography put this right? The problem was how on earth could you adequately write about a woman who was born in Manchester in 1882 and after she died in 1960 was buried - after state funeral at the Holy Trinity cathedral - in Addis Ababa? At her funeral the emperor of Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, named her as an honorary Ethiopian and she was buried in a plot reserved for patriots who had resisted the devastating Italian invasion of 1935. To make matters more compicated and demanding still It was not as though she had not been a leading figure in many movements in between and campaigns in between for most of her 78 years. Who had the expertise to write about all that?
As I said in my introduction to our book 'To find someone equally adept in the suffragist, socialist, Communist, and anti-fascist worlds over a period of more than thirty years was asking a good deal. To find such a person with sufficient understanding also of the Ethiopian background to make sense of Sylvia's experience with and in that country suggested needles and haystacks.' But we did know of a number of people with expertise in the various aspects of her career- so we set out to recruit them for our book.
And even before all that there had been her all-too-short career as an artist of great promise to which two chapters of our book were devoted. Hilary Cunliffe-Charlesworth told us of Pankhurst as an art student with a mind very much of her own and Jackie Duckworth wrote about the very interesting and promising art works she went on to produce. This was followed by Les Garner's contribution exploring her involvement with the suffragettes and with socialism leading to her East London Federation being expelled – by her own mother and sister – from the main suffragette organisation the Women's Social and Political Union.. Barbara Winslow wrote about Sylvia's opposition to World War I. Four years later Barbara's own take on Pankhurst appeared in Sylvia Pankhurst. Sexual Politics and Activism.
My own contribution came next in the book after Barbara's in which I followed our subject's involvement with the Russian revolution and early enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks which led her to launching her own Communist Party well before what I'll call the 'real one' was formed. She reluctantly joined the regular Communist Party only to be expelled after she refused to hand over her paper -the Workers' Dreadnought. Not untypically she insisted, that she couldn't have been expelled since she had never signed an application or membership card because she had been serving a six-month sentence in Holloway prison for an offence under the notorious Defence of the Realm Act at the crucial time.
Richard Pankhurst really did have the familiarity with Ethiopia and the inside knowledge to give a full and clear account of his mother's involvement in Ethiopia from the mid-1930s and the book concluded with a shorter piece on the Pankhurst Papers by Wilhelmina Schreuder who had been involved with them at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam since 1965 – an invaluable resource.