If you have read my academic work or any of the reviews I have written in these pages, you will know that I love stories; the hook of the narrative has been with me for as long as I remember. Today I feel truly blessed to be in a position to tell my own narratives and to help construct them with other working-class people through my academic research. I like words, but as an ethnographer I recognise that a complete narrative is much more than words alone.
This gripping, unforgettable account of the life of Louise Michel, the 19th-century anarchist, utopian, poet and activist, is a true narrative, written by scholar and graphic novelist Mary Talbot with her husband Bryan, and a moving example of how a book can become an emotional experience as you turn each page. Not all books can do this; I read hundreds of them and can honestly say that most academic books seldom have an emotional effect on me. The Red Virgin, though, did just that, and in addition is one of the most beautiful objects that I have ever had the pleasure to have in my hands.
Its title echoes the name that was given to Michel, a revolutionary woman whose story, like that of most revolutionary women, has been lost in history. The Talbots have brought her to life and done her justice in a way that a standard biography could never do. There is still snobbery around the graphic novel, especially within the academic community, and I admit that I can’t imagine this book becoming citable, although it should be, and it is the academic world’s loss that it is unlikely to be recognised. Bringing a narrative to life is difficult, and ensuring that a person in your narrative is three-dimensional takes love, and care, and an understanding of storytelling. Too few academics possess these skills.
The reason I love this book so much is not only that Michel has been evoked so vividly through the graphics, which are astounding, but also because of the authors’ emotive way of bringing not only her voice to life but also the other voices of the revolutionary movements of the 19th century. The gorgeous images in red and black shading have emotive power in the way they reference the blood and strength that was built through the barricades of the Paris Commune in 1838. We follow Michel’s story as she is imprisoned regularly over the ensuing 30 years, including being deported to New Caledonia, where she teaches children not only how to read and write but also revolutionary politics. The French establishment soon recognises that teaching revolutionary ideas to children in one of their colonies might not end well for them, and they send her back to Paris.
Michel spent her life fighting for the rights and dignity of working-class people, and against the inequality that she saw around her. She refused to be silenced, and she used her many incarcerations to write, and to think – always reflecting on wider causes and the struggle against elite and unfair societies. She deserves to be remembered in the beautiful and striking way that the Talbots have demonstrated here. This book is also a testament to the power of the graphic novel, which should be recognised inside the academy for the important work it can do in telling narrative in ways that words alone cannot.
Lisa Mckenzie is research fellow in the department of sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).
The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia
By Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape, 144pp, £16.99
Published 5 May 2016