The genius of Holmes’s fascinating and important biography is that it approaches Sylvia’s life as if she were a man. The writing isn’t prettified or leavened by amusing anecdotes about Victorian manners, it’s dense and serious, as befits a woman who never wore make-up and didn’t care about clothes. To paraphrase the WSPU’s slogan, it is about deeds not domesticity. Rather than dwelling on moods and relationships, Holmes is interested in ideas and consequences. It’s wonderfully refreshing. Sylvia lived for her work; her literary output was astounding. In addition to publishing her own newspaper almost every week for over four decades, she wrote nonfiction, fiction, plays, poetry and investigative reports.
It’s impossible to summarise adequately a book so magnificent. This biography is, granted, very long at almost 1,000 pages, but a life so large merits comprehensive treatment. Unlike so many excessively long books recently published, this is not simply a collection of facts carelessly assembled; it is instead a sophisticated symphony of intriguing and complex analysis, delivered in mellifluous harmony. It’s a feminist book, as is appropriate to the subject, but feminist theory is used as a scalpel, not a sledgehammer.