SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 169 June 2013

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Last month we reported the death, aged 75, of Victor Paananen, a longstanding supporter of the CWI in the USA and contributor to Socialism Today. Below we reprint Vic’s first article for our magazine, from issue No.4, December 1995, on Robert Tressell, author of the classic account of working-class life, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Between about 1905 and 1908, the Hastings housepainter and sign-writer, Robert Noonan, wrote the first English novel that addressed from the perspective of the working class such topics as the alienation of labour under capitalism, the increasing misery of the exploited, and the barriers to class-consciousness erected by the press, the church, and the schools.

Meaning to poke a little bitter fun at himself and his workmates for so generously producing surplus value for their bosses, he gave that novel the ironic and somewhat awkward title, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Appropriately enough for a novel that is about the labour process itself – and treats the actual work of painters in close detail – he then signed the book not Robert Noonan but, with the painters’ familiar trestle in mind, ‘Robert Tressell’. To his neatly hand-drawn title-page, he added the information that the book is "the story of twelve months in Hell told by one of the damned".

Bob Noonan, as he was known in Hastings, was born in Dublin to Mary Ann Noonan, apparently fathered by a married police inspector and magistrate in whose home his mother was a servant. Hastings people heard traces of a Dublin accent in Noonan’s speech; but he had arrived in Hastings not directly from Dublin but from South Africa, where he had learned his trade before having to flee the country because of pro-Boer speeches that he made as a supporter of Irish nationalist and anti-imperialist movements.

Noonan’s sister, who was named Mary Ann like his mother, had settled in Hastings earlier and promised him plenty of sunshine if he lived there. In fact, paid at a low rate in a trade in which the availability of work fluctuated seasonally, he struggled to support his daughter Kathleen – whose mother had died some years earlier – and was already suffering from the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. He had only his novel and his work in the local branch of a Marxist group, the Social Democratic Federation, as sources of hope. In his novel, Tressell captures the gloomy prospects that the then popular ‘resort’ town actually held for him by carefully eliminating from his otherwise accurate descriptions all references to the sea which was in Hastings a source of recreation and even of some free food – and renamed the town Mugsborough.

Struggle to publish

The novel ran to 1,700 hand-written pages, and Noonan could not afford to have it typed. He tried nonetheless to find a publisher but finally, leaving Kathleen with his sister, he travelled to Liverpool to earn money that would allow him to emigrate to Canada with the idea of sending for Kathleen once he was settled there. Instead, the tuberculosis took its full toll and, aged only 40, he died in a Liverpool workhouse, to be buried with twelve others in a common grave. The novel would then have been lost forever but Kathleen, with whom he had left it, mentioned it to her employer, whose neighbour was Jessie Pope, a writer and editor who read the manuscript and recommended it to the publisher Grant Richards. Richards, who was the same year to take a chance on another book by an unknown Irish writer – Dubliners by one James Joyce – said later that he had had to admit that the Tressell manuscript had its own kind of greatness: "the book was damnably subversive but it was extremely real".

Not willing, however, to be carried away with admiration, Richards paid Kathleen only £25 for all rights to the book, and then hired Jessie Pope to shorten, edit, and rearrange the manuscript so that it could appear as a book in 1911. Then, in 1918, a still shorter ‘abridged’ edition was issued.

Even though these editions were rearranged to end with the socialist hero Frank Owen in a moment of despair that suggests he will commit suicide, they were embraced by working-class readers, who on worksites and in union halls passed along copies that were often read until they fell apart. Finally, but not until after world war two when Tressell’s biographer, the working-class scholar Fred Ball, tracked down the manuscript and restored the original version, was it published intact in 1955.

Now the full novel ends, as Tressell meant it to end, with prospects improving for Frank Owen’s family and, crucially, a branch of the socialist organisation about to be created in Hastings. "From these ruins was surely growing the glorious fabric of the co-operative commonwealth", Tressell is now permitted to say at the end of the book, and he looks forward to a "golden light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of socialism".

Alienated labour

Still, even when reading the severely abridged versions of the novel that they initially had, workers have for eighty years recognised what Grant Richards uneasily perceived; namely that the book is both ‘extremely real’ as an account of working-class life and ‘subversive’ both of capitalism and of the lies that sustain it.

An early chapter like the one Tressell titles, with his usual irony, ‘The Financiers’, is, for instance, only one of several that present what anyone will recognise as what the life of ordinary people really is. A young married couple with a child plan how they will allocate the wages to be paid the next day. Tressell reproduces the bills and threatening letters (warning of ‘unpleasantness’) that they have received from the council and from hire-purchase firms (with names like Didlum). The couple talk of their pressing needs for what are clearly bare necessities; and tensions and accusations develop as they recognise that they will only fall further behind. To support life even at this subsistence level, a job must at all costs be kept: worry about the job possesses this young couple as it does all the working people in the novel.

Yet the work performed on the job – which is potentially interesting if well done and which requires genuine skills as Tressell’s close descriptions make clear – cannot be satisfying in itself when it is rushed and performed not for use or for beauty in the product but for profit. "So they went on", Tressell writes, "day after day, year after year, wishing their time was over and, without realising it, really wishing they were dead". Under this system, time has become a commodity, within which is contained the labour power that is all that working-people have to sell. Thus, in a brilliant stroke of a kind unheard of in other novels of the time, Tressell introduces directly into the text a time-sheet complete with instructions ("Each piece of work must be fully described, what it was, and how long it took to do") and threats ("No smoking or intoxicants during working hours").

Rare respite

As Tressell recognised, this time-sheet is exactly the kind of indignity that working people must endure, under capitalism, in meeting their basic human needs by selling their labour. The tyranny of the clock and the commodification of time are left behind in the novel only briefly when Frank Owen is invited to design and apply decorations in a house interior: "From one till five seemed a very long time to most of the hands, but to Owen and his mate, who were doing something in which they were able to take some interest and pleasure, the time passed so rapidly that they both regretted the approach of evening’’. The firm has Owen do this job because it maximises their profit if they do not have to subcontract the fine work at a good price. In the same way, Noonan was himself asked to decorate – murals and all – a church under construction in Hastings and did a fine job, working for an extra halfpenny an hour on his wages! This church has since been demolished and Noonan’s art work destroyed except for one mural that was rescued from the rubble and rebuilt brick by brick by present-day readers of the novel.

But respite from the monotony of the work, from the bad housing and inadequate nutrition, and from the demeaning treatment of the bosses, is rare at any point in the lives of the working people in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As he explains in his preface, Tressell takes pains "to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives from the cradle to the grave". "Therefore", he explains, "the characters include women and children, a young boy – the apprentice – some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn out old men". It is this comprehensive range of treatment that produces a novel that uniquely captures life as working people know and live it.

The alternative of socialism

Friedrich Engels, writing to the East End novelist Margaret Harkness in April 1888, expressed his own expectations for novels about the working class: "Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truth in reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances". Clearly, Tressell met Engels’ ‘standards’ by picturing working-class life and conditions in a comprehensive way. Engels, however, went further, saying that it is false to present "the working class... as a passive mass unable to help itself and not even showing... any attempt at striving to help itself". The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists fully satisfies this second ‘condition’ for realism because it presents throughout arguments for the socialist alternative.

Tressell achieves this by means of another of his bold innovations in the way that a novel can be written: ‘teaching chapters’ in which characters like Frank Owen or the socialist Barrington make the case for socialism during ‘dinner-time’ at work. Tressell manages to make these scenes dramatic – and all the more realistic – by presenting the interruptions, rough mockery, and counter-arguments of Tory or Liberal workers, some of whom support their anti-socialist feelings by reading clippings from the bourgeois press. Although a few workers begin to understand the socialist perspective as the novel progresses, most remain in mental terms creations of the press, of the schools that they were only briefly permitted to attend, and of the self-serving churches. Nonetheless, Tressell’s ironic, indeed often humorous, presentation makes sure that the reader knows that only socialism holds out to these workers the prospect of self-respect, decent conditions, and a full share in the fruits of their labour.

‘A novel not an essay’

Engels had earlier written another letter about socialist fiction addressed to Minna Kautsky on 26 November 1885, in which he said that "the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real relations it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning these relations, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists", but he had then feared that "under our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, ie circles which are not directly ours".

Tressell accepted the story-telling conventions of the bourgeois novel, setting out, as he says in the preface, to write "not a treatise or essay, but a novel". "My main object was", he adds, "to write a readable story full of human interest and based on the happenings of everyday life, the subject of socialism being treated incidentally". But in his determination that the book have "at least one merit – that of being true" and present "scenes and characters... that will be readily recognised by those concerned", Tressell was also compelled to move beyond the limits implicit in the novels written to that date. As Engels had hoped working-class fiction should do, the book achieves realism not only in its descriptions but by its socialist understanding of how the conditions depicted will be changed.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has earned a place in the history of the English novel, as that history is now understood in academic circles. As, however, the popularity of this book among working people has testified, Tressell also showed that a novel need not rely – as novels down to Engels’ time had done – on ‘bourgeois readers’.

By writing a book that has for decades played an important role in the struggle to create socialist consciousness in the working class, Tressell has earned a place of honour for his service in what Engels called "the fights of the militant proletariat". Until Tressell’s "rays of the risen sun of socialism" reach all of humanity, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will continue to help win hearts and minds for the tasks still ahead.

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