Workers

It seemed appropriate, given the tube strike yesterday, to record my thoughts on Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The kind of anger expressed by the general public that people should be so audacious as to push for better conditions (or resist the worsening of their conditions, as is more accurate this time) is reminiscent of Tressell’s ‘philanthropists’, who think that they, their friends, and their families ought to continue helping those who do nothing grow their fortunes. (On the subject of the strike itself, I’ve found this piece very relevant.)

I want to note something interesting that happened when I read the book: I initially noted that Tressell’s socialist house-painters are well-spoken, while the rest of them have regional accents and their speech is peppered with mistakes. This annoyed me a little, as I saw no reason to suppose that the socialists should have suddenly changed their way of speaking totally and it made me worry that there was a patronising aspect to the book’s criticism of its ignorant working class characters. This was fuelled when I looked at the front of my copy and saw that it was published in 1955, giving me the impression of an author writing from some personal and intellectual distance (I thoroughly enjoyed it despite this).

That changed when I started wondering about Robert Tressell, and about that publication date which didn’t ring true (yes, I’m sure I should’ve realised before), and looked a little closer. I found out that my copy of the book was just the first edition to contain more or less all of Tressell’s manuscript, and that it was initially published in shorter form in 1914. Furthermore that was three years after Tressell’s death of tuberculosis, a death probably accelerated by his own poverty. It turns out that he was not writing from some distance but was himself a painter and sign-writer by trade: he adopted the pen-name ‘Tressell’ in reference to the trestle table he used in his work. His early life was not especially poor, but he cut links with his family through a desire not to live off income from others’ rent and became progressively worse off as the years went by.

This changed my perspective somewhat, as his anger at the ignorance of workers started to look less like victim-blaming and more like despair at a perceived betrayal. There are a couple of biographies of him I now intend to give a try, as his life is intriguing, including a worrying period in South Africa that looks like it might sit badly with Philanthropists. But also this discovery, and the difference it made to me, has led me to wonder what makes the source important, and how: is it primarily because the novel is a thinly-veiled political polemic that the author’s perspective was important, or would that be true in less political works too?

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