Monday, 7 February 2011

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: Is it the Workers' Bible, a working-class Vanity Fair or just a bloated 750-page novel?

LAST month Northern Voices published Chris Draper's review of Howard Brenton's adaptation of 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' that showed at the Liverpool Everyman last summer. In it he denounced the lack of interest of the current trade unions concluding: 'A 100 years after Tressell's death, on 3rd, February 1911, local trade union officials tell me that "there are no plans to mark the centenary as there are no funds"! Tressell must be turning in his pauper's grave.'

In last Saturday's Guardian Review Howard Benton himself wrote a tribute to Robert Tressell. In it he he payed tribute writing: 'It became known as "the Socialist Bible" and was even credited with winning the general election for the Labour party.' Is it the great working-class novel or 'Vanity Fair'?

Chris Draper in his Northern Voices review says the cut-down version by its first publisher was best because while 'at its best the novel uniquely captures aspects and idioms of working class life ... Tressell couldn't resist the temptation to over-egg the pudding.' He completed 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' in 1910, but the original handwritten 1,600-page manuscript was rejected by three publishers.

Was it a 'Socialist Bible' or was it as Draper says too big and bloated? How does it measure against the Manchester/ Wakefield writer George Gissing's portrayal of a down at the heal journalist in 'New Grub Street' or Conrad's description of the peasant in 'Nostromo' or Henry James's insight into political activists in 'The Princess Casamasima'.

'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' is seen as a rare British working-class novel, but what is meant by a 'working-class novel'? Is a novel written by a workingman (or woman) or is it a novel that depicts the working-classes? Howard Brenton describes Robert Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, thus: 'Robert Noonan was born in Dublin in 1870, the illegitimate son of Mary Noonan and a police inspector.' He wrote that he and his daughter moved to Johannesburg where he made his way as a skilled artisan, a scenic painter and sign writter' and that he 'became known as a political activist: he was a member of the Johannesburg Trades & Labour Council...' Coming to England to live in Hastings (Mugsborough in the novel) in 1906 he became a member of the local Social Democratic Federation, which Brenton describes as 'a small leftwing party whose founding members included William Morris.' Morris later left this party regarding it as too dogmatic and narrow.

Howard Brenton describes Tressell's book as 'the working-class Vanity Fair' and he argues that: 'In the 1900s the two paths socialism could take were already mapped: revolutionary and parliamentary.' Tressell took the revolutionary road of the Social Democratic Federation, which ended in the 'disaster of the Soviet Union'. But he writes: 'the reformist path taken in Britain has led ... to the watering down and sluicing away of all socialist aspirations by New Labour.' Yet he concludes optimistically arguing: 'Tressell's wonderful book convinced me that it's time to begin the struggle for the co-operative commonwealth all over again.' Draper in NV 12 was more pessimistic entitling one subheading: 'The long march (downhill) of socialism'.

But it seems that Chris Draper was wrong in his conclusion in NV12 that 'there are no plans to mark the centenary (of Tressell's death)' by the trade unions, as Manchester Trade Union Council has helped to organise an exhibition at the Working Class Movement Library, at 51, The Crescent, Salford until 10th March between 1pm and 5pm Mondays to Fridays.

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