Book Review: ‘Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’

High on Tressell

‘Robert Tressell and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, by Jack Mitchell (Lawrence & Wishart, 45s.)

Interest in the scope and background of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has grown steadily since the publications, in 1951 and 1955 respectively, of F.C. Ball’s biography Tressell of Mugsborough and the full version of the book as Tressell—Robert Noonan -wrote it. Previously, little or nothing had been known about this most widely read of all books about working men since its appearance in 1914. Now, a further book on Tressell by Ball is promised: in 1967 The Times revealed that Tressell’s daughter Kathleen, thought to have been killed in an accident in 1919, was still alive: in August this year, The Guardian published details of surviving examples of Tressell’s decorative painting.

Mitchell’s book is an attempt at detailed critical analysis of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It has an astonishingly patronising foreword by Raymond Williams, and its endeavour is to place the Philanthropists among the great works of literature. Mitchell takes a classification suggested by Arnold Kettle, in an article called “Dickens and the Popular Tradition”, in which the classical nineteenth-century novelists are divided as belonging to “bourgeois critical realism” or “popular critical realism”. The difference is in “sensibility”, or the writer’s class awareness. The height of popular critical realism is “proletarian humanism”, and Mitchell sees this as reaching its peak in Dickens in the nineteenth century and Tressell in the twentieth.

In developing this theme, there are some interesting references to nineteenth-century working-class novels which are little known today. Mitchell says they failed because working-class sensibility was insufficiently developed before the last years of the century. Between 1889 and 1906, however: “The advent of imperialism revolutionised the situation.” The foundation of the Labour Party was a cultural as well as a political landmark: “It is not by chance that it precedes the break-through of the British working class in the narrower field of literary culture”— that is, the writing of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists—“by only five years”. The working class was about to wage fierce war. Mitchell writes: “By 1914 it was touch and go which would come first, world war or social revolution.’’ In this light, Tressell’s book is a vital self-criticism of the working class as it prepared for the struggle.

This is all dreadful nonsense. It throws into relief the weakness of Mitchell’s study of Tressell—that it is anything but critical. Starting thus from the belief that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was the expression of “a realisation that in the long run they (the working class) were destined to take over the cultural heritage and with it the human leadership of the nation”, Mitchell praises it on every count and in the highest terms. The comparisons in which it is eulogised are themselves breathtakingly uncritical at times. For example “The two greatest anti-capitalist writers in Britain at that time, Shaw and Tressell”—though later Mitchell speaks of Tressell’s implicit exposure of the Fabian propaganda whose popular exponent, in fact, was Shaw. And what of Dickens, to whom Mitchell continually returns as the genius of popular humanism before Tressell? George Orwell has pointed out that Dickens never penned a decent picture of a working man or woman; the case is strong that Dickens radicalism was rooted in fear of the mob.

All the same, there is a good deal which is interesting in Mitchell’s examination of the structure of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As he says, its central situation is the labour process. The characters are carefully arranged to show all the stages of a manual worker’s life, from the apprentice to the discarded old man. Attitudes to labour are crucial points in the book’s criticism of capitalism. The boss-figures are Anti-Man, in Mitchell’s phrase, precisely because they are destructive of men’s attachment to and satisfaction from labour. Influenced by William Morris, Tressell made art part of labour: and in this sense Owen’s decoration of the drawing-room in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a symbolic victory.

One of Mitchell’s more telling comparisons is between Tressell’s work and that of the “Naturalist” writers of the late nineteenth century. At first glance, the insistent accumulation of detail—the minute descriptions of rooms, buildings. clothes—reminds one of, say, Zola. But Zola’s picture was always of a slice of life whereas Tressell, as Mitchell points out, aims to show life itself under capitalism. While Zola lifts stones to reveal the horrors under them, Tressell’s mass of detail points to “the abnormality of the normal”: the horror of the stones themselves. Mitchell draws attention too to the exclusion by Tressell of any human personal element which might admit the possibility of bridge-building between the classes. Tressell’s insistence always is on the capitalist system as the culprit; grotesque as his boss-characters are, they remain the system’s creations.

Those who are interested in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will, and ought to, read this book. Despite the parallels it draws with Fielding, Bunyan. Swift, Gorky, Hardy and others—besides Dickens—it does not succeed in its intention of giving the Philanthropists an exalted place in literature. Nor is there any reason really for seeking to do so. Tressell’s work is a gem in its field. If it were a literary masterpiece, perhaps we should not lay claim, as we all do, to innumerable copies given away and lent to people at work. Mitchell lays on his claims thickly, apparently high on enthusiasm for Tressell. One sees, however, the political malpositions from which the claims arise – and wonders whether such a structure of illusion would have been tolerable to Tressell himself.

Robert Barltrop

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