Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

 I have started a petition.

Yesterday Michael Gove agreed not to take Mary Seacole off the national curriculum. I signed this petition because I believe that black English history, and those who figure in it, is as important as all other history. I am so pleased with the result but it started me thinking. There is a figure in the history of the working-class movement who left behind a priceless gem of literature. "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" was rejected by three publishers and its author was buried in a pauper's grave without seeing it in print.

Robert Tressell was a highly-skilled painter and decorator. His real name was Noonan and he took his pen-name from the painters' tressel (more commonly spelled trestle). He was a working-man concerned with working conditions and the way workers were exploited just after the turn of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. During a period of industrial decline he was sacked from his job because he would not rush the detailed work. He was influenced by the emerging Socialist movement and without a job he sat down and wrote a piece of literature that is sure to stand the test of time.

Noonan's wife had been unfaithful in South Africa where Robert had found work as a painter, and after his divorce the author was granted custody of his daughter, Kathleen. They came back to England, and latterly suffered much in not being able to find work, eventually ending in Liverpool where Noonan died of consumption. Without Kathleen Noonan this classic would never have come to light. She hawked it round until in 1914 Grant Richards published it three years after the author's death.

The novel itself, probably because of its political content, has never appeared on any syllabus at secondary level as far as I have been able to discover. Despite that it has been widely read and when the BBC ran its "Big Read" poll looking for the "nation's best-loved novel" it came a creditable 72nd.That's not bad for a book that has not been taught in secondary colleges, and finished above novels like "Bleak House", "Cold Comfort Farm" and "A Woman in White".

Please sign the petition to include it on the 'A' level syllabus.

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