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Robert Tressell

(1870—1911)


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(pen‐name of Robert Noonan) (?1870–1911), a house‐painter of Irish extraction, is remembered for his posthumously published novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which first appeared in 1914, edited from a manuscript left in the care of his daughter. An abridged edition appeared in 1918, but on the discovery of the original handwritten manuscript in 1946 it became clear that the author's intentions had been widely altered, and it reappeared, ed. by F. C. Ball, in 1955.

The action takes place during one year in the lives of a group of working men in the town of Mugsborough, and the novel is a bitter but spirited attack on the greed, dishonesty, and gullibility of employers and workers alike, and on the social conditions that gave rise to these vices. Debates on socialism, competition, employment, and capitalism are skilfully interwoven with a realistic and knowledgeable portrayal of skilled and unskilled labour in the decorating and undertaking business, and with the human stories of the families of the workers. Noonan's coining of names for local worthies—Sweater, Didlum, Grinder, Botchit, etc.—indicates his attitude towards the widespread corruption and hypocrisy that he exposes, and the book has become a classic text of the Labour movement. The ironically named ‘philanthropists’ of the title are the workers who toiled for pitiful wages while making no effort to understand or better their lot.

Subjects: literature.


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