Ragged edge

Robert Tressell was guilty of the sin of despair.

The political novel is rarely an unqualified literary triumph. Novels of political life cannot deal convincingly with political ideas. Plantagenet Palliser rises from backbencher to prime minister over the course of Trollope's six volumes with only one act of parliament to his credit. Novels of political ideas - unless they are set in imaginary worlds, which makes them science fiction - sacrifice plot, character and dialogue in order to argue the case that is their ideological theme. So it is with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Judged purely as a work of fiction, it lacks all distinction. And its arguments - although driven home with a repetitive intensity which was meant to make new converts - are so crudely simplistic that they are likely to appeal only to readers who share the author's beliefs before they open the book.

Yet, 100 years after Robert Tressell's death, his story of the downtrodden painters and decorators of Mugsborough retains an appeal that is more than antiquarian. As well as teaching us what one section of the nascent Labour Party believed, it reminds us that there was a time when radicals thought that policies had to be built on a comprehensive analysis of society's failures and the way in which they could be remedied. It is a practice that modern social democrats would do well to follow.

Tressell proclaimed his convictions on the title page. The ragged-trousered workmen are philanthropists because their true earnings exceed what they are paid. The difference between what their employment is worth and what they receive is "donated" to their employers. In one chapter, Frank Owen, the hero of the novel, elaborates on Marx's theory of surplus value with an explanation - illustrated with slices of stale bread (raw materials) and knives and forks (machinery) - of how control of the means of production and distribution enables capitalists (invariably called "lazy") to exploit working-class consumers by manipulating the market. Owen sets it all out to his sceptical workmates during the dinner break as they redecorate a "large three-storey building" that they call "the cave". It all reads like a badly digested lecture to the Hastings branch of the Social Democratic Federation of which Tressell was a member.

It is the influence of the SDF - the one Marxist element in the origins of the Labour Party - that makes Owen, and presumably Tressell, so contemptuous of the supine working class whose "apathy" enables the "brigands" of capitalism "to carry on their depredations undisturbed".

However, apathy is not their only crime. They are so gullible that they believe that the "fact that a man had made money [is] proof of his intellectual capacity". And they are potentially corrupt. "They all cursed Crass" - their tyrannical foreman - "but most of them would have been very glad to change places with him." The fault lies with the system, not with them. "Had one of them been in [Crass's] place they would have been compelled to act in the same way or lose his job." It is the demands of the system which explain, and almost excuse, the iniquity of individual capitalists. "The only way to compete successfully against other employers who are sweaters is to be a sweater yourself."

The result, according to Tressell, was a demoralisation of the poor which amounted to their total debasement. Thanks to the system, he writes: "They sat in their rags and ate their coarse food and cracked their coarser jokes and drank the dreadful tea and were content." Nobody who reads chapter 20 of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could imagine that it was written in praise of the innate nobility of the working class or that the author believed in its members' ability to escape from depri­vation. The men who drink in the Cricketers' Arms are starvelings who will never awake from their slumbers until the revolution - led by the discerning elite - finally changes the whole of society.

So, in Mugsborough, "more or less all of the victims . . . were quite content, being persuaded that the Great System was the only one possible and the best that human wisdom could devise. The reason why they believed this was because not one of them had ever troubled to enquire whether it would be possible to order things differently." The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, so long the bible of sentimental socialists, exhibits attitudes towards the working class which come very near to contempt.

It explains why the SDF rejected the notion that the world could be changed through the decisions of a truly democratic parliament or that trade unions could materially improve the lot of their members. Its message is that, until the revolution overthrows the system, the debasement of the poor - no less than the greed and corruption of the rich - makes improvement impossible.

In the years since it was published - first in a politically sanitised form but finally, as recently as 1955, complete and unabridged - The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been subject to every sort of criticism other than the one it most deserved. It has been accused of relegating women to a subservient position in working-class life - a role they undoubtedly occupied during the early years of the 20th century in which the story is set. It has also been criticised for the author's unconvincing attempts to reproduce the patois of the poor - a failure of which finer writers than Tressell, D H Lawrence and Thomas Hardy among them, are undoubtedly guilty. Yet its greatest weakness - the sin of despair - is generally overlooked. The edited, 1914 version ended with Owen's contemplated suicide. That - though an act of literary vandalism - captured the depressing spirit of the novel. The hope of gradual improvement, working men and women aspiring to better things and achieving them through organisation, pressure and persuasion, is completely discounted.

The importance of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is the emphasis it places on the need to change the whole social system. Its weakness is its assumption that the working class is too craven and corrupt to work gradually towards achieving that end. l

Roy Hattersley was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1983-92

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide