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Tressell, Robert

novel philanthropists george political

(Irish, 1870–1911)

Robert Tressell (pseudonym of Robert Noonan) was born in Dublin, but settled in Hastings, England, after a brief time in South Africa where he married and had a daughter. He was a member of the Social Democratic Foundation, a Marxist group, and made a living from housepainting and signwriting. His political beliefs and his experiences on the breadline were the inspiration for his first and only novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914). He started writing this in 1904, failed to find a publisher, attempted to burn the manuscript, and later emigrated and died in a workhouse in Canada. The novel was not published in its unabridged form until 1955. It tells the story of a group of painters and decorators in Edwardian Sussex, and graphically illustrates the hardships of their working lives. Decorating Mayor Sweater's house, they have to cut corners in order to boost the profits of their bosses. They are joined, however, by the journeyman and prophetfigure Owen, who introduces them to socialist ideas, and they begin to see that the capitalist system is the cause of their privations. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is unashamedly sympathetic to the workers, heavily didactic in parts, but it is also a moving, detailed, funny, and honest evocation of a section of society not often portrayed in fiction. It is a seminal political novel.

George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), George Gissing  SA

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