The titles listed in Bloomsbury’s 100 Must-read Classic Novels (actually 99 novels plus Chekhov’s short stories, which is totally cheating) were largely familiar to me before I’d even started working my way through the list, skewing strongly toward classics of British literature (42 of the 100 titles were by British authors, plus five by Irish authors). The list’s creator, Nick Rennison, did show one clear and regrettable bias in his selections, however, with several titles that advocate political change toward socialism, generally to the detriment of their value as works of literature. News from Nowhere was one such title, a dreadful utopian novel that, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, is the prose equivalent of an actuarial table. Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published three years after the author’s death, resembles an actual novel more than News did, with real characters and proper plots, but there is so much sermonizing and so little character development that the book amounts to little more than 600 pages of didactic sludge.
Tressell, the nom de plume of the Irish-born writer Robert Croker (later Robert Noonan), based The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in large part on his own experience as a house-painter, working for subsistence wages while the merchant class and politicians grew rich off his and his colleagues’ labors. The title refers to these workers, who give so freely of their efforts to enrich others and seem, in Tressell’s view, to acquiesce to a system that is designed to exploit them and perpetuate that exploitation for generations. In that, Tressell was partially right – England’s labor laws were heavily stacked against the working class until the Labour Party took power in the 1906 election, before which a trade union could be held liable for losses resulting from collective actions such as strikes. Even as Tressell was writing his manuscript, completing it in 1910, the situation was only beginning to improve for the “philanthropists” of Great Britain.
Labor protection proved the solution to many (but not all) of the ills Tressell attacks in his novel, but his extreme naivete about human nature led him to advocate strong socialism, with little or no ownership of private property and penalties on savings or investment, rather than fair labor practices. Tressell has the two socialist characters, Owen and Barrington, deliver tiresome lectures to their fellow painters about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, all founded on now-discredited beliefs that people would still continue to expend maximum efforts when all incentives for good work or for ingenuity have been removed. By removing the possibility of large gains for the large sacrifices involved in inventing or developing new goods or processes, innovation will slow, and funding for high-risk projects (like most startups) will flow to countries where the potential for high returns still exists. Socialism as Tressell describes it has been tried and failed in countless economies, so reading his prescription for a command economy like those that collapsed across Eastern Europe and that have only enriched those in power in Africa is sadly comical.
Tressell’s awkward satire is actually more effective when he attacks the hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians, mouthing the words of their Messiah while doing quite the opposite. Tressell limits his attacks on the religion itself – although I’d infer from his text that he was a nonbeliever – and instead focuses on those who preach the Gospel while doing nothing to help the less fortunate, and often would use their working hours to keep the lower classes in need of basic assistance like food, lodging, or medical care. Tressel’s primary antagonist, the painting-firm owner (and thief) Rushton, is found in the streets spreading the Good News – and making sure he uses these words to keep the poor and unemployed from banding together to try to improve their situation. It’s easy to see a parallel in the sliver of the U.S. electorate that professes ardent belief in the same religion and yet votes against programs that might help the very people Christ implores His followers to help.
Tressell also falls into one of the worst traps for the would-be satirist, violating what is now Roger Ebert’s First Law of Funny Names: Funny names aren’t funny. Tressell populates his novel with obvious and unclever puns, like rival painting outfits Pushem and Sloggem, two-faced philanthropists Crass and Slyme, the ineffectual city councilor Dr. Weakling, and the venal landowner and MP Sir Graball D’Encloseland. Satire need not be hilarious to be effective, but the failed attempts at humor here only serve to further insult the intelligence of the reader who might not have already given up in disgust at the author’s ignorance of basic microeconomics.
Next up: I’m about 2/3 of the way through Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, the story of the Indian-born mathematician Ramanujan, whose brief life was marked by enormous insights into number theory despite his lack of any formal education in the field.