The Cookson Story
- The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose
Yale, 534 pp, £29.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 300 08886 8
Reading may not make the world go round but it can make it go away, for a while. If one’s world is dirty, poor, oppressive and unfair, then that may be no small service. Books furnish the mind in a form that the bailiffs cannot repossess. If we could recover the reading practices of past generations, we would be in touch with an experience that was at once intimate and formative, on a par with, even part of, the history of love. But reading is, for the most part (at least in recent centuries), a private activity. What can we know of all those quiet hours that have left so little direct trace in the historical record? The literary tradition yields some evidence for select members of the well-connected, articulate, document-preserving classes, but what of the little recorded majority? In Britain, the ‘working classes’ (pragmatically defined) made up more than 70 per cent of the population until at least the middle of the 20th century. Can there be a proper history of working-class reading?
Jonathan Rose believes that there can be, and after five hundred pages, 24 tables and more than 1600 footnotes it’s clear he has a point. His introduction (still more the publisher’s blurb) makes much of the book’s ‘innovative research techniques’, the need to shift attention from text to reader, from elite readers to working-class readers, and so on. Such work has not been unheard of in the last decade or so, but Rose certainly demonstrates how much can be learned by the energetic and resourceful combing of some familiar, and some less familiar, types of evidence. The sources on which he relies most heavily are the various kinds of autobiography and memoir written by those from working-class or other modest backgrounds, people who had usually received very little formal schooling, at least until the middle years of the 20th century. He also makes good use of library records, educational archives, oral histories and Mass Observation and early social surveys.
The real subject of his book is not ‘the intellectual life of the British working classes’, but ‘the reading habits of the autodidact tradition within the British industrial working class from the early 19th century to the mid 20th’. It’s still a big and underexplored subject, and the results of his enterprising research make fascinating reading. But his attempts to arrive at historical generalisations run aground on the awkward, indeed insuperable, difficulty that the autobiographers on whose testimony he so largely relies were, by the very fact of their writings, exceptional. At times he acknowledges this, and tries to get round it by supplementing their testimony with other forms of evidence. But the fact remains that what we mostly have here is anecdotal evidence, drawn from those who had a particular fondness for telling this kind of anecdote about themselves later in their lives.
No doubt experts in the burgeoning field of the ‘history of the book’ will want to take issue with Rose on this and similar grounds, but his work provides a great deal of information enlivened by often moving individual stories – weavers propping books up on their looms, miners disputing the merits of their favourite poets while digging coal, office boys reading far into the night to sustain themselves through the tedium of another day in the counting-house. We hear of feats of reading that would merit a place in some literary equivalent of Wisden (‘the largest number of multi-volume histories read by a Lancashire cotton-spinner’). And on a few occasions we stumble on episodes that would be more at home in the Alice books or even Monty Python, such as this account of a group of London police constables between the wars:
They clubbed together to buy used BBC classical records from a Shaftesbury Avenue shop. They circulated among themselves copies of the New Statesman and a collective season ticket to the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. They read Proust and Spengler, Macaulay and Gibbon, Tom Paine and Cobbett, Hume and Herbert Spencer. They never missed a Harold Laski public lecture. They went in a solid phalanx to hear Shaw, Belloc and Chesterton debate at Kingsway Hall. And they formed an archaeological group to look for relics of Norman and Roman London whenever they happened to have freshly excavated building sites on their beats.
Policemen don’t only look younger these days: they read less Proust, too.
Vol. 24 No. 4 · 21 February 2002
From Brian Towers
I was surprised not to see any mention of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in Stefan Collini's review of Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (LRB, 13 December 2001), and wondered whether it was an omission on the part of the reviewer, or the author, or both. Until New Labour's post-1997 ascendancy it was regularly first or second on lists of the most influential, or even transforming, books Labour MPs had read.
University of Warwick
Vol. 24 No. 5 · 7 March 2002
From Stefan Collini
Brian Towers (Letters, 21 February) notes that there is no mention of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in my review of Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and asks whether this was ‘an omission on the part of the reviewer, or the author, or both’. The hint of reproach in ‘omission’ may not be quite fair to either of us. Rose mentions Tressell’s book three times: once when discussing the reading of Jewish workers in the East End, once to note that it figured (though not prominently) among the very wide range of books borrowed from one of the Welsh miners’ libraries for which records survive, and once to quote a self-educated factory labourer who ‘rejected the crude “pamphleteering”’ of the book. Part of the achievement of Rose’s book is precisely to complicate and sometimes challenge the received wisdom about ‘working-class reading’, especially where that wisdom really reflects the concerns of a politically engaged minority. It therefore seemed right to draw attention to its possibly more surprising findings about authors such as Frank Richards and Mrs Henry Wood (mentioned three or four times as often as Tressell), as well as about such major figures as Bunyan and Dickens (mentioned ten and thirty times as often respectively).
From Robert FitzGerald
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a book about the working class: it wasn't ostensibly for them – which is why it hardly appears in Jonathan Rose's book. The works of Arthur Morrison or Stephen Law were more readily available to the working class, being sold from the old Clarion vans rallying the workers to the socialist cause. Tressell wrote his book for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes rather than for plebs like Towers and me.
Vol. 24 No. 6 · 21 March 2002
From David Rose
Robert FitzGerald doesn’t say on what he bases his opinion that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written ‘for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes’ (Letters, 7 March). Could it be a misreading of the book’s preface, which is addressed to prospective publishers?
Tressell came from the working class; he spent much of his time in Britain unemployed and on the tramp until he ended up in the Royal Liverpool Infirmary, where he died just as he planned to emigrate to Canada. The characters in his book are working-class; the situations are working-class. In asserting the book’s limited influence, Stefan Collini fails to take into account that the publication of the book, five years after Tressell’s death, coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. Between the wars, it did get the audience it deserved. For example, new labourers on the Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool would be given copies of some of the book’s chapters so that they could be educated in the thieving ways of their employers.
Given that Tressell’s aim, like that of Owen, his protagonist, was to alert his fellow workers to the injustice of their working conditions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the book was written for the working class. Indeed, it has been cited as a factor in Labour’s victory in 1945.
Vol. 24 No. 7 · 4 April 2002
From Pat Harvey
Robert FitzGerald (Letters, 7 March) tells us that Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a book ‘for the coffee tables of the dissenting middle classes’. I can’t speak on the basis of circulation statistics or academic Rezeptionsgeschichte (but who can, really?): what I can do is report that when I was growing up in a working-class family in South-East London in the 1930s, my father, who was a carpenter, read the book avidly and with fascination. And so did all his friends – bricklayers, house-painters, electricians etc. They all agreed (I can hear them now) that this book was the only one they had ever met that described adequately the scandalous realities they faced as they tried to scrape a living in the building trade of those days. The one tatty copy I ever saw had been more or less read to pieces as it did the rounds, and was minus its cover when it reached my father. FitzGerald may be reporting the fate of the 1955 edition: he must not imagine that in the days of the Depression the book had no working-class readers.
From Robert FitzGerald
I base my opinion of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and its readership on 45 years’ teaching English literature in seven different countries. How about David Rose (Letters, 21 March)? Assuming him to be the same David Rose that appears on the contents page of your academically-respected organ, I must wonder what qualifications the world of advertising lends to a reading of Tressell?
David Rose writes: Tressell's protagonist, Owen, was frustrated by the reluctance of his colleagues to engage in any debate about their circumstances because they felt it wasn't their place to discuss such things. Robert FitzGerald is refusing to engage with my arguments on the basis that I am not of his class. Forgive me if I don't appreciate the irony.
Vol. 24 No. 8 · 25 April 2002
From Stephen Sedley
About forty years ago I met Robert Tressell’s daughter, Kathleen Lynne (she died in 1988 at the age of 96). The picture she gave of her father, Robert Noonan, was a complex one. He was a signwriter and housepainter by trade, admiring William Morris and Walter Crane and specialising in mural decoration. His family had apparently been well off. He had dropped out of formal education, but he insisted on French being spoken at table. All his close associations were with radical workmen like himself.
The one thing that is certain is that The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was not written, as Robert FitzGerald (Letters, 7 March) unaccountably suggests it was, for the coffee tables of the middle classes. Both its language and its message are addressed to Noonan’s fellow workers, whose inability to see how they were being exploited was both the theme of the story and the source of its sardonic title. The Great Money Trick which Owen gets his workmates to act out with halfpennies and bits of bread has since made fine theatre.
When Noonan died of TB in Liverpool in 1911, leaving the manuscript with a handful of rejection slips complaining that it was not typed, Kathleen took a job as a governess. One evening the publisher Grant Richards came to dinner with the family, and the wife said: ‘Kathleen has a novel in a tin trunk under her bed.’ Richards asked to see it, bought it for £25 and in 1914 published the very heavily abridged edition which nevertheless made the book famous.
A story almost as interesting as Noonan’s is that of his biographer, Fred Ball, a Hastings gasfitter who read the book in the 1930s and realised that many of Tressell’s characters were alive and many others traceable. His assiduously assembled biography of Noonan, Tressell of Mugsborough, was written at a time when Kathleen was believed to have died in a car crash in Canada. (When she left her drunken husband and he asked her what he was to tell the family, she had said, ‘Tell them I’m dead’; so he did.) When in the 1960s Kathleen reappeared and settled in England, Ball was able to rewrite the book (One of the Damned). Meanwhile he had bought the manuscript back from Grant Richards for 60 guineas by pooling his and some friends’ demobilisation gratuities, and in 1955 the book was published in its full original form.
I believe the Panther paperback version went on to sell well over a million copies; but Pat Harvey’s account of how it was passed from hand to hand in South-East London (Letters, 4 April), which is replicated in similar accounts I have heard, explains why the readership of the book must have been many times its sales figures.
From Ellis Corbett
David Rose is excited over nothing: Robert FitzGerald's point is perfectly valid (Letters, 4 April). The London Review of Books is a respected journal because of the quality of the authors it publishes, not because of its staff. If the LRB chooses to publish the opinions of its staff (and not editorial staff at that) then what is the point of the magazine? I'm not suggesting that Rose keep his opinions to himself, but that maybe you shouldn't publish them. There are far more qualified people out there better positioned to comment, and the same is probably true of all the staff (editorial or not) that you publish. Most workplaces have a newsletter for staff to mouth off in – please don't let the LRB letters page become one.
Avenel, New Jersey
From Mike Sanders
Robert FitzGerald questions the right of someone who works in the ‘world of advertising’ to express an opinion contrary to his own which, as he informs us, is based on ‘45 years’ teaching English literature in seven different countries’. As a mere stripling with seven years’ teaching experience in only two countries, I had always thought that intellectual debate was conducted by means of evidence and reasoned argument rather than the invocation of personal authority.
Fred Ball, in Tressell of Mugsborough (1951) and One of the Damned (1973), notes the role of the London Workers Committee in securing the republication in 1918 of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in a shilling edition (i.e. aimed specifically at a working-class readership) which sold out within six months. The Daily Herald brought out a two-shilling edition in 1927 as part of a circulation drive. The unabridged version of the novel was first published in 1955 with the assistance of the trade union movement.
From Bill Patterson
In which medieval fortress is Robert FitzGerald holed up? More to the point, where are you getting all these hysterical right-wingers from? Are they reading the same paper as me?
Vol. 24 No. 9 · 9 May 2002
From Joe Higham
Ellis Corbett doesn't say on what basis his opinion should be expressed while David Rose's shouldn't (Letters, 25 April). Who does he think he is that readers of the LRB are interested in his opinions over anyone else's? Perhaps he should get with the plan, or else take a different magazine.
From Kamal Ahmed
Do non-writing staff have nothing significant to add to any debate? If so, surely only other writers should be reading the LRB, in which case I'm afraid both Corbett and myself are disqualified – as a reader I've never heard of either of us.
From Paul Turnbull
What can David Rose mean when he says that he is not of Robert FitzGerald’s ‘class’? Is he seriously suggesting that as a staff member of a magazine that bills itself as being for the world’s intellectual elite (your website’s words, not mine) he can reasonably expect to be thought of as working-class? I don’t know what London is like these days, but there aren’t many people where I live (among the coalmines, shipyards and empty cotton factories) who would consider a career in a comfortably elitist paper as indicative of a working-class life.
Vol. 24 No. 11 · 6 June 2002
From David Miller
After years of being lectured by liberals about the well-meaning sentiment, historical and political profundity and ‘greatness’ of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Letters, 9 May), I found it turgid and sentimental. Admittedly, I grew up within a Fife mining community, so my early reading was Lenin, Pushkin, Burns, Homer, Milton and Grassic Gibbon, which tends to put Tressell right where he belongs: in the tradition of shallow-minded social moralism allied to the Condition of England novel. The autodidacts and Communists of the Fife mining community and my own close family regarded Tressell as compromised politically and a failure aesthetically. This judgment was not based on political exigencies or national prejudice. But for some reason, Tressell, as a figure and as a writer, appeals to English Christians from the middle classes and to mild social reformers from the English Labour Party. In many ways, his ‘novel’ is a version of pastoral that seeks to place the figure of the skilled worker ‘back’ in a notional small craftsman’s guild within the context of a ‘healthy’ England.