As a student of English literature in the 1990s at the University of East Anglia, I thought I’d come across all the ‘classics’ I would ever want to or not want to read. But now I have come across the most brilliant book that would have fitted right into my studies. I picked many courses with a social history bias, so how did I miss Robert Tressell’s great work?
I have devoured the 742 pages in three days and now feel compelled to join the society and pass the book on it’s that good. And this is coming from someone who has avoided anything too complicated in the past few years.
Through the lives of a group of painters working in Hastings in the late 19th or early 20th century it tells the story of socialism. Using the discussions of the workers as a device, and I did not feel this was forced, it explains the concepts. It’s very cleverly done. It also shows the lives of these painters without pity or over-emotion; the poverty of their uncertain futures.
And although the book was published just over 100 years ago, there are many parallels to be drawn with today. The uncertainties of work, with no contracts or employment legislation, is not too dissimilar to the lives of those on zero hours contracts. Foreigners are blamed in the book for the lack of work, rather in the way that UKIP would tell us now. And charity is used to paper over the cracks in the system (shoddily like the rest of the hurried papering in this book) just as our improving economy has led to the increase in food banks.
The phrase ‘living wage’ is used, but none of the philanthropists, working for the man, have any hope of getting one. The people in the crowd are so conditioned to believe the way of things they feel justified in assaulting those who tell them any different. There’s even an election scene at the end.
Robert Tressell’s died in a pauper’s grave before the book was published and yet he has achieved something I had not yet found in literature of this age. He is describing the lives of working class people using his knowledge and skill. You may say that DH Lawrence also has this knowledge and does this well but I sometimes detect a kind of shame and over-romanticism in his writing. EM Forster doesn’t even pretend to be concerned about the lives of the very poor in Howards End and sometimes resorts to Dickens. Ahhh. Yes. I guess Dickens manages it in his way, but this is somehow more real.
So if you are interested in socialism, read this book. If you are interested in early 20th century writing, read this book. And if you just like really good writing, read this book, you won’t be disappointed.
(C) Rebecca Deans 2015