Taking a break from the war for a moment, the excellent Between The Liner Notes podcast has a history of Joe Hill, the songwriter whose work would inform the political side of folk music for the rest of the century, who was executed for a murder he almost certainly did not commit in 1915.
If a certain war had not begun in 1914, the 1910s would likely be best remembered as a decade of progressive social unrest. Movements for workers rights and against racial segregation were now getting into full swing, and, in the UK especially, the period from 1910 to 1914 saw the most militant action of all from the suffragette movement. Women having the vote was thought at the turn of the century to perhaps be a frivolous idea, or at best a distant goal, but then the suffragettes had done everything they could to draw attention to their cause, including chaining themselves to railings, refusing to pay taxes and fines, setting fire to letterboxes, graffiti, smashing shop windows, and even bombing the house of the Chancellor, David Lloyd George. In 1909 Marion Wallace Dunlop had begun the first hunger strike, and though she was released, the government would soon resort to force-feeding those who followed her lead.
Then in 1911 along came the national census, carried out in the UK every ten years. This was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate anger at “taxation without representation” and naturally one that was seized with both hands.
The story is taken up here by Jill Liddington, who has written a book about it, no less.
Vanishing for the vote recounts what happened on one night, Sunday 2 April, 1911, when the Liberal government demanded every household comply with its census requirements. Suffragette organisations urged women, all still voteless, to boycott this census. Many did. Some wrote ‘Votes for Women’ boldly across their schedules. Others hid in darkened houses or, in the case of Emily Wilding Davison, in a cupboard within the Houses of Parliament. Yet many did not. Even some suffragettes who might be expected to boycott decided to comply – and completed a perfectly accurate schedule.
1911 is an exciting time for literature, but I would venture that the most important event of the year was not Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s launch of the Futurist Manifestito, nor the publication of the first of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels, and not even Virginia Stephen, Leonard Woolf, Adrian Stephen, John Maynard Keynes and Duncan Grant all moving into a house at 38 Brunswick Square to start The Bloomsbury Group.
Instead let’s turn our eyes towards the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, where itinerant painter & decorator Robert Noonan died from pulmonary tuberculosis on the third of February, aged 40. In a box, hidden under her bed, his daughter kept his sole novel, then titled ‘The Ragged Arsed Philanthropists’, a semi-autobiographical account of his time working in Hastings. It had been rejected by three publishers, and he had wanted it burned. By chance his daughter met poet Jessie Pope, best known for stirring patriotic motivational poems issued during the first world war. He took it to his publisher (extensively Bowdlerized) and had the thing published. It wasn’t until 1955 that the original was reassembled from notes and scraps of paper which could easily have been lost a dozen times.
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthopists, then, is a seminal work of socialist literature, and inspiration to generations of politically active people of all varieties. As such, I expected it to be more moralistic and preachy than it is, and was pleasantly surprised to find it full of complex characters who are far from ideologically pure. Even in the first chapter there is a debate about whether immigrants are to blame for stagnant wages which works effectively as a demonstration of the kind of “false consiousness” later described by Theodor Adorno, while remaining entirely convincing as a depiction of life as he lived it (and, more importantly maybe, a scene which could play out exactly the same way in the england of 2019.) The nearest parallel I can think of is Emile Zola’s Germinal – but Tressell cares more about his characters, he is not willing to give any of them quite as terrible an ending as he himself suffered.
The book is widely available (here for example) and for people who don’t feel like reading right this moment, here is a very good BBC radio dramatization featuring Andrew Lincoln, Johnny Vegas, Timothy Spall, Paul Whitehouse, Bill Bailey, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and John Prescott MP(!?)