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The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell and published posthumously by his daughter Kathleen. Tressell was a house painter in the early 1900s and the novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the town of Hastings where Tressell lived.
Tressell tells the story of several 'philanthropists': working-class men who are struggling to support their families whilst being taken advantage of by their employers and the present system. They are convinced that they should accept this as their lot. Frank Owen, the main protagonist in the novel, disagrees, and he seeks to convince his fellow workers that they spend all their time working to make money for fat cats who get rich off their manual labour and do not need to treat them so badly. Since most of the men Owen works with have families to support and are generally struggling to afford enough food for them to eat despite working all the hours they physically can, in often dangerous conditions and with no employee rights, you might think that they would take Owen's cause on board. Instead however they ridicule his arguments, calling him a madman and making fun of him for trying to act 'above his station'. Owen, however, never gives up in his dream of a better system, where all mouths are fed equally, work is enjoyable, and no man has authority over another based on the current monetary system.
At the time that Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Socialism was not a commonly understood ideology (indeed it is often still misunderstood today), but Tressell was struck by the poverty of those surrounding him and he wished to help better their situations rather than accepting their unfortunate lots as fated. That he was able to write about worker's conditions and rights with such foresight is impressive and deserves recognition. However, I do feel that the 'political' nature of this novel has meant that it has been neglected as an observant and touching work of literature in its own right. Although The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is widely referred to as a political text, it is also a novel capturing the essence of 20th century Britain and the social changes taking place at that time, and the story of Tressell's own plight.
As readers we must also consider the plight of a man in Tressell or Owen's position who is struggling to help his fellow men yet unable to communicate with them about an essential issue. Almost 100 years later, Tressell's arguments still hold their own in modern society, so in a way Tressell crosses time with his story- consider perhaps the recent western debacle with the banks and the lack of change to come about in spite of it. Although Owen's arguments in the book may sound like tedious preaching to us now, we can still appreciate that without arguments such as these there would have been no unions and therefore no workers' rights- meaning no weekends, no paid holidays, no protection in the workplace, no sick leave, etc. This is easy to forget in modern-day society, but in Tressell's day it was a dream that only the brave dared to dream, and for that reason we must admire his foresight and his passion in this book.
But it is not the only reason to enjoy it. The characters in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists are unique and memorable, and the overall story, though tragic, is rooted in history and takes us through several journeys. Crass is one of the more venomous characters in the book. He is jealous and suspicious of Owen and challenges him to 'prove' the cause of poverty to the workers, which Owen believes is money. In response to this, all the workers - or philanthropists - laugh aloud at Owen, and when Owen launches into an in-depth explanation of what he calls 'The Great Money Trick', his words fall largely on deaf ears. 'The Great Money Trick' however is now a well-known a passage still selected for study and quotation by students of history, sociology, politics and economics alike.
On a political note, I did find Owen's explanation of Socialism intriguing, as his way of presenting it to the reader demonstrates the common sense of such a system. Owen states the simple fact that he is not against work, progress or money, but the way those things are used in 20th century society to control manual workers. Owen argues that such things can easily continue in society, to the benefit of all, so long as all money that is earned has an 'expiry date' on it, meaning that the worker is free to spent it as he pleases but not free to amass it and therefore gain a monopoly of power over other human beings. I studied Sociology A Level for two years and I found it to be an intriguing subject, however never was Socialism explained in such a simple manner. After reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, I felt that I could easily relate to Tressell's plight, as I myself have since come up against good-natured ridicule when attempting to cite something from the book. We have not come as far from Tressell's day, perhaps, as I had originally thought.
Although the plot of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is tragic, I did not feel that the book was depressing. It is a touching story is many ways, including the fact that the reader clearly cares for the figures who ridicule him. Owen has a caring nature and a beautiful bond with his wife, and although their life is a struggle they maintain a positive relationship throughout the novel based on love. They also offer sanctuary to other characters in the novel at different times. The characters who are more infuriating in their disagreement with Owen's arguments which he expounds as a means of bettering their situations, such as Crass, can be infuriating, yet they are also amusing and therefore enjoyable to read. My advice about this book is, don't overlook it as a 'political text', because whatever your politics may be, it is much, much more than that.
The actor, Ricky Tomlinson has often talked in interviews about this book being the catalyst for him joining the Labour Party and saying what a profound influence the book has had on his life.
From a twenty-first century perspective, I can't say that this book had such an effect on me, although I can see that it may well have had a tremendous impact when it was first published in 1914. For many people, it must have been the first time they had read about the effects of grinding poverty on the working people of this country and for others, I'm sure it would have been an incentive to support socialism and the growing Labour Party.
The ragged trousered philanthropists of the title are a group of painters and decorators working on the renovation of a large property in the town of Mugsborough, a fictional town somewhere in the south east of England. Many of the conversations described in the book could well be those of a group of painters and decorators today. They blame all their ills on foreigners, and get most of their political opinions from the newspaper, 'The Obscurer'; a Tory owned fictional equivalent of The Sun is my best guess. In fact, these workers are supporting the very political system which is grinding them into the dirt.
One of the workers, Owen, is a socialist and atheist who tries to educate his colleagues that all their ills can be put down to capitalism and Christianity. I suspect that Robert Tressell, the author, who was a painter and signwriter, modelled this character on himself.
I think we're supposed to empathise with Owen but I really found him quite an unlikeable character in that he spends most of his time pontificating and seems to despise everyone: his colleagues for their blinkered collusion in their own subjugation and his bosses for actually doing the subjugating. Most of Owen's dialogue is followed by "he laughed contemptuously" or "he sneered". I did warm to him more as the book neared its end but most of my sympathies were for his fellow workers, especially Easton and his wife. Mostly these poor people were so busy trying to keep their heads above the financial waters and hold onto their jobs in order to feed their families, that they really didn't have much time to dwell on politics. Suffice to say, the story doesn't end with "and they all lived happily ever after".
I didn't find this the easiest of reads. Firstly, having been written in the early part of the twentieth century, the writing style is very different from the novels of today. Also, Robert Tressell attempts to write conversations in 'workman-speak' in order to show that these people didn't speak like the middle or upper classes, and as a consequence there are lots of aitches added into or subtracted from words.
The book also reads a little like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress in that everything was given an appropriate name. Mugsborough, for instance, I took to imply that all the residents were mugs, though I may be wrong about that; The Obscurer for the daily newspaper and a firm of solicitors called Didlum, and so forth. I appreciate that Tressell was probably trying to make a point here but it seemed to detract from the story's truth rather than emphasise it.
Reading this story one hundred years after its publication made it, for me, read more like an historical novel than the contemporary one that it actually was. There is a great deal of truth in the saying 'Distance lends enchantment' because I felt I was reading about people who had lived so long ago that getting angry on their behalf was a pointless exercise. Yes, I felt sorry for their plight but my overriding emotion was one of relief that things are so much better today and although I think probably that has a great deal to do with socialism and the Labour movement, it hasn't made me want to rush off and join the Labour Party.
This book was published in 1914 and it is pretty easy to get hold of a second hand copy from any online bookseller or borrow from your local library. I'm fairly sure that, being regarded as a classic, this is also available for free download somewhere online.
If you are an aspiring trades union leader, you will probably consider this book essential reading but for those with a less strong political viewpoint, I think there are probably other socialist novels which make their point more appealingly.