‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ was first published in 1914 and is written in the spirit of the age, depicting suffering and injustice and foretelling great conflict in the near future. Tressell is not interested in the World War he did not live to see however, but in the struggle against an abusive society in which the masses were systematically oppressed by the few.
If that description seems a bit stark and lacking subtlety, it’s because I’m attempting to get into the spirit of the novel, in which all messages are made boldly and with as much satirical detail as possible. No opportunity to labour the point is missed and, for fans of nineteenth and twentieth century literature, there is a lot of incidental enjoyment from seeing Tressell make use of standard literary tropes to drive home his agenda. Thus we have Dickensian villains as the owners of the means of production (their names include Grinder, Didlum, Starver, Slumprent and D’Encloseland). Bravely inhabiting the opposite side of the scales are a handful of socialist workers, whose ability to spout pages and pages of erudite, sophisticated and grammatically perfect English stands in stark contrast to the genuinely believable characters who are harangued by each side in turn.
To my mind, it is these characters who shine through as the heroes of the book. They certainly provide its title, and we’re told how ‘all through the summer the crowd of ragged-trousered philanthropists continued to toil and sweat at their noble and unselfish task of making money for Mr Rushton.’ The book is set within Mudtown and, with few digressions, takes us through a year of back-breaking work and poverty-stricken unemployment. If the names of the evil capitalists and the diction of the good socialists seem dated, the realism of the ‘philanthropists’ themselves has endured in an inescapably powerful presentation of endemic social inequality. While the heroic Owen’s lectures can be hard to wade through, the responses of his audience, the fellow workers who support the status quo while suffering terribly from it, are frighteningly plausible. We see how those who have most to lose from anti-welfare policies are the most fervent defenders of an unequal society and how temporary labourers at daily risk of unemployment still passionately believe that those without work are lazy and have chosen to scrounge.
‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ is a classic for its presentation of working life in the early years of the twentieth century. It is admirable for its attempts to fit a socialist political polemic into the bourgeois confines of a traditional novel. Sadly, it is frighteningly relevant to anyone trying to make sense of inequalities and bigotry that still surround us. Personally, it made me both value the way society has changed over the last century and fear for what lies ahead; I found it a powerful novel with importance messages about the past, the present and the future.