A Classic Class War Novel: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell

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‘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 socialists 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.

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16 Responses to A Classic Class War Novel: ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell

  1. I re-read the bread speech recently where the capitalist production of labour is explained – still depressingly relevant!

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I must read this, I’ve been meaning to for ages and ages…

  3. Izzy says:

    I was looking forward to your review of this book because it’s been on my (extremely long) wishlist for months. Actually, I didn’t know it was a novel. Now I’m curious to see how it compares to the wonderful Hard Times, or indeed how much it owes to Dickens’s novel.

    • The names are quite Dickensian, but the socialist agenda is much more explicit and stark. Dickens wanted social reform, but he didn’t believe that everything in society (even philanthropically-minded ladies and clergy) was rotten to the core. To be fair though, I wasn’t looking closely for comparisons, I’ll be interested to hear your conclusions on the relationship between the two book.

  4. I really need to read this – and I have a copy too! Must make the time!

  5. Jonathan says:

    I read this over twenty years ago and really liked it. It’s true that it’s not great literature but it’s rare to see and hear the working class in their own words in Victorian & Edwardian Britain. It comes across as authentic.

    • I agree, and I think it certainly belongs in the canon of great twentieth century novels. You’re right about the authenticity of the working class voices – it’s what makes the lapses into novel-speak so disconcerting!

  6. BookerTalk says:

    this has been on my list of books to read for decades. My husband tried it and found it a bit hard going so that put me off but you make it sound more interesting

  7. I have to say I thrilled to this in my early twenties – echoing Jonathan’s comments. It may not stand up as great literature, but it does stand out as a voice for labour, not capital. And…As several point out, most, most sadly may not be as dated as many of us would have hoped it would be. It would be a more hopeful world of this were an interesting museum piece, rather than something with things still to say

    • I know exactly what you mean! I also envy you reading it when you did. It’s such a powerful polemic I really wish I’d discovered at that age, steeped as I was in both idealism and a love of long ponderous Victorian novels 🙂

  8. Pingback: Addictively Silly: The Mysteries of Paris by Eugène Sue (1842-43) | Shoshi's Book Blog

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