Let’s get the negatives out of the way, shall we? At 608 pages, this book is long. Its presentation of socialist ideals and poverty is powerful and thought-provoking, but Tressell does kind of club the reader repeatedly with the same ideas – and honestly I think that he could have covered everything in about 200 pages, which would likely have made it much more effective as a piece of social commentary/propaganda. For the most part it’s depressing as hell, as any truly honest portrayal of Edwardian working-class life surely would be. In a nutshell, it’s no beach read.
All that having been said, I really enjoyed ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.’ As you can infer from the title, it examines the lives of those who work so hard and live in such poverty in order to fuel the lives of others (the “fat cats”). The characters are named in a slightly gimmicky fashion, each strongly alluding to a quality, an historical figure, or a concept. The main character with the big ideas is Frank Owen, presumably named for Welsh socialist Robert Owen and the philosophy of Owenism. The foreman is given the name ‘Hunter’, and he spends his time pouncing on the workers’ every small slip-up in order to dock their pay or let them go, so that his senior, ‘Rushton’, will see him in a more favourable light. As you may have guessed, Rushton himself is incessantly searching for corners to cut and faster methods of completing a job. Their competitors are ‘Dauber and Botchit’. I think the biggest stretch for me to actually take seriously was the MP ‘Sir Graball D’Enclosedland’. So you get the idea. Robert Tressell (real name Robert Noonan) was a house painter himself, and so the fella is writing what he knows. Look how he even subjected himself to his naming convention – a ‘trestle table’ is at the heart of a decorator’s kit.
One of the most important chapters of the book is ‘The Great Money Trick’, in which Owen puts forward his argument for socialism and reasons as to why “money is the real cause of poverty” to his workmates. Asking three of the men to cut up some bread, he devises a practical way to demonstrate to the whole group Marx’s concept of ‘Surplus Value’ in which (roughly speaking for I am no expert) workers are paid less than the value their labour has added to the product of their work, and the excess is appropriated by the capitalist. Owen pays his bread cutters once cube of bread for every three cubes that they cut, and he takes the other two. He argues that monetary wages are a ‘trick’ which leaves the worker worse off; the working class are left with tokens to exchange for the very goods they have been producing. Owen is a compelling debater, and he easily and eloquently repudiates his skeptics.
Once the reader has absorbed this lesson, Tressell then takes a closer look at the individuals in the house-painting band. This is the really heartbreaking bit. While I could never, ever begin to claim that I have suffered hardship in my life, the socio-economic history of the North of England – which is indeed where this book is set – is something that I am well-versed in. Even as recently as 2008, it was widely publicised that my hometown was the worst in the UK for child poverty. And conversations with grandparents were always at the back of my mind when I was reading about the endless struggle these characters faced just to make their books come somewhere close to balancing – to get to the end of a gruelling week and put food on the table. They often do not succeed. As a result, they are completely at the mercy of their superiors – they must endure being treated worse than dogs because the alternative is starvation and destitution for themselves and their families. Worst of all in Owen’s eyes is that the working class believe that this is simply ‘the way things are’ – they are stubbornly ignorant of any possibility of change for themselves of for future generations. Whether you buy into socialism or not, there is absolutely no way that you could read their stories and not be horrified, appalled or simply moved.
Tressell is careful to include a reasonable balance of humour, and a camaraderie between some of the workers that is heartening. It is a long book, and it is undeniably repetitive. If he’d been able to condense the thing it would have been much more accessible. But even if you have absolutely zero interest in political argument and fear that this would be a wearisome 600-odd page slog, I would seriously recommend that you give it a go. If nothing else, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ is a tour de force of a lesson in compassion for our fellow man.
I’ve finished this and want something similar:
Oft-cited as the non-fiction companion to this book is George Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. Wigan’s close to where I live, so again I’ll acknowledge the possibility that I might have a slightly skewed opinion of this book’s appeal.
(Orwell and Socialism is a pretty fascinating topic in itself, but even though it’s tempting to start up on that now I realise that this post is long enough as it is, and we should probably come back to it another day.)
What do you think?
Was ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ just too long to be enjoyable? Has it changed your own personal politics? Let me know in the comments – and, as always, I’d be thrilled if you subscribed!
Artwork credit: Punch (I spent a very contented morning with a brew browsing through hundreds of the images in the archives on the Punch site before doing this write-up. TRTP did kind of read like a Punch cartoon made into a book, actually.)