Sally Minogue celebrates The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

2020 marks the 150th anniversary of Robert Tressell’s birth; Sally Minogue celebrates his iconic novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’.

What relevance has this novel today? Not a difficult question, in that its relevance is simply that of a good book that ought to be read. It is easy to read, like all journeys through hell. It has its own excitement, harmony, and pathos. It is spiked, witty, humorous, and instructive. Above all, it is deeply bitter, because it is a real hell inhabited by real people, a hell made by one’s fellow men because they were human also and didn’t want to know any better.

Thus Alan Sillitoe, one author of a great working-class novel writing about another, sums up The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, in his own spiked tones. There is enough in that summary to make us want to read the novel. Here I’ll try to tease out and illustrate its qualities further, with the proviso that it is a big book.

Tressell’s title announces that this is no realist working-class novel. The heavy irony of the juxtaposition of ‘ragged trousered’ with ‘philanthropists’ intrigues, but it doesn’t give many clues to the content of the novel for the new reader. Indeed, that title has become part of the mystique and cult status that this novel has acquired. For any self-respecting socialist, having a copy is the literary equivalent of card-carrying – though possibly not everyone who carries it has read it.  However, the novel’s fame and popularity go far beyond any narrow political category. From its first writing (finished in 1911), it made it into print (1914) only in a bowdlerized form. But since Tressell’s unexpurgated original manuscript was finally published in 1955, it has never been out of print, it is available in many editions, and it has kept a constant readership.

So who are these eponymous ‘ragged trousered philanthropists’, and why, as Sillitoe asks, should we be interested in them today? They are working-class men, a rare enough subject in early twentieth-century fiction. This then is a political novel. But what strikes us as we begin to read it is the immediacy of the politics, 120 years on. Read the first chapter and you will find arguments that almost exactly mimic the central arguments in our current Brexit-riven and virus-haunted society: ‘“We’re overrun with ‘em!”’; ‘“They’re able to sell their goods ‘ere because they don’t ‘ave to pay no dooty, but they take care to put ‘eavy dooties on our goods”’. (No prizes for knowing who ‘they’ and ‘them’ are.) ‘“Some of the b______s who go about pleading poverty ‘ave never done a fair day’s work in all their bloody lives.”’ ‘“Another thing is women,” said Harlow, “there’s thousands of ‘em nowadays doin’ work wot oughter be done by men.”’ ‘“It don’t make a dam bit of difference who you vote for or who gets in. They’re hall the same.”’  ‘“The sensible thing is to try and make the best of things as we find ‘em: enjoy ourselves, and do the best we can for each other.”’ If these arguments all sound depressingly familiar, they are roundly countered by the central character Frank Owen, who is the standard-bearer of socialist ideas in the novel. The novel’s central dialogue is between him and his fellow workers.

It was brave of Tressell to begin his novel so immediately with the political arguments which lie at the heart of the novel. But the reader would not be engaged with them if s/he did not also engage with the characters who voice them. Central to the novel is the depiction of the lives of these men, their wives, sisters, mothers, and children. As Tressell himself says in his Preface:

The action of the story covers a period of only a little over twelve months, but in order that the picture might be complete, it was necessary to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives, from the cradle to the grave. Therefore characters include women and children, a young boy – some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn-out old men.

After the first scene-setting chapter, and a second chapter in which we see a calculated act of cruelty by the feared head foreman Hunter, in which a faithful veteran Jack Linden is trapped in a misdemeanour – smoking on the job – and summarily dismissed, we move into a close-up of the lives of these men and women. All are dogged by poverty and its suffering, but Tressell depicts the fabric of their individual lives so that we see beyond what might initially seem like stereotypes. Chapter Three takes us into the home of William Easton. It is a pleasing interior, where care has been taken with furniture and decor, in spite of the lack of money. Easton we are told has bought some of the furniture second-hand and ‘done it up himself’. In the rarely-used sitting room, there are many touches of colour and warmth and individual expression.  The tender description of the small efforts towards a sense of beauty even in the midst of poverty recalls similar ones of interiors in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). All three authors emphasise the attention to cleanliness, the sparkling of glass, crockery and utensils contributing to the appeal of the rooms described. And when we move into Easton’s normal living room, that appeal continues: ‘an air of homely comfort pervaded the room; the atmosphere was warm, and the fire blazed cheerfully over the whitened hearth’.

Warm too is the relationship between William and his wife Ruth, who together attempt to sort out their money difficulties, poring over the detail of their outgoings, looking vainly for ways to make economies. But they exchange bitter words about the costs they have incurred in buying the furniture and oilcloth, the very things that have helped to brighten their home. Anyone who has lived in a family where money is constantly short will recognize the awful cruelty of such exchanges, where each party is powerless and lack of money becomes a weapon of blame as well as a burden. However, they make up their short quarrel, and William, having initially upbraided Ruth – ‘“it seems to me you don’t manage things as well as you might”’ – concedes finally that she may as well continue to oversee the finances, as he himself would do no better.

We are taken similarly inside the rooms, and so the lives, of several of the protagonists – Jack Linden, at the end of his working life, who has at least the companionship of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and who has used his decorating skills to improve his cottage; Owen himself, whose relationship with his young son Frankie is so loving, Owen taking on the role of mother to help his poorly wife Nora take more rest. More gloomily, through the pages of a newspaper, Owen reads, we see the threadbare room with only a straw mattress in which a man has murdered his wife and children by cutting their throats, then turning the razor on himself. ‘It was one of the ordinary poverty crimes’ is the terse narrative summary. Against these are set the interiors in which the loose group of ‘carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters’, the central characters of the novel, spend their working lives and the mass of their time. This is the central subject of the novel. Tressell’s stated ‘intention was to present, in the form of an interesting story, a faithful picture of working-class life – more especially of those engaged in the building trades – in a small town in the south of England.’ That we see depicted largely in ‘The Cave’, the oddly-named large house which they are renovating.  The focus is on the painters and decorators, and the hierarchy of power that runs initially from Sweater, the owner of the house, down through Rushton the owner of the renovating firm, his general foreman Hunter (or ‘old Misery’), the men’s immediate foreman Crass, right down to the poor lad Bert at the bottom of the pile making the tea. A constant crowd of unemployed are always on hand to sue for a place, so no one’s job is safe, thus opening up avenues for bullying from the top downwards, and toadying from the bottom upwards. Hunter spends his life trying to surprise one or other of the workmen in some tiny indiscretion, as his sacking of Jack Linden exemplifies. The work is predicated on cutting down costs as much as possible, the men thus working harder for less money, but unable to protest for fear they lose their position.

Owen, in one of the several sections of the book where he tries to educate the men in the economics and politics which keep them in poverty, explains what happens when a house owner gets quotes for the job from a number of master painters:

“Those master painters are so eager to get the work that they cut the price down to what they think is the lowest point … and the lowest usually gets the job. The successful tenderer has usually cut the price so fine that to make it pay he has to scamp the work, pay low wages, and drive and sweat the men whom he employs. He wants them to do two days’ work for one day’s pay. The result is that a job which – if it were done properly – would employ say twenty men for two months, is rushed and scamped in half that time with half that number of men.”

It is for this reason that Owen, and Tressell, dub the working men ‘philanthropists’: they are giving away part of their labour, and to the profit of those better off than themselves, thus ensuring that they will always be ‘ragged trousered’. And that labour is given to provide a beautiful background to a way of life that they will never share in.

The ruthless logic of this analysis is characteristically resisted by Owen’s fellow workers, which only increases his irritation with them. The novel can be criticised for the supine nature of most of the workers depicted as willingly conniving in their own disastrous fate.  This is indeed what Tressell wants to reveal to us: the institutions which keep workers subjugated, as well as keeping them in poverty, also make any sort of resistance difficult. Hence the heavy irony of their being seen as ‘philanthropists’. But in order to make his political point sharply, he errs in a different direction, by representing the average working man as inherently stupid. This can’t have been Tressell’s belief, since Socialism was for him almost a faith, and the novel ends with quasi-religious rhetoric (in spite of Owen’s atheism) embodying a gilded Socialist future ‘where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy’.  For that to come about, he had to believe in the possibility of changing consciousnesses. He was himself an active member of the Social Democratic Federation which, together with the Independent Labour Party, provided the foundation for the Labour Party, just in its infancy as he was writing. Unionisation was already established, particularly in urban industrial settings, and many new labour laws were coming into being, the beginnings of legal protection for the working man and woman. But certain trades were organised in a way that enabled the picking off of individuals and militated against the collective activity, and that is what Tressell depicts.

If the novel is flawed by stereotyping the worker, it nevertheless puts working-class life at its centre, giving working people their own voice and represented accent, and showing their inner lives as well as their observed external ones. In these ways it is in the line of a small but significant tradition, reaching back into the nineteenth century to Gaskell, Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and forward to the powerful fictional depictions of working-class life in the 1950s and ‘60s, by Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney, Nell Dunn, John Braine and others.  It was published within a year of D.H. Lawrence’s seminal Sons and Lovers, and should be read alongside it as part of that literary tradition. It is a noble tradition, in which Tressell’s novel takes a proud place.

For a full and fascinating account of Robert Tressell (the pseudonym used by Robert Noonan), see the biography on the Wordsworth editions website, and the excellent introduction to the Wordsworth edition of the novel, by Lionel Kelly.  The original manuscript can be read on the TUC website:

Main image: The Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive /  Alamy Stock Photo