Top positive review
10 people found this helpful
Excellent Literature in its Own Right
on 29 July 2011
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.