Review: Robert Tressell – The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered PhilanthropistsThe Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists having been on my to-read list for decades now, I was spurred into finally reading it by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Good call in that they bear remarkable similarities. Bad call in that reading them back-to-back proved something of an ordeal.

The temptation to compare Tressell’s work with Sinclair’s is one I will have to succumb to in the course of this review, so best first to give Philanthropists some consideration in its own right.

Set in early-20th century England, prior to the First World War, it describes the ordeal of underpaid – to the point of starvation – painters and decorators in a town in southern England. The workers are not only accepting of the system that brings about their poverty, but also complicit with it, even encouraging it out of a misplaced faith in the order of things. This is how things are, have always been, and must forever be. Indeed, they are worshipful of those who exploit them as a class, (though showing reservations towards them as individuals given the abuse they suffer), for providing them with work in the first place without which they would surely starve. Each has the knowledge that he – all the painters and decorators are men – will age prematurely, become useless for work, and then end up in the poor house or dead. Those with families are desperate to provide for them while they can, consigning their own children to premature employment in order to get them started in life, even if that means ‘persuading’ an employer to take the children on as free labour as apprentices so they may at least lay claim to a trade.

Tressell himself could not have been better-placed as our writer. He was one such employee. He wrote in his free time, never seeing his work published nor believing it ever could be, dying prematurely of tuberculosis.

The cure for these societal ills, one in which Tressell himself clearly believes and, in believing it, puts in the mouth of the characters Owen and Barringer, is socialism. However, their protests against the system as it stands are largely met by its victims with incomprehension and mockery. At best, those who listen are wary. At worst, they refuse to listen and meet the socialists’ words with violence.

Tressell cannot keep his voice out of the work, frequently intruding his frustration as the narrator at the folly of the workers. These intrusions are too frequent, too repetitive. The portrait of Marx’s ‘lumpen proletariat’ is, at times, rather too scathing, (not that Marx is ever referenced nor the term ever used). Indeed, when Tressell presents one of the peripheral socialist characters giving up on the cause after the very people he desires to help put him in hospital, turning instead to campaigning for an established political party of exploitation because it pays, I can’t help feeling that Tressell himself may have done likewise, not out of a loss of faith – as Tressell’s character does not lose his own faith in socialism – but just to keep body and soul together with the pay received rather than continue to fight for those who would fight him for doing so.

In this, as in many another aspect, comparisons with The Jungle are numerous, so much so that The Jungle may be seen as the American Philanthropists. Sinclair’s central character does the same as Tressell’s peripheral character in serving the political needs of his own persecutors out of expediency. The arguments are somewhat better developed in considering socialism in Philanthropists, but both works serve in part as tracts supportive of the socialist ideal with contained expositions that can feel rather forced into the narratives of both works. Poverty and the fear bear a strong resemblance in the two works in their portrayal, and the sense of people used as objects to be cast away when worn out is the same. The skimping that provides the exploitative employers’ customers with shoddy work in Philanthropists, substandard and even dangerous food in The Jungle, are again the same. Indeed, in listing all the similarities it is hard to believe that the one work was not modelled upon the other, though no research I’ve done has suggested Sinclair and Tressell even knew of one another’s existence.

Behind the thematic treatment, however, there are distinct differences between the two works. Sinclair offers us wall-to-wall misery with little reprieve. Tressell at least has his workers upbeat and mischievous, albeit their plight is never backgrounded, nor are their fears. Sinclair’s work progresses. Tressell’s does not. He moves us from slender anecdote to slender anecdote in detailing the lives of his protagonists, so much so that the work would have benefited greatly from pruning, it’s a long novel. Sinclair ends his work with optimism, the central character safe in the arms of fellow believers in socialism, the pressure for change and the introduction of socialism building throughout society. Tressell ends his happily, but pessimistically. Barringer turns out to be from a better background than the other workers, slumming it in his socialist beliefs, trying to make a difference by raising the consciousness of the workers. He gives money to other central characters at the end, Owen’s family in particular, but we know that money cannot last, while overall Tressell seems to see the cause of socialism as hopeless. There is another strange connection here. Sinclair himself slummed it for a period in the Chicago meat packing factories that were the setting of his own novel in order to gain the experience to write it.

Neither author predicted that the system might reform itself, as we know that it did; sufficiently, at least, to make poverty a thing of the past, or so it seemed until it began to return in the late 20th century with the return of old attitudes which are now having to be fought again. (As I write, it is 2016, Britain has Corbyn, and the USA has Sanders, neither of whom would have been predictable even a year ago, but the expounding of socialism in these two works illustrates the fact neither man is a socialist in the true sense of the word. Nonetheless, the issues they seek to address are the very issues socialism was born to answer in the 19th century, beginning to emerge once more in the 21st).

The strain of reading The Jungle and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists back-to-back means I failed to take as much pleasure in the latter as I may have done otherwise. Nonetheless, it is too long, a definite flaw. There is too little progress in the narrative and too much repetition for that length to be justifiable. A three-star read, I’ve given it four stars as a worthy work, a pertinent novel that needs to be read by some these days who seem blissfully oblivious to their own nations’ histories in the policies they advocate and the parties they support. As a work it should serve not as a snapshot of history, but as a warning lest history repeat itself.

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