Admiration and Exasperation for a Working Class Classic – Rickard Sisters
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Admiration and Exasperation for a Working Class Classic

**this post contains spoilers**

(but you’ve had over 100 years to catch up, so that’s on you)

“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.”

Ch 43, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

By the time The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was posthumously published in 1911, under the pen-name Robert Tressell, it had been rejected by several publishers and (allegedly) thrown in the fire by its exasperated creator.  It is the kind of book people on the left feel they ought to have read, but have never quite get round to. Of those who have tried, many (like the PM’s girlfriend in Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup) “struggled through the first 50 pages and then gave up.” I don’t blame them.

Yet this book has some serious fans.  “There is no finer representation, anywhere in English writing, of a certain rough-edged, mocking, give-and-take conversation between workmen and mates. This humour, this edge, is one of the most remarkable achievements” writes Raymond Williams in Writing in Society (1983, p 254).  Alan Silitoe called it “’the first great English novel about the class war … witty, humorous, instinctive and full of excitement, harmony and pathos.” Tony Benn claimed “This book should be read and studied by this generation if we are to make progress,” and George Orwell called it “a book everyone should read.”

Sawkins on the dresser

They should. But would they? Roy Hattersley, writing in the New Statesman to mark the book’s centenary said, “Novels of political ideas … sacrifice plot, character and dialogue in order to argue the case that is their ideological theme. So it is with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Judged purely as a work of fiction, it lacks all distinction.” Oh, dear.

Howard Brenton called it “the working-class Vanity Fair,” and documented the empathy Tressell extends; “From the firm’s owner Rushton to his manager Hunter, the foreman Bob Crass, to the workers, the system brutalises and squeezes the humanity out of everyone” (the Guardian, 2011).

This story is known as the socialist novel, regarded for the intimate and realist depictions of working class people, and their relentless exploitation. But Tressell points the finger not at the government or the aristocracy, but at the working classes themselves. Hattersley notes “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, so long the bible of sentimental socialists, exhibits attitudes towards the working class which come very near to contempt” (New Statesman, 2011).

The title is an indication of the bitterness and satire within. The socialists depicted criticise the ‘imbecile system’ and the cruel hypocrisy of the rich, but reserve their most vehement criticisms for their fellow workers – those who refuse to accept that change is necessary or even possible. Kathleen Noonan later explained that her father “would get exasperated when he could make no impression on the workmen when trying to get them to better their conditions. He would say they deserved to suffer.”

Bob Crass

Tristram Hunt is not impressed. He said that “Noonan himself found a niche in the Social Democratic Federation run by his fellow middle-class Marxist, Henry Hyndman.  And this elevated approach, of a secular priesthood bringing salvation to the fallen, is exactly the tone Owen adopts with his fellow philanthropists” (the Guardian, 2004). Rather than inspiring the workers to ‘rise up like lions’, he suggested that Tressell’s attitude was that “the only real way to achieve political progress was for a properly educated, implicitly middle-class elite – led by the likes of Owen and his wealthy, articulate co-revolutionary Barrington – to drag the blighted working class towards the socialist future. This was the uncomfortable political reality behind Noonan’s “working-class classic”.”

The conclusion of the story – Barrington’s revelation as a wealthy benefactor in disguise – is, to me, highly problematic. Barrington’s actions throughout have been those of a class imposter; he has taken work from those who needed it more (such as the unlucky perfectionist, Newman), just so he could conduct some kind of freelance ethnography study and contribute little in return. The solution he offers at the end of the book is nothing but ‘the imbecile system’ resplendent: using the allowance from his father, Barrington bestows charity upon Owen, Bert and the Linden children, subsidising the philanthropy the workers afford Rushton.  And where does Barrington’s father’s money come from? Try not to think about that, I suppose.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had been published in various abridged forms until 1955, when FC Ball brought out an edition with every one of Tressell/Noonan’s 255,000 words. Hattersley’s opinion was that “the edited, 1914 version [which] ended with Owen’s contemplated suicide … though an act of literary vandalism – captured the depressing spirit of the novel” (New Statesman, 2011). Whatever difficulties I might have with the Barrington-ex-machina ending, and however I might recognise Hattersley’s ‘depressing spirit’, I could never have changed it for our graphic adaptation. This book is loved, and I worked hard to keep it ‘whole’.

Joe Philpot

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been cited as inspiration to many an active socialist over the last century, and yet it has never been so current. Perhaps this continued relevance, more than any literary criticism, is the most persuasive sign that the book’s exasperating message – that the working class refuses to fight for itself – might be a valid point.


May 2019

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