27 Jul Ragged Skirts As Well
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell is rightly known as a working class classic. But too often it is described as the story of the political awakening of a group of working men. The most famous passages of the book are the political ‘lectures’ that Owen and Barrington deliver, as well as The Money Trick and other clever explanations of socialist theory. To hear people talk about it, you could be forgiven for thinking this story was all about men and employment rights.
But it’s not. We have taken great pains in this adaptation to put the women of Mugsborough back in the centre of the action where Tressell planted them. It’s the story of the effects of capitalism on the lives of a group of men who work together. These men’s lives are centred around their homes and families. It is the tale of a whole community dealing with impossible conditions. The capitalist system grinds women down too, but in different ways. Tressell’s story illustrates that with poignancy and insight.
First let’s talk about Nora Owen. She is an intelligent, diligent and talented seamstress laid low by chronic illness and poor living conditions. She is unable to work outside the home because of her ill health, and she laments that she cannot afford to have more children. She is a socialist and she shares Owen’s project of trying to spread the message among their equals. She educates little Frankie about the capitalist system and the hypocrisy of the wealthy and ‘charitable’ people around them. She is generous with what little she has, and supports her friends in their hours of need.
One of those friends is Mary Linden. Mary was widowed in the Boer war and left with two children and her parents-in-law to support. She works tirelessly on piece-work sewing from home, a time-honoured method of combining childcare with paid work. Her job reminds us of today’s gig economy with no security, investment or responsibility for conditions or hours worked. It almost breaks Mary when her parents-in-law are taken to the poor-house, but Nora helps her to begin a new life at Ruth’s house. The income, and the support of another woman, is exactly what Ruth needs.
Ruth Easton rushed into marriage for the usual reason, far too young. She tries hard to manage her household with no skills, education or support and not enough resources. Her idea to solve their debt problem by renting out a room was selfless and creative, but it worked out very badly for her. By the time Mary comes along to rent a room, Ruth is already pregnant and feeling increasingly desperate and self-loathing. When the crisis comes, Mary and Nora become her extended family, working together to take care of her and her baby.
There are women who didn’t get much space in our adaptation, and we’re sorry for it. Mrs White, Bert’s mother, is a selfless widowed charlady who has been conned into handing Bert over to Rushton to be driven into the ground rather than taught a useful trade. Mrs Crass is a contrast: a social climber who takes pleasure in enriching herself through the toil of her equals, and emulates the very women who use their wealth to make her life a misery.
Throughout the novel the future prospects of the children are used to bring home the unending and irrational torture of ‘the present system’. To see little Elsie Linden assuming the responsibilities of her sex and preparing for a life of drudgery and thankless work is heartbreaking. During the story Elsie prepares herself for taking on the unpaid labour necessary for the smooth running of society. We see her clean, produce rudimentary meals and take care of the younger children (only letting baby Freddy fall in the pond once). She does these things cheerfully and, of course, no-one questions it. I only hope that the future will be different for the newest addition to Owen’s family — and for our daughters today.