© 2019 by M. Keith Booker
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is one of the founding texts of modern British working-class fiction and is still considered one of the most important examples of the genre. The book is particularly effective in its vivid depiction of British working-class life, made all the more striking by the fact that Tressell himself (born in Ireland as Robert Noonan), had himself experienced working-class life first hand, though he also held management positions at various times. Indeed, Brian Mayne calls the book “the first realistic novel of working-class life by a member of the working classes” (73). And Tressell’s own working-class perspective comes through not only at the level of content (though he clearly knows more about the actual experiences of workers than do most novelists), but also in the form and style of his book. As Raymond Williams argues, “there is no finer representation, anywhere in English writing, of a certain rough-edged, mocking, give-and-take conversation between workmen and mates” (254). Moreover, as Wim Neetens points out, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists conducts an extensive subversion of the tradition of bourgeois fiction, succeeding in negating “the dictates of the literary market place by being intelligent without being trivial, oppositional without being marginal, instructive without being patronising or dull” (88). According to Neetens, the book is thus an excellent “example of how through constructing for itself unorthodox cultural conditions a text may become a vital part of a popular political consciousness on the side of the opposition” (81).
Or, as Williams puts it, in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Tressell sought to break “with precisely the inherited assumptions of what it was to write a novel, and to write a good, competent novel” (242). Tressell’s most important violation of the accepted decorum of the bourgeois novel, of course, is to make his work an avowedly political tract. David Smith (positively) stresses the fact that The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is “fundamentally a work of propaganda” (28). He notes that Tressell draws upon a wide variety of socialist thinkers in the development of his own political vision and argues that “part of his appeal lies in his very unsectarian willingness to borrow from various strands of Socialist ideology” (28). But Smith also insists that the book is “both a masterpiece of polemic and also an extremely good novel” (30). And Smith is right to conclude that the real power of the book lies in its vivid (and sympathetic, though not idealized) evocation of the lives of British workers. These workers, Smith notes, come alive in both their “comic and tragic aspects,” and their experience is related with a dignity and to an extent unrivaled in works such as those of Charles Kingsley, Benjamin Disraeli, and Charles Dickens, who occasionally show the horrors of sweatshops and factories, but who represent workers themselves in little or no detail and who establish no organic connection between workers and their work (33).
Given the strong prejudice against political statement in literature that has long informed the tradition of bourgeois aesthetics, it is perhaps a wonder that Tressell’s book has survived at all. Indeed, the continued survival and even popularity of Tressell’s text, despite the fact that it has seldom received serious critical attention from scholars in the official academy, is a remarkable story in itself. The informal dissemination of information about Tressell’s book—and of the book itself—is itself one of the most interesting phenomena in the modern history of British working-class culture. The textual history of the book is interesting as well. First published in a greatly condensed version three years after Tressell’s death, the book was reissued in an even shorter “abridged” edition in 1918. It was not published in a full edition (based on Tressell’s handwritten manuscript, newly rediscovered in 1946) until 1955 by Lawrence and Wishart, largely through the efforts of their editor, F. C. Ball, whose own book, One of the Damned, provides a number of details concerning the publication history of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and the life of the rather mysterious Tressell. Since that time, the reputation and popularity of the book have constantly grown, even during the dark years of the Cold War, when conditions were hardly advantageous.
Tressell’s own preface to the book begins by stating that his intention in writing it 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” (11). The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists succeeds admirably in this task. It relates in great detail the lives of building-trades workers, especially house painters, in the fictional town of Mugsborough, including their experiences on the job, in their private homes with their families, and in various public activities in their community. But the book goes beyond mere representation of everyday life among workers to develop a detailed and systematic theoretical explanation for why their lives are the way they are. As Tressell goes on to state in his preface, “I wished to describe the relations existing between the workmen and their employers, the attitude and feelings of these two classes towards each other” (11). The book succeeds in this task as well, in the process presenting both a sweeping indictment of the capitalist system and a sort of beginning course on socialism as a potential alternative. In doing so, the book addresses a number of important social and political issues that have remained fundamental to British working-class fiction ever since.
As a book written about workers by one who has actually worked, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists presents the process of work as a craft and as a social interaction with an immediacy that is unsurpassed in any literary representation of the working class. However, Williams points out that the book gains its unique power from the fact that Tressell is writing from a perspective that is very much within the working class and simultaneously outside a typical working-class position, given Tressell’s wide reading and experience. Tressell is thus able to undergird his representation of working-class life with a sophisticated theoretical framework. For example, his workers are skilled craftsmen who take pride in doing a good job, but they are constantly pressured to do slipshod work so that their endlessly greedy bosses can make higher profits. The book thus suggests the tendency of capitalism to devalue genuine craftsmanship and to reduce the real quality of life in the interest of purely economic advancement. In addition, the insatiable thirst for profit that drives the capitalist system reduces the workers themselves to profit-making tools, treated not as human beings, but as commodities, ruthlessly exploited on the job and often unemployed (with little in the way of social services) when business is slow.
The protagonist, Frank Owen, is a highly intelligent, self-educated sign painter who provides the central point of view from which Tressell observes the complex workings of the capitalist system. Owen observes abundance of production all around him, while he and his fellow workers live in abysmal poverty: “He saw that the people who enjoyed abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others, who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked” (16). Such observations run throughout the book and are reinforced with detailed introductory explications of socialist theory, centered in the two great teaching chapters, “The Oblong” and “The Great Oration,” which, together, serve as a sort of introduction to socialism, helping to make the book, as Peter Miles puts it, “a self-contained kit for the dissemination of ideas” (10).
Much of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, meanwhile, is devoted to a depiction of the cultural practices by which the capitalist system maintains its hegemony by blinding the workers to their own exploitation. Religion, for example, comes in for particular criticism as an opiate of the masses in a way that recalls Marx’s famous observation, but that also resembles the diagnoses of religion as a mind-numbing force that appear in the works of Tressell contemporaries such as James Joyce and Arnold Bennett. Where Tressell differs from these writers in his clear understanding of the participation of religion in a class-oriented economic system. One working-class character, for example, observes, “As for all this religious business, it’s just a money-making dodge. It’s the parson’s trade, just the same as painting is ours, only there’s no work attached to it and the pay’s a bloody sight better than ours is” (153). Similarly, in a way that anticipates later Marxist thinkers such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Tressell identifies popular culture, in the form of devices such as the Daily Obscurer newspaper, as a major factor in the workers’ lack of understanding of the true nature of the capitalist system and of their antagonism toward socialism as an alien force supposedly contrary to their interests.
Tressell’s book attempts to engage these cultural forces head-on and to provide an alternative cultural voice, both as a cultural artifact in its own right and in the ways Owen and his fellow socialist, Barrington, attempt to counter the hegemony of bourgeois ideology by winning their fellow workers over to their ideas through extended rational argumentation. The difficulty of these efforts is indicated in the title itself, which refers to the way that most of the workers in the book, despite their own conditions of poverty and deprivation, are willing to work so diligently in order to support their rich bosses, who do little or no real work at all. Indeed, Tressell’s depiction of the ignorance and stubbornness with which most of his workers continue to support the existing system comes very close to the depiction of workers as “irredeemably incapable of improving their conditions” that is often found in reactionary literature (Williams 249).
But Tressell successfully negotiates this pitfall by building into his book a profound respect for workers and their work. He also lightens his criticism of them with a liberal dose of humor. Thus, Smith, placing the book in a number of literary traditions, notes that it particularly recalls the English humorous tradition of Fielding, Swift, Shaw, Wells, and especially Dickens (36). Ronald Paul, meanwhile, notes how the book participates in an early-twentieth-century surge in leftist fiction from around the world, but that it stands apart from the works of contemporaries such as Gorky, Nexö, and Jack London in its effective use of humor (247). Tressell’s humor, sometimes bitingly sarcastic, sometimes warmly affectionate, is in fact one of characteristics of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that has made the text so popular for so long.
Despite its sometimes pessimistic-sounding presentation of the difficulty of convincing workers of the value of socialism, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists maintains a consistent underlying tone of optimism. As the book ends, Owen, sick with tuberculosis and in desperate need of money, is suddenly saved when Barrington (who turns out to be a rich man who has been working just to observe working-class conditions) supplies him with the needed cash. Sudden changes for the better, this motif seems to say, are possible. And the book then ends on a note of utopian optimism, anticipating the coming triumph of socialism as “the light that will shine upon the world wide Fatherland and illumine the gilded domes and glittering pinnacles of the beautiful cities of the future, where men shall dwell together in true brotherhood and goodwill and joy. The Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism” (630).
 As of this writing, the book is now available as a free Kindle e-book from Amazon.com, as well as in an inexpensive audiobook edition from Amazon’s Audible.com.