Monday, 1 May 2017

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
First published in the UK by Grant Richards on the 23rd April 1914.

The first of my Essential General Election Reads for 2017.

I registered my copy of this book at BookCrossing

Where to buy this book:
Buy from independent booksellers via Alibris
Buy the ebook from /
Buy the paperback from Speedyhen
Buy the paperback from The Book Depository

How I got this book:
Swapped for on the book exchange at Camping El Naranjal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In writing this book my intention 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. I wished to describe the relations existing between the workmen and their employers, the attitude and feelings of these two classes towards each other; their circumstances when at work and when out of employment; their pleasures, their intellectual outlook, their religious and political opinions and ideals.
The action of the story covers a period of only a little over twelve months, but in order that the picture might be complete it was necessary to describe how the workers are circumstanced at all periods of their lives, from the cradle to the grave. Therefore the characters include women and children, a young boy--the apprentice--some improvers, journeymen in the prime of life, and worn-out old men.
I designed to show the conditions relating from poverty and unemployment: to expose the futility of the measures taken to deal with them and to indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely--Socialism. I intended to explain what Socialists understand by the word 'poverty': to define the Socialist theory of the causes of poverty, and to explain how Socialists propose to abolish poverty.
It may be objected that, considering the number of books dealing with these subjects already existing, such a work as this was uncalled for. The answer is that not only are the majority of people opposed to Socialism, but a very brief conversation with an average anti-socialist is sufficient to show that he does not know what Socialism means. The same is true of all the anti-socialist writers and the 'great statesmen' who make anti-socialist speeches: unless we believe that they are deliberate liars and imposters, who to serve their own interests labour to mislead other people, we must conclude that they do not understand Socialism.

I am always intrigued by real novels that earn a mention in other novels I've enjoyed so, when The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists cropped up in the entertaining audiobook A Very British Coup, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for a copy. I was nearly put off by the sheer volume of this volume - it is well over 700 pages - but as it was a Penguin Modern Classic I assumed they would know a good book when they published one and so took a chance on it. I only later realised what an important place this novel holds in the history of British socialism which is why I am blogging this review on the 1st of May and in the run-up to the General Election.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set in a faintly disguised Hastings. We have visited there a few times so I was interested to learn about the town as it was a century ago. Tressell sets his tale among a crew of poor painter-decorators who work amid conditions of almost overwhelming poverty and deprivation. The characters of the workmen and their bosses are well-drawn and easily believable although with a tendency to over-exaggeration at times. Descriptions of the workmen's homes and clothing are heart-rending and I didn't really previously understand just how harsh life could be prior to the introduction of the Welfare State. I remember the subject being exposed in Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, but somehow fiction can often make situations more 'real' than factual books.

The best parts of this story are the conversations over the dinnertime tea pail. These are sometimes humorous or angry or desperate, and it is where the ensemble cast really comes to life for the reader. Unfortunately, the book also contains a vast amount of lengthy solo speechmaking and narrative political preaching which makes sense in the tale once around, but these passages and arguments are repeated again and again and again. Tressell wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to promote his own political belief in socialism - at this period almost pure communism - and frequently allows either his enthusiasm for the new or his anger at the old to run away with him. This is a shame as it makes what could be a fascinating and powerful novel into a longwinded diatribe that ultimately loses its impact. I have given it three stars as much of the actual storyline, physical descriptions and scenes are brilliantly written, but the whole book is easily 300 pages longer than it needs to be.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Robert Tressell / Contemporary fiction / Books from England


  1. I like discovering other books to read from reading. It's how I discovered Ready Player One after reading another book (whose title is not coming to me at the moment. Derp.).

    1. I figure that if another author liked a book enough to give it a shoutout in their novel, it's at least worth a look!