The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, (adapted)

A graphic novel by Scarlett & Sophie Rickard

This graphic novel version of the classic of working class literature seems timely as first the recession and now Covid-19 have placed so many people in dire straits, surely this is something we should be talking about? This reimagining of the original will appeal to a new audience, hopefully young adult readers too, because it is still relevant and vital in the modern world regardless of your politics. Essentially, Tressell wanted to highlight the appalling conditions of the working classes in pre-WWI Britain and to bring a consciousness to ordinary people of the possibility of a better world if socialist principles are applied. This version urges us to measure modern poverty by what’s around us now and to question our priorities as a society. It’s a thought provoking piece. I hesitate to use the word entertaining because it’s a story reminiscent of the social realism of Hardy, it is gripping, though, and the personal tragedies of the workers hit home.

“Poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves the benefits of civilisation. The necessities, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life…leisure, books, theatre, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.”

A group of workmen, painters, decorators, plasterers, carpenters are doing up a house. While the men are skilled the drive to reduce costs leads to cutting corners; the conditions are poor, they work long hours in dusty, rotten rooms. As the novel opens the men are taking their short lunch break, discussing politics and daily life. A young man, Owen, tries to get the workers to see that socialism is the future if society is to be become fairer. During the course of the novel we follow some of the men and their families as they struggle to survive. The novel is an unflattering representation of British society in the run up to a war in which these men will be on the front line. The political tract of the novel remains important but it is the individuals, their personal issues that carry the novel, it’s poignant and moving.

Those of you who read Martin Rowson’s brilliant graphic novel adaptation of The Communist Manifesto will understand how enlightening and intelligent a new perspective on a classical philosophical work can be. That applies to this new adaptation of the ‘great socialist novel’, this pared down version, (it’s still 300 pages), retains the essence and force of the original work. It has a clarity that points up the relevance of the message today. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not an easy read, but then neither is Dickens at times, (I’m not comparing the quality of the writing but the working class conditions shown).

‘“Ah, of all the people who do nothing, the vicar is one of the very worst.” Says a mother to child who is missing her father working long hours.’

Essentially a man with no work and a family will experience starvation; a man with work, doing seventy hour a week, and with a family will experience near starvation. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was originally published in a bowdlerised and abbreviated edition in 1914. Three years after Robert Noonan, (aka Robert Tressell), died in a Liverpool hospital from TB. The full novel was not published until 1955. It’s a must for someone with an interest in labour history, the rise of working class politics, socialism or academic study but not easily accessible for a modern reading audience. The arguments between the characters about the need for the working classes to stand up for themselves are a little dry. Not that the hard truth behind poverty isn’t important. These men have to face up to capitalist employers exploiting their labour, poor health, deprived children, substandard living conditions, low education, and even scarce food. The radical thinking of Owen not only butts up against the employers, who hold all the cards, but also religious beliefs that reinforce the belief that there are ‘betters’ in society and they deserve to be where they are – don’t rock the boat. In the novel the arguments for a fairer shake for workers, not a revolution just better employment rights, conditions, and wages, falls upon deaf ears as the values of the system are so ingrained in the workers that they fail to see their conditions are not their own fault or inevitable.

The novel will speak to a new audience about the dignity of labour, the hard life trying to make ends meet in impossible conditions, the early death, ill health and brutal struggle for survival of the time. Most importantly what comes across is the relevance of this story to the modern world, things are not the same but we see how debilitating and prevalent poverty still is. Scarlett and Sophie Rickard have made the book accessible by bringing the characters to life making their personal stories matter to the reader, the emotional heart to the novel. Readers will soon forget that arguments are being played out through the characters as the human tragedy hits home.

The Communist Manifesto, (link to review below), brought the text to a new audience, I said at the time that I think it was a perfect access point for students to get a sense of context for the original work. I feel the same way about this novel. The original novel has been an inspiration to left wing politicians since it was published. In a world where people latch on to causes more readily than they adhere to ideologies and political philosophies per se this sets out why the authors believe the ideology is still meaningful. We still have a blasé attitude to poverty, a complacency, that needs shaking up.

Review by Paul Burke

SelfMadeHero, paperback, ISBN 9781910593929, 25th September, 2020.