Tuesday, 27 July 2021

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert Tressell (1914) Graphic Novel by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard (2021). Reviewed by Bernadette Meaden, 26 June 2021, in Ekklesia

ACCORDING to George Orwell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a book everyone should read. It is often named by people on the left as the book which has had the greatest influence on their politics.

However, there is no denying that unlike Animal Farm or 1984, the book published over a century ago is quite long, and probably less appealing to some modern readers. That is why this graphic novel version, by sisters Scarlett and Sophie Rickard, is of such great value, as it brings Robert Tressell’s semi-autobiographical tale of a group of workers and their families to a new and wider audience. The sisters have distilled the story and the arguments of the original book into an enjoyable, entertaining and thoroughly readable format. The characters are sensitively drawn, with a mix of vulnerability and nobility which makes their situations even more poignant. The book is a real work of art, and the illustrations vividly convey the society, the period and the community in which the story is set.

The format means that some of the usual work of a reader’s imagination, gradually forming our own pictures of the characters and places in our minds, is unnecessary, as they are there before our eyes from the first page. This perhaps allows us to become more quickly absorbed in the story, and the arguments we encounter. To a reader unaccustomed to graphic novels it can initially feel strange, but once entered into fully it is a rich experience, with not just our minds and emotions engaged, but our aesthetic senses too.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about the book is how, in so many ways, the injustice experienced by workers at the beginning of the 20th century remain with us. A hundred years on, people in Britain don’t (yet) have to worry about being able to afford medical care, but in many other ways – job insecurity, debt, the lack of affordable housing, the ruthlessness and greed of exploitative businesses and employers – the similarities are striking. And whilst the people’s care for each other, as they share what little they have, is moving, their tendency to be deferential and even grateful to those who treat them so badly, and the ease with which they can be divided, is intensely frustrating.

Frank Owen, the socialist, argues that things do not have to be this way. He tries to persuade his workmates that they should not be defending a status quo which keeps them permanently on the edge of destitution. Some of the specific solutions Owen proposes may not seem the best way forward to today’s readers,but his analysis of the capitalist system, and insistence that any solution needs to be radical and bold, seem ever more valid in an age when billionaires would rather leave the earth’s atmosphere than share their vast accumulated wealth.

One of the pleasures of the book for me was how the children emerge as important characters, asking the crucial questions that sometimes only a child could ask, and personifying the perfectly valid ideals that get crushed by a harsh economic system. And although the book is usually characterised as the story of a group of working class men, the Rickard sisters say: “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.”

Another interesting aspect is the portrayal of organised religion, and its role in a struggling community, which could make uncomfortable reading for some people of faith.

William Morris said that we should have nothing in our homes that is not either useful or beautiful. As this book is both beautiful and useful, I’d suggest that every home should have one. And not just every home, but every school, college and prison library. To this end, the #RaggedEducation project allows readers to donate a copy and make the book available in all these places. Helping young people to think about the economic system which now blights our world, and which may be having a very negative impact on their own well being and life chances, seems to be a very worthwhile thing to do. Review published in Ekklesia, 26 June 2021.

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