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The Philanthropists

‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’, by Robert Tressell; edited text published by Grant Richards in 1914. Complete text published by Lawrence & Wishart in 1951

This novel may come to be recognised as one of the masterpieces of this century. A novel, after all, is a piece of fiction which tells us something of life and of society. Hazlitt said about the novel: “We find here a close imitation of man and manners: we see the very web and texture of society as it really exists, and as we meet it when we come into the world.” And Sir Desmond McCarthy wrote: “It is extremely doubtful whether the aim of the novel is to make an aesthetic appeal. Passages in it may do so: but it aims also at satisfying our curiosity about life as much as satisfying the aesthetic sense.” If there are the criteria by which we are to judge novels, then The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists must stand very high indeed. It tells us more about “society as it really exists,” and about human beings and their relations with each other—”man and manners”—than you wind in many well-stocked libraries.

For the great central relationship in our society is that between employer and worker: by it, to a greater or less degree, almost all the other relationships in society are affected. And that is Tressell’s theme. In a sparse, direct style (all the more remarkable when one remembers the level of popular writing in the pre-Great War era out of which his book came) Tressell tells the story of a group of men, painters and labourers who are re-decorating a house. He follows several of them (in particular the central figure, Frank Owen) to their homes, and shows how they live. Partly through the arguments among the men at work, partly through their experiences in their daily lives, Tressell lays bare the real nature of society.

One can marvel how apposite (despite changes in inessentials) the book’s picture of society is today. You may get the flavour of the book from a random quotation:

    “But money in itself is not wealth,” returned Owen;—”It’s of no use whatever.”

    At this there was another outburst of jeering laughter.

    “Supposing, for example, that you and Harlow were shipwrecked on a desolate island, and you had nothing from the wreck but a bag containing a thousand sovereigns, and he had a tin of biscuits and a bottle of water.”

    “Make it beer!” cried Harlow appealingly.

    “Who would be the richer man, you or Harlow?”

    “But then you see we ain’t shipwrecked on no dissolute island at all,” sneered Crass. “That’s the worse of your arguments. You can’t never get very far without supposing some bloody ridiculous thing or other. Never mind about supposing things wot ain’t true; let’s ‘ave facts and common sense.

    “‘Ear, ‘ear,” said old Linden. “That’s wot we want—a little common sense.”

    What do you mean by poverty, then?” asked Easton.

    “What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves al’ the benefits of civilisation—the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life: leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food . . . If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man’s family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilisation he might just as well be a savage; better, in fact, for a savage does not know what he is deprived of . . .”

But one would have to quote the whole book to do it justice. It makes you laugh, it saddens you, but most of all it makes you angry. It is impossible not to be deeply moved by it. If you have read it already, you will not need to be told how good it is. If you haven’t, then buy or borrow a copy as soon as possible.

Alwyn Edgar

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