The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell – Scarlett & Sophie Rickard
This novel in its original form is a mammoth undertaking to read; a full edition runs to 250,000 words. This edition is therefore a wonderful way to experience this early socialist novel, as it appears in a beautifully drawn graphic novel which transforms the rhetoric into real speech between the working men. Not that the women are side lined in this vibrant and lively telling of a group of people in a fictional town struggling to survive. The wives of the men who are the focus of the novel are shown to fight the lack of money with generosity and resource, helplessness and acceptance, or a balance between the two. The children from an early age are forced to learn the realities of their lives, but that does not stop them dreaming of the treats that fill shop windows. There is another group of men in the book who are the bosses, form the majority of the local council and combine to supress wages and line their own pockets. One or two men stand between the groups as taking orders from above and pressing the workers into greater efforts for less money.
Altogether this could be a challenging book, but in the work of Sophie and Scarlett it is transformed into a small work of art, with illustrations that leap off the page and silently convey volumes. It is a book to savour which makes even political points come to life with absolute clarity and with colour and contrast. It is an amazing achievement that will transform even those who would not normally read graphic novels into huge fans.
The book takes for its main narrative the focus of a group of men working to decorate a large house for Rushton’s business. They spent each lunch time in talk, which could be local gossip but can encompass discussion of their lot generally, as those known to the men have to variously go into the Workhouse or meet with other terrible difficulties. Owen is the politically aware speaker; being a skilled artist he will be asked to do specific tasks for which he will not get more money or praise, but his innate generosity means that he will always help others. He speaks of breaking the present system that means those with no knowledge will continue to vote for those who actually oppress them, who lay off the older men, issue ridiculous instructions, and generally cut every possible corner to keep on the right side of the employers. Not that Owen gets a fair hearing for his revolutionary socialist views; he uses examples, including the famous “Money Trick” to show how the men accept their lot of overwork when they can get it, horrible and dangerous tasks and shortened lives. The view then shifts to the homes of some of the men, with little furniture or comforts. One child and his mother speak of their situation, where another young mother demonstrates to her husband the problems of making money stretch for even the basic necessities. As a year progresses, the men are shown as in and out of work, taking what joys they can, sharing resources and facing challenges. Forced to cut corners and work to minimum standards, they are challenged and desperate, but Owen’s message of breaking the system falls on deaf ears. Some of the women become desperate, and yet others will help where possible. Meanwhile the rich men of the locality connive to cover their losses and extract the maximum profit from everything, while the local doctors and charities try to show that the people are desperate.
This could sound like a depressing read, and certainly there are some awful things described. There is also colour and contentment as the people strive to help each other and find pleasure where possible, and the challenges issued to the status quo are brought to life. I really enjoyed the experience of reading this book, relishing the contrasting settings and the characters who are brought to life with the illustrations and small indications of what is going on for them. I have also reviewed the sisters’ more recent book, “No Surrender” which also tackles difficult subjects, and both books are wonderful examples of the illustrator’s art and the skill of the dialogue which brings the narrative to life. I thoroughly recommend this unusual book for so many reasons.
4 thoughts on “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell’s Classic Novel in a Graphic Novel from Scarlett & Sophie Rickard”
This sounds a lovely and lighter way to experience this book (I also mean to read the actual book at some point).
I must admit, this may be the limtit with this book!
What an excellent idea this is, thank you, Joules. I have had the book itself sitting on my shelves for the last 18 years (approximately) and have never got through more than one-sixth of it because I always had to start at the beginning again. So this sounds the perfect – if slightly cowardly – alternative!
Thanks! My son carried copies of this around off and on for years and never got anywhere with it, so when I spotted this graphic version I thought he may be able to finish it at last! I enjoyed it far more than I first imagined. I have also read and reviewed the Rickard sisters’ version of a suffragette classic, “No Surrender” and that should be appearing soon on Shiny New Books