Friday, 31 January 2014

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

This book makes me feel like a bad leftie. I wanted to like it so much more than I did, and while parts of it are very powerful, the book is overlong, and treads the same ground so often that I had to force myself to finish it.

When I started The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists I was full of enthusiasm, as the first chapter introduced the main character, Frank Owen (likely named after Robert Owen, but this caused some confusion for me at the start, as I couldn't quite remember Robert Owen's first name, and became briefly convinced this was supposed to be Robert Owen - look, my timeline was a little spotty. A quick glimpse at wikipedia showed me how much earlier Owenism started.)

Frank is a skilled housepainter, particularly with the detail work. But he, and all the other skilled workmen he works with, work for a firm that takes as much as it can out of them while paying them as little as possible. The names are not subtle in this book. We have Slyme, we have Crass, we have Rushton and Sweater (think what that means in a work context, not in regard to an article of clothing), we have the firm of Dauber and Botchit. I could go on. Subtlety is not this book's strong point.

In the first chapter, during their lunch break, Frank expounds his Socialist views to his coworkers, and damned if every argument they make against him doesn't have eerie similarities to ones we hear today about the laziness of the poor, and the inability to pay people any more than the bare minimum. Frank disposes of these arguments handily, and I am excited.

The book goes on to examine the lives of the housepainters, how difficult (read: impossible) it is to live on the pittance they are paid, the effects this has on their health, on their families, on their work, on society. And all is going well - it's not an easy book to read, but it is a powerful one.

And then I get to around page 200, and I well and truly have the point. By page 300, it feels like we're just retreading the same ground. I get it, already! I'm on board!

And it keeps going. And I realize there are 300 pages more to go. And the arguments he's making, the destroyed lives he's describing, they're devastating, but not more devastating than they were the first time he outlined them all. The caricaturist descriptions of the evils of the capitalist and the system continue - and it's not that I disagree, it's that I'm tired.

And there are still 200 pages to go. Getting through this book was truly a slog, and ended up knocking at least a star off of my rating. There are really good arguments in this book, and some not-so-great arguments, but it is just too long. If it was half the size, and he made his strongest (and devastatingly effective) arguments in 300 pages and finished, masterpiece. At 600 pages, it's wearisome.

The title comes from the idea that the working-class must be philanthropists, to work for so little in order to let others make so much. Barbara Ehrenreich makes a similar point at the end of Nickle and Dimed. But she knew when to stop, when she'd made her point and could leave it with the reader. This book does not.

I am heartened that this book made it onto the BBC Big Read list. I'm also a little puzzled.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read


  1. Hi Megan, really good review, thank you! I'm at about page 250 (on a kindle so guessing by percentage!) and am having the exact same problem with repetition. I skipped forward and the record was still on the same track! I've just googled to get a plot synopsis to see if I'll miss much and saw your review chiming with my thoughts. I'm thinking of seeing it on stage and then coming back reinvigorated to finish it off. Hopefully the director will do a good job of editing it!

    1. Thanks, Dave! Someone told me there is an edited version that gets rid of the repetition, and that might solve the problem. But it wasn't the one I read.

      I had no idea it was also a stage play! That's very cool.