Imagine watching others undeservedly live in the lap of luxury due to their status whilst you struggle to pay the bills, get enough food to live, and provide for your family, working every day for a pittance. Would you think that this is fair? Protagonist Frank Owen certainly doesn’t think so in Sophie and Scarlett Rickard’s faithful graphic novel adaptation of Robert Tressell’s socialist novel, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’.
Writer: Sophie Rickard
Artist: Scarlett Rickard
Price: £14.99 from SelfMadeHero
Sophie and Scarlett Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists follows the lives of a group of men in the 1900s living in the fictional town of Mugsborough, England. Forced to continue working for the sake of their families whilst barely earning enough to survive, the men begin to question the morality of their Capitalist government, and philosophical concepts about the rich and the poor. Aided by regular lectures from protagonist Frank Owen, the men are torn between the unfair world they’ve always known, and the socialist utopia that Owen promises.
To give some context, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name written by Robert Tressell in 1914. The novel is well known for being an intrinsic piece of socialist history and was named ‘one of the most authentic novels of English working-class life ever written’ due to its depiction of corrupt capitalists and philanthropic workers. The name ‘philanthropists’ refers to the working men themselves, who believe that a better life isn’t available to them and continue to do dangerous work for a trifle whilst making a huge profit for their masters. The Rickard sisters do a fantastic job of remaining true to the original material, whilst making the story perhaps more accessible to a modern audience. Owen’s enlightening lectures on poverty shine in graphic novel format, as Scarlett Rickard’s illustrations carefully print out each individual analogy for the reader to understand.
Although the sheer number of workers focused on can be overwhelming and hard to remember at first, over the course of the next 350 pages, we get to know each of them intricately, thanks to their distinct personalities and looks. Amongst the central group of men, Frank Owen stands out, as he has a differing opinion about the state of Britain: he believes that poverty is the fault of the Tory government and capitalism, and that socialism is the only viable option for equality.
In the context of modern politics, especially with the recent revival of socialist ideas, modern-day readers can empathise with Owen’s views. Not so for the philanthropists, who frequently laugh at the ‘outlandish’ views which differ from their own. It seems that only the reader and Owen himself can identify how poorly the working class are being treated by the rich, and how dire their circumstances are. Yet they seem content to stay this way, rather than change their views to what they see as radical, due to their education which teaches them to distrust their own thoughts and rely on their ‘betters’. Religion is also seen to contribute to this, with corrupt priests misquoting the Bible to suit their views that the poor should remain poor (& should be happy about it!) and conning them out of the money they do have to provide for the church (their own pockets).
Owen’s mini lectures about capitalism are often interwoven with other narratives to split them up; these are usually divided by chapters with vibrant template illustrations of an issue the chapter will be discussing (for example, a stained-glass church window in a chapter focused on religion). One of the most poignant secondary narratives focuses on one of the workers, Easton, and his home-life with his wife Ruth and their son. Forced to take on another of the philanthropists as a lodger due to their extreme poverty, they soon find themselves uncomfortable in their own home as Mr Slyme (aptly named) slowly seems to take over. This storyline sadly involves the assault of Ruth by Slyme, who takes advantage of her when she is drunk, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Unfortunately, this was a regularly occurring issue that was often swept under the rug due to the imbalance of rights between men and women.
One of the standout moments of this graphic novel is Owen’s elaborate painted designs for an aristocratic house. The men are so used to being boxed in as manual labourers that having this creative outlet is really refreshing to see. The gorgeous endpapers with tens of different paint brushes reinforces how important the task becomes to Owen. The art in general realistically depicts how the men are feeling, with a fantastic eye for facial expressions and subtle colouring to indicate emotion.
This is Sophie and Scarlett’s second graphic novel project together (see also the wonderful Mann’s Best Friend), and it’s clear that it’s a huge success! We hope to see more collaborations from the sisters in future!