Jan 2015 To Be Read shelfI’ve left the January TBR up for these reviews of books read in that month, and so as not to scare the easily shocked among you with a re-post of the frightening February TBR … Anyway, at LAST I review “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, alongside another interesting book which also discusses poverty, social injustice and social mobility. All sounding a bit dry? Well, one of these books was far more entertaining than the other, in my view, and it’s not the way around that you’d probably expect!

Monica Dickens – “Joy and Josephine”

(5 July 2014 – via BookCrossing)

When I picked this up from the BookCrossing stall at the Moseley Festival back in the summer, I was excited to find a Monica Dickens I hadn’t heard of before. I loved her autobiographical works (“One Pair of Hands”, etc.) but I do forget that her novels tend towards the grimmer end of the spectrum, and this is no exception. It pretty much opens with a fire at an orphanage that leaves one baby injured and one baby dead (but which one? – this is an important plot point, but it is still grim and a bit unexpected) and proceeds by way of poverty, genteel and otherwise, family discord, snobbery and reverse snobbery, gangs of unruly children, marital disharmony, the effects on families of having too many children, confused identities, a cat coming to an unpleasant end (watch out, fellow “don’t put animals in books just to kill them” readers) and squalid living places.

The central character – will we ever know whether she’s Joy or Josephine? – is ambitious but not particularly likeable, although she does have any pleasantness squashed out of her by her living situation growing up, which I think is the point, and there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in the book, which isn’t something that normally bothers me too much, but did make for a somewhat dreary read. The discussions, both implicit in the plot and explicit in the characters’ interactions, on nature versus nurture and people’s ability to transcend their genes and/or childhoods are interesting, although a little dated at times. The ending is reasonably satisfying if not conclusive (which is also fine) and lingers in the mind as a reminder of this rather strange book.

Robert Tressell – “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

(Fireside Bookshop, Windermere, 16 April 2014 – this book has the distinction of being the first in which I wrote my married name on the flyleaf)

I have wanted to read this book for a long time, and I’m quite surprised that I hadn’t done so many years ago, having a penchant for the left-leaning type of politics and being interested in social history. Anyway, when I discovered that it was published in 1914 (although I think not in this unexpurgated form), which was a very poor year for book publishing but the first in my Reading a Century of Books project, I determined to pick up a copy as soon as I saw one (but not go out to seek one – them’s the rules). It wasn’t long before I spotted the nice new paperback edition in a lovely bookshop (which has unfortunately now packed up and moved to Littlehampton) and so it was that a socialist epic novel became the first literary purchase of my married life.

On to the book. I started off a bit confused, I must admit. I had got it into my head (how?) that the poor beleaguered workmen whose lives we follow over a couple of years form some kind of philanthropic society to help their fellow men. In fact, of course, that never happens, and their philanthropy actually lies in their giving their best years, strength and health to their masters and the capitalist system. But it didn’t disappoint me once I’d realised that.

It’s an uneven but powerful book. I understand that most editions have been cut, with this being the first (?) full one. I’m not sure what they would have cut, as the didactic sections, exemplars and speeches are woven together to make a whole. Characters do come and go in and out of focus (and a kitten is introduced which had me worried (see review above) but actually simply ceased to be mentioned part way through, which was a bit odd – I mention that to help anyone else who’s worried, as I couldn’t find anything on it except a note that it’s a Metaphor (well, yes)), and obviously events and set pieces are very much shaped to the purpose of the author. The interspersed scenes from the life of the corrupt Town Council were both reminiscent of that other great novel of town life, “South Riding” and horribly scathing and savage indictments of the people who seek to “run” their fellow citizens’ lives.

The detailed descriptions of work and family life should be required reading for those who seek to dismantle the National Health Service and the Welfare State as well as deregulating laws on working practices (the workers in this book have the original zero hours contracts), and for those who seek to maintain or reform the system. It was pretty horrific to read of soup kitchens and people pawning their good clothes to find money for food, and know that over 100 years later, this sort of situation is on the rise again in this country. There’s also a passage about the use (or not) of reasoning with people with fixed ideas and disordered minds which brings to mind the exhortation not to try to change the opinion of a stranger on the Internet – nothing changes, does it!

Although there are some grim scenes as well as set pieces and discussions which are didactic in purpose and nature, I didn’t find it a dry read, and there’s a humanity and care for his fellow humans on the part of the author and some of his characters that kept me reading, even though I will admit that the writing became a little turgid at times. The descriptions of socialist utopias were of course written before the great Communist experiments of the 20th century got underway, so read as a little over-idealistic at times, but still with good points to make, and so I forgive the occasional unevenness of the writing and plot.

I know a few people were planning to read this alongside me this year, so I hope you are able to comment with a link to your review, either now or when you’ve finished it, or let me know that you’re still planning to read it and will comment when you have. I’d love to hear what everyone else thought of it, as there has been a variety of responses among friends on social media already! I for one am glad I have finally read it.