Scarlett and Sophie Rickard’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists adapts a classic work of socialist fiction for a new audience. This retelling of Robert Tressell’s 1914 semi-autobiographical novel follows Frank Owen, a house painter with tuberculosis, and his fellow laborers, dramatizing their experiences with crooked bosses and chronic poverty in a pre-welfare state Britain. The graphic novel draws an unflinching portrait of working-class life, but its tragedies are interwoven with a wryly comic, yet profoundly moving message about power, politics, and the necessity of class struggle.

The book opens with a crew of painters on break, engaged in a contentious discussion of the economic issues that define their working lives. Low wages and lack of job security have left a mark on each man: Owen resorts to doing skilled decorative work for little pay, while facing the prospect of leaving his family destitute should he succumb to tuberculosis; another worker, Easton, is so far in debt that he must take in an unsavory boarder to ensure his young child has enough to eat; and the elderly Linden must continue working to provide for his family, knowing that the alternative is a punishing old age in the workhouse.

Yet The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not simply a chronicle of suffering. The painters argue, agitate, and make us laugh as they express political opinions that feel as current in our modern era as in early twentieth-century Britain. This is a didactic novel, which means we’re treated to slightly stagey conversations in which characters wrangle over the root causes of economic inequality and explore its possible remedies. Thanks to Sophie Rickard’s eloquent and economical script, these exchanges are nearly as affecting as the labor struggles that inform them. It’s a joy to watch political dialogue take place not in classrooms or on social media feeds, but in the workplaces and homes of working-class families. Readers may or may not cosign the book’s of-its-time vision of a classical socialist utopia, but many will respond to its central thesis, that progress is possible if ordinary people engage with politics not as a spectator sport, but as citizens acting in solidarity with their fellow workers.

If Sophie Rickard’s script deftly adapts Tressell’s original 600-page epic, Scarlett Rickard’s art brings it to vivid life. Full-color panels recall the sharply observed domestic settings of Raymond Briggs’ adult graphic novels, delivering what feels like a sly satire of bucolic depictions of Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Against dollhouse-like backdrops of houses and storefronts, Rickard portrays the physicality of labor, craft, and housekeeping, reminding us that ordinary people worked hard to construct and maintain the built environments that appear in our favorite BBC costume dramas. Yet there’s also a lot of warmth in these pages; emotionally rendered scenes of holiday celebrations, family gatherings, and acts of friendship bring to life not only the struggles of the working class, but the personal relationships that make change worth fighting for.

In the decades following its original publication, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had an outsized impact on labor politics, both in Britain and globally. The Rickards’ adaptation makes this indispensable novel accessible to contemporary readers in an effective new format. This book is an excellent choice for nearly all adult graphic novel collections, and young adult and high school purchasers should also give it strong consideration. Readers should note that, in addition to scenes of violence and worker abuse, this book contains depictions of sexual assault, postpartum depression, and suicide.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
By Sophie Rickard
Art by Scarlett Rickard
SelfMadeHero, 2021
ISBN: 9781910593929

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: British
Character Representation: British, Chronic Illness

  • Becky

    | she/her Senior Reference Librarian

    Reviewer

    Becky is Senior Reference Librarian at the Library of Virginia. Hailing from New England, she's previously worked as a reference and technology librarian in public libraries up and down the East Coast. Her love of comics was sparked first by the Sandman comics and later by webcomic pioneers such as Faith Erin Hicks and Dylan Meconis. When she's not immersed in government documents or wrangling microfilm, she writes SFF fiction, attempts to identify trees, and hangs out with her sweet calico lap cat, Catbus.

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