If you needed some brick-laying or sign-painting done in the final decade of the 19th century, the Irish-born workman ROBERT TRESSELL (Robert Croker, 1870–1911) might have been your man. However, in his off hours, he beavered away at The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a novel — published posthumously in 1914 — which offers a bustling portrait of British working-class life. Frank Owen, the book’s protagonist, blames capitalism and his society’s upper class for his own class’s impoverishment and hunger, though he’s made angriest by his own co-workers’ reluctance to discuss socialist theory or any aspirations for a better life. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a Dickensian romp filled with monikers like Rushton, Sweater and Didlum (Owen’s employers), charts Owen’s increasing frustration with the self-perpetuating, forelock-tugging caste in which he’s trapped. Like Dickens, though, Tressell — whose pen name is a pun on the trestle table used by wallpaper hangers — gives his savagely critical novel a warm heart and a sense of humor.
READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864–73).