The vicar and the ragged trousered philanthropists

To a greater or lesser extent, all the fictional clergymen in my series so far are caricatures: characters written into a novel as a means of signifying something about their office. Sometimes these characters are given greater room to breathe: an opportunity to reflect on the nature of their position and the tensions and ambiguities it entails; a chance to be human. Rarely can a character been made to serve so obvious a polemical purpose as the Reverend Habbakuk Bosher, in Robert Tressell’s The ragged trousered philanthropists (first published in 1914).

Tristram Hunt rightly called attention to the profoundly religious nature of the socialism that the firebrand Frank Owen wants to urge on the proletariat of Mugsborough (1). His calling is to take the gospel of this religion of humanity into the deepest, darkest places of working class sensuousness and weakness. It is the difficulty of the task, the recalcitrance of people in seeing the light, that gives the novel its pessimistic air. Chapter 15 contains one of the most striking set-piece rehearsals in British fiction of working-class religiosity, its muddled scepticism and mild anti-clericalism.

Banner made for the Robert Tressell Society in Hastings, 2005. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The opposition of true socialism and false religion is first worked out in chapter 6, in a dialogue between a young boy and his mother. The Christianity of the respectable is a hypocrisy: a naked attempt, consciously made, to clothe the economic interest of one social class in cosmic significance.

‘Well, [says the mother] the vicar goes about telling the idlers that it’s quite right for them to do nothing, and that God meant them to have nearly everything that is made by those who work. In fact, he tells them that God made the poor for the use of the rich. Then he goes to the workers and tells them that God meant them to work very hard and to give all the good things they make to those who do nothing, and that they should be very thankful to God and to the idlers for being allowed to have even the very worst food and the rags, and broken boots to wear. He also tells them that they mustn’t grumble, or be discontented because they’re poor in this world, but that they must wait till they’re dead, and then God will reward them by letting them go to a place called heaven.’

More culpable still is the fact that (we are to believe) Mr Bosher does not truly believe any of it. If he really read the Bible, as he professes to do, then he could not possibly teach as he does: all men are brothers and sisters, but the vicar preaches of masters and servants; no-one should try to store up wealth for themselves on earth, but the vicar justifies the inequality of the society around him; Christians should not meet violence with violence, but instead he advocates prison at home and warfare abroad. Why does Mr Bosher act so, asks the child? ‘Because he wishes to live without working himself, my dear’; and the idlers give him money in return for him fostering their interests. His annual income of six hundred pounds is so insufficient that the proletariat are asked in chapter 41 to contribute to an Easter offering ‘as a token of affection and regard’, the least likely emotions to be felt for him among the labouring men and their families. Even the charitable ventures of the Church of the Whited Sepulchre, such as the distribution of worn-out second-hand boots to the poor, or the scheme to employ local men in the supply of firewood, are at once condescending, ineffective and a benefit both to Bosher and to others among the idlers (chapter 35).

The reader never meets Mr Bosher; he appears only in the dialogue of others, and in the almost comically partial voice of the narrator; never do we hear his voice. While Orwell’s clergyman is hardly a sympathetic portrait, there is nonetheless a real sense of duty, some engagement with his own personal history and feeling; the social action of Rudyard Kipling’s slum priest is sincerely meant, even if ineffective. Tressell’s caricature is crude and one-dimensional, but this is I think quite intentional. Owen himself is drawn with considerable subtlety, as are some of the other working-class characters; they are the ones worthy of our attention. Bosher is not afforded any such respect; he and the rest of the idlers, the ‘gang of swindlers, slave-drivers and petty tyrants’, are simply external forces that hold the proletariat in their grip (ch. 54). If the working class do engage with the churches at all, it is not Bosher’s church. The religious men among Owen’s fellow workers are not part of Bosher’s flock, but Baptists and other Nonconformists. It is not the Church of the Whited Sepulchre inside which we see in chapter 17, but the Shining Light Chapel. In Tressell’s Mugsborough, the established church is both irrelevant and malevolent.

(1) In his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 2004.

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