Charles Petzold

1859 Books: Samuel Smiles’ “Self-Help”

September 29, 2009
New York, N.Y.

For many Victorian readers, the most influential book published in 1859 was not Charles Darwin's Origin of Species or John Stuart Mill's On Liberty but a work by the largely forgotten author Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904) with the peculiarly precocious title Self-Help. I have not been able to determine exactly when Self-Help first rolled off the presses, but the author's Introduction to the first edition is dated September 1859 — 150 years ago this month.

Self-Help was enormously popular: It sold some 20,000 copies in its first year of publication, 55,000 copies after five years, and about one-quarter million by the end of the century. (Briggs, p. 118) It is very likely that the vast majority of these readers were men rather than women, for men are obviously the book's intended audience. It is to men that Smiles delivers his message of hard work, perseverance in the face of adversity, and a will to excel in business, industry, engineering, or the arts. (For the women, Isabella Beeton's popular book Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was first published in 1861, and it's sometimes discussed in conjunction with Self-Help as defining a particular set of middle-class Victorian values.)

Self-Help was also translated into many languages, including Arabic and Turkish. In his introduction to the "centenary edition" of the book, Asa Briggs tells the following story:

You can find the first edition of Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct on Google Book Search. An Oxford World's Classics edition from 2002 reprints the expanded 1866 edition of the book (which expanded the title to Self-Help: with Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance) and includes a helpful Introduction, Notes, and 39-page Glossary of names mentioned in the text. (By the 1876 edition, the subtitle had lost the word "Character.")

Samuel Smiles

Samuel Smiles was born about 18 miles outside Edinburgh. He was educated as a physician but taught himself a great deal more through reading. Smiles' first book, Physical Education; or, the Nurture and Management of Children (1836) did not sell well at all. Soon he got involved in radical journalism (pro-Chartist, anti-Corn Laws, pro-suffrage, anti-social privilege) and by the mid-1840s he is delivering lectures to the workingmen of Leeds on themes that were later to form the basis of Self-Help. Self-Help was actually ready for publication in 1855, but it was turned down by the publishing house of Routledge & Co. Smiles persuaded the publisher John Murray to bring out his next book, The Life of George Stephenson (1857), and it wasn't until that book was a success that John Murray also published Self-Help. Samuel Smiles later wrote a three-volume Lives of the Engineers (1862), many biographies and histories, and sequels to Self-Help entitled Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880).

Although Smiles drifted away from his radical roots, he never stopped believing that government had roles to play in public health, regulation of industry, education, and public libraries. But he came to realize that people were largely responsible for their own welfare, and that they had the power to actually alter their economic position in society. The rigid social and economic stratification of England was loosening and becoming more fluid during this period. No longer was it necessary to be born into money to make money. Increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, it was possible for men to significantly improve their station in life through some mechanical invention, or developing an engineering or manufacturing technique, and Self-Help had plenty of examples.

Although Samuel Smiles didn't invent the phrase "self-help" — he probably got it from Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (first published 1833–1834) or perhaps by way of Emerson — and the format of the book wasn't all that original, Self-Help became the ambitious Victorian's gospel for inspiration and guidance. The book both encapsulated the work ethic of that era and helped to define it.

Full of wonderfully quotable passages, Self-Help is largely a compendium of idealized portraits and mini-biographies of self-made men who achieved success in business or industry. Smiles had a special interest in inventors and engineering, but he also discusses scientists, artists, and even politicians. Many are the type of men we now call entrepeneurs — although the word wouldn't be used in English in this sense for another couple decades.

To Smiles, the most important quality for success is hard work and perseverance, and he is so honest that he never ever makes the task of self-improvement seem easy:

To Smiles, hard-work is everything; talent, genius, or luck have very little to do with it.

Although the little biographies are often quite entertaining (and too long to be quoted here), more impressive is Smiles' ability to conjure up half a dozen short examples to prove any point. Here he describes how "the very odds and ends of time" may be "profitably employed" to achieve great results:

But wait — there's more!

That paragraph has one of the rare mentions of women in Self-Help other than as long-suffering helpers to their energetic husbands. While Victorian women were certainly working outside the home in unprecedented numbers — see my discussion of Harriet Martineau's long essay "Female Industry" — they did not yet have the types of jobs that leant themselves to great achievement. Still, it's rather odd for Smiles to discuss astronomer William Herschel (p. 90-91) without at all mentioning his sister Caroline.

Not only is Smiles honest concerning the amount of hard work necessary to be successful, he treats this work in a positive way. Difficulty and adversity contribute to the building of character:

The concept that hard work builds character is central to Smiles' book. Easy achievement doesn't help develop character, which must be built like muscle from the exertion against adversity. (On page 229 he actually quotes common proverbs such as "No pains no gains" and "No sweat no sweet.")

Some of what Smiles has to say about self-education could almost be written today. It's amusing that even 150 years ago people were trying to take educational short cuts, and that the stern and uncompromising Smiles was there to warn them away:

Later commentators on Self-Help sometimes criticized it as being overly obsessed with making money, or as a guide-book on how to join the ranks of the petit bourgeoise. But the book actually reveals something much more interesting and nuanced. Smiles spends many pages (174-186) discussing the anti-slavery activities of famous English abolitionist Granville Sharp, for example. Certainly he wants his readers to be successful and make money, but not more than they actually deserve for their contributions to society. As historian Adrian Jarvis notes, to Smiles "The modern doctrine that you motivate rich men by paying them more and poor men by paying them less would be not merely mystifying, but alien." (p. 146)

A whole chapter is devoted to "Money — Use and Abuse" that warns about the senseless pursuit of wealth:

In Smiles' world, the most important function of money is the avoidance of the slavery of poverty and debt, but he's not at all focused on the "cash and prizes." With success is accompanied strong character, becoming a better person, leading inevitably to a stronger community, and a stronger England.

The final chapter of Self-Help is entitled "Character — The True Gentleman." As readers of Anthony Trollope's novels know, the idea of a "gentleman" evolved in the nineteenth-century. It once meant a man of "gentle birth" and long ancestry, either an outright aristocrat or a man of wealth. By the mid-nineteenth century the word was coming to mean any person who exhibits characteristics such as honor, honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, and integrity. (See Shirley Robin Letwin's The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, Harvard University Press, 1982, for an extensive discussion. On page 74 Mrs. Letwin writes "The most perfect gentleman in Trollope's novels is Madame Max Goesler [of the Palliser novels]. She was the daughter of a humble German Jewish attorney, and her only endowments by birth were beauty and intelligence.")

Like Trollope, Samuel Smiles recognized the gentleman in self-made character rather than progeny:

The concept of "self-help" preceded Samuel Smiles and never stop evolving. But Self-Help has several unique characteristics. The book is quite different from the rags-to-riches novels popularized by American Horatio Alger later in the nineteenth century; these books often involved some deus ex machina-like benefactor who comes to the rescue. Nor is Self-Help like the popular self-help books of the early and mid twentieth century:

In the 1970s, the term "self-help" began describing a whole section of the bookstore, but one whose focus would have seemed quite foreign to Smiles. Modern self-help literature seems more about ways to change one's perception of the world (and the world's perception of oneself) by developing different perspectives, attitudes, and various means of empowerment. Smiles is more fundamental and probably more realistic, but its message is not one many people want to hear. It's doubtful whether you could create a best-seller today by telling people that the key to success is unrelenting hard work!

One of the themes of this series of blog entries is that 1859 can be regarded as the year in which England made a transition from a religious interpretation of the world to a secular perspective.

Of course, not everybody who published a book in 1859 cooperates with this theory! Most readers coming to Self-Help for the first time probably assume that the book conveys what we have come to regard as traditional "Victorian values," so it's likely that it is also soaked in a conventional Victorian Anglican piety.

That does not seem to be the case. Historian Adrian Jarvis devotes about 10 early pages of his book to exploring Smiles' religious pilgrimage and beliefs. Smiles grew up within the Cameronian tradition, a rather austere Calvinist sect, which may have contributed to his work ethic, but it was a faith that he reputed. After that it gets rather vague. He seems to have had some sympathy with Unitarians.

God certainly isn't absent from Self-Help. As is obvious even from the few quotations I've picked, Smiles sometimes quotes the Bible and he alludes to Biblical characters. He seems to have an affinity with Christain ethics. But Smiles' references to God seem more deistic or Masonic than Anglican.

Most significantly, in all the discussion about achieving success in Self-Help, Smiles never attributes anything to "the grace of God."

What Adrian Jarvis eventually settles upon to describe Smiles' religious beliefs is unfortunately the word "theism." The word is unfortunate because it's often used these days to indicate any type of belief in God, the opposite of "atheism." But Jarvis uses "theism" in an older sense as somewhat closer in tone to deism: "the highest common factor which could form a basis for the reconciliation of a wide variety of Christian and other beliefs... theism was so vague that it was compatible with absolutely anything." (Jarvis, p. 13) Jarvis also categorizes John Stuart Mill as a theist.

Jarvis also puts Smiles and Self-Help is a much greater context than individual success. Great Britain had been the first country to experience the Industrial Revolution, a series of technological and social changes that brought about prosperity along with many ills.

Samuel Smiles' "secular religion" of self-help sought to solve man-made problems with self-made men.


Briggs, Asa, Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Things, 1851–1867 (University of Chicago Press, 1955). Chapter V is "Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work."

Jarvis, Adrian, Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values (Sutton Publishing, 1997).

Smiles, Samuel, Self-Help; with Examples of Conduct and Perseverance, with a Centenary Introduction by Professor Asa Briggs (John Murray, 1958).

Smiles, Samuel, Self-Help; with Examples of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance, edited and with and Introduction and Notes by Peter W. Sinnema (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” (4/27/2009)

1859 Journalism: Harriet Martineau’s “Female Industry” (5/30/2009)

1859 Science: John Tyndall and the Greenhouse Effect (6/10/2009)

1859 Books: George Meredith’s “The Ordeal of Richard Feverel” (6/20/09)

1859 Books: Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” (7/17/09)

1859 Music: Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (8/30/2009)

1859 Books: Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig” (9/5/2009)

1859 Speeches: Prince Albert’s Address to the BAAS (9/14/09)