Smiles Publishes

In Self-Help, Samuel Smiles offered young men advice and examples that would motivate them to rise in social and economic status. Smiles demonstrated how perseverance, thrift, and character could be of significant value to persons willing to work hard in a society in which class boundaries were becoming increasingly porous.

Summary of Event

In 1859, British readers saw the publication of several books that would influence society for years to come. These included Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Darwin)
Darwin, Charles
[p]Darwin, Charles;On the Origin of Species
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. However, no book published during that year had a more immediate impact among the general populace than Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859). Written by Samuel Smiles, a Scotsman working for the South-Eastern Railway, this book of advice for young men aspiring to make something of themselves became a best seller and created a stir among all classes of British society. Smiles, Samuel
Self-Help (Smiles)[SelfHelp (Smiles)]
[kw]Smiles Publishes Self-Help (1859)
[kw]Self-Help, Smiles Publishes (1859)
[kw]Publishes Self-Help, Smiles (1859)
Smiles, Samuel
Self-Help (Smiles)[SelfHelp (Smiles)]
[g]Great Britain;1859: Smiles Publishes Self-Help[3280]
[c]Literature;1859: Smiles Publishes Self-Help[3280]
[c]Economics;1859: Smiles Publishes Self-Help[3280]
[c]Business and labor;1859: Smiles Publishes Self-Help[3280]

Smiles by 1859 had experienced the kind of life he celebrates in Self-Help. Born into a tradesman’s family in 1812, he was educated at local schools and Edinburgh University, where he received a degree in medicine. He practiced as a doctor for nearly a decade before becoming an editor. In 1845, he began a career with the railways that continued until 1871, when he gave up other work to become a full-time author.

The genesis of Self-Help was a lecture Smiles gave in 1844 to a group of working men who were struck with the ideas he suggested for self-improvement. Impressed that his comments about what he considered commonsense maxims for living were so well received, he began collecting examples from the lives of men (and a few women) who exemplified the qualities he thought necessary for success in life. His work led first to the publication of The Life of George Stephenson: Railway Engineer (1857), a biography in which Smiles first demonstrated both his method of argumentation and his thesis regarding social advancement and personal improvement. Two years later, he published his compendium of advice for those wishing to better themselves.

Unquestionably, the audience Smiles had in mind for his book was composed of the thousands of young men working in junior positions in the various companies that had sprung up all over Great Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Smiles was clearly influenced by the writing of philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Bentham, Jeremy John Stuart Mill Mill, John Stuart , William Godwin Godwin, William , and John Locke Locke, John . Taking his cue most directly from the works of the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson, Ralph Waldo , Smiles urged every young man to develop the kind of self-reliance about which Emerson wrote. The 1859 edition of Self-Help was organized into thirteen chapters, each espousing some character trait that Smiles believed indispensable for a man wishing to rise in society and earn a comfortable living.

To hammer home his main points, Smiles offered numerous pithy aphorisms that were intended to inspire his readers. Each idea was illustrated with excerpts from the lives of hundreds of men who demonstrated these qualities in their careers. In most instances, Smiles drew his examples from the experiences of those engaged in what might be considered white-collar, administrative, engineering, or business positions. However, in one chapter he cited examples from those working in the arts, in another he described the careers of three great craftsmen, and in a third he drew on lives of men belonging to the peerage.

Smiles stressed throughout the book that the Englishman is particularly adaptable to the methods he proposes, being (in his chauvinistic view) more highly developed and more industrious than people of other nations. Whether writing about sons of merchants or the duke of Wellington, however, Smiles was consistent in promoting certain key values, including independence, respectability, thrift, and character. He celebrated those who had struck out on their own to make their way in the world and who had overcome difficulties of birth and circumstance. He encouraged his readers to take advantage of the many opportunities afforded to the youth of Victorian Great Britain but warned that success would be achieved only through perseverance.

Smiles exhibited equal scorn both for aristocratic privilege and for poverty and ignorance. He was harsh, also, in his criticisms of those who practiced political sectarianism. Instead, he argued that the role of government was to adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward individuals while providing a political framework in which those who wished to rise on their own merits could do so. Smiles cited character as the crown and glory of a person’s life; being known for one’s good character and irreproachable conduct were, he said, inherently the greatest legacy a person could leave to his family and society. These qualities, not accident of birth, marked the true gentleman. Nevertheless, Smiles was quick to point out that it was perfectly acceptable for people to pursue a life of material comfort, as long as it was achieved through noble means.

Smiles wrote to an audience predisposed to accept the ideas he was promoting. For nearly two decades, Thomas Carlyle Carlyle, Thomas had been writing about the influence of great men on history. Such Carlyle works as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) and Past and Present (1843) had suggested that men of determination and strong will could rise to prominence and that work, not inherited privilege, was the means of achieving success in life. At the same time, the rigid British social order was slowly being dismantled. A succession of British kings and queens had created peerages for men who had distinguished themselves in business or performed special services for the royal family, regardless of their birth, while the untitled leisure class—those known as “gentlemen” in the past—were finding it necessary to work to supplement their meager inheritances.

Smiles’s book was an instant best seller. Young men found promise in his advice and hope in the notion that hard work and clean living would eventually result in advancement on the social ladder. On the other hand, the working classes—young men born into abject poverty and squalor—were less apt to believe in the power of hard work alone as a leveler of social class.

The upper classes, too, responded with less enthusiasm to Self-Help, largely because Smiles suggested that those who carried a title also had a duty to act responsibly toward the less fortunate and to be exemplars of virtue. Some readers found the book offensive, arguing that beneath the platitudes and exhortations, Smiles was simply promoting a program of selfishness that encouraged young men to seek advancement by any means possible. In subsequent editions, Smiles took pains in his prefaces to counter such arguments, claiming instead that his principal aim was to promote a healthy sense of self-reliance and to reinforce those values that, in his view, had always been the bedrock on which the English character had been built.


It may not be too farfetched to suggest that Smiles’s book initiated the modern phenomenon of self-help publications that offer practical suggestions and uplifting catch phrases to men and women interested in improving their lives. Within a few years after the appearance of Self-Help, similar books began appearing, targeted at different audiences. For example, Isabelle Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) was a kind of female companion piece to Smiles’s study, outlining virtues young women should cultivate if they wished to improve their lot in life.

Members of the middle classes took seriously Smiles’s argument that it was possible to rise socially and improve one’s economic status by practicing the virtues he promoted. Inspired by the success of Self-Help, Smiles began turning out biographies of other people whose lives demonstrated the virtues he had espoused in his 1859 volume. By the time of his death in 1904, more than 250,000 copies of Self-Help had been sold, and his other books, especially The Life of George Stephenson and the three-volume Lives of the Engineers (1861-1862, 5 vol. ed. 1874), had also achieved wide readership.

Not surprisingly, in the heyday of the twentieth century reaction against Victorianism, Smiles came under attack by Lytton Strachey Strachey, Lytton in Eminent Victorians
Eminent Victorians (Strachey) (1918) for what Strachey considered his complicity in promoting hypocrisy, the defining characteristic of the age. While Smiles and his work were more mentioned than read during the twentieth century, the echoes of his contribution to popular literature can be seen in Stephen Covey’s Covey, Stephen
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), Daniel Goleman’s Goleman, Daniel
Emotional Intelligence (1995), and other books targeted at individuals who want to improve their status in life personally and financially.

Further Reading

  • Jarvis, Adrian. Samuel Smiles and the Construction of Victorian Values. Thrupp, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1997. Sympathetic examination of Smiles’s influence on his contemporaries; analyzes key ideas about character and society as expressed in Self-Help and other writings by Smiles.
  • Sinnema, Peter W. Introduction to Self-Help, by Samuel Smiles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Provides a biographical sketch and describes influences that led Smiles to write Self-Help; examines the major premises of the book and discusses Smiles’s literary techniques. Explains the work’s lasting influence.
  • Smiles, Aileen. Samuel Smiles and his Surroundings. London: R. Hale, 1956. Biography by Smiles’s granddaughter that emphasizes his contributions to Victorian society while downplaying the negative reaction to his works.
  • Travers, Timothy. Samuel Smiles and the Victorian Work Ethic. New York: Garland, 1987. Lengthy study demonstrating how Smiles’s ideas about the nature and value of work parallel those of his Victorian contemporaries, who elevated work to a status just below religion in the hierarchy of values.

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Self-Help (Smiles)[SelfHelp (Smiles)]