Few can ever have expressed the spirit of their age better than the Scottish-born reformer and prolific inspirational author, Samuel Smiles. His most celebrated book, Self-Help (1859), seemed to sum up Victorian ideals of industry and drive. The fact that it came out at almost exactly the same time as that other key work, Darwin's revolutionary Origin of the Species seems ironic to some. But perhaps it is not. Of course, the two works are quite different in intellectual level and effect: Self-Help was meant to have, and indeed had, an immediate bearing on the everyday conduct of Victorian life, while Origin of the Species would have a lasting impact on scientific thinking, and the spiritual life of the nation. Yet both explore the extent to which man is responsible for his own destiny. To Smiles belongs the concept of the self-made man. Self-reliance and self-improvement were his watchwords. But these were not for selfish purposes. The latter, in particular, was for the gain of society as a whole, to whose betterment both industry and drive were to be directed. Among the many models Smiles held up, in Self-Help and his other books, was the life of the successful merchant and philanthropist George Moore. Of Moore he wrote, in philosophical vein,

We can finish nothing in this life; but we may make a beginning, and bequeath a noble example. Thus Character is the true antiseptic of society. The good deed leaves an indelible stamp. It lives on and on; and while the frame moulders and disappears, the great worker lives for ever in the memory of his race. "Death," says the Philosopher, "is a co-mingling of Eternity with Time. In the death of a good man, Eternity is seen looking through Time." [George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist, 450]

As this suggests, it was not at all impossible for the Victorians to combine notions of self-help with evolutionary thinking. Darwin himself may well have been wary of doing so. Nevertheless, he reported as late as December 1876 that he had "read every one of [Smiles's] biographies with 'extreme pleasure'" (qtd. in Burkhardt and Smith 457). — Jacqueline Banerjee

Biographical and Introductory Materials

Excerpts from Self-Help


Burkhardt, Frederick,‎and Sydney Smith. A Calendar of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821-1882.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

"Portraits of Celebrities at different times of their Lives." The Strand Magazine. Vol. II (July to December), 10 (October 1891): 366-71. Internet Archive. Web. 24 July 2014.

Smiles, Samuel. Autobiography. Ed. Thomas Mackay. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1905. Internet Archive. Uploaded by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web 24 July 2014.

_____. George Moore, Merchant and Philanthropist. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1879. Internet Archive. Uploaded by the University of California Libraries. Web 24 July 2014.

_____. Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct. Rev. and enlarged ed. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1861. Google Books Free E-book. Web 24 July 2014.

Last modified 26 November 2020