Self-Help (book)

Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct was a book published in 1859 by Samuel Smiles. The second edition of 1866 added Perseverance to the subtitle. It has been called "the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism".

Contents to the second edition

Introduction to the First Edition
Descriptive Contents
I. Self-Help—National and Individual
II. Leaders of Industry—Inventors and Producers
III. Three Great Potters—Palissy, Böttgher, Wedgwood
IV. Application and Perseverance
V. Helps and Opportunities—Scientific Pursuits
VI. Workers in Art
VII. Industry and the Peerage
VIII. Energy and Courage
IX. Men of Business
X. Money—Its Use and Abuse
XI. Self-Culture—Facilities and Difficulties
XII. Example—Models
XIII. Character—the True Gentleman


It sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles' death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million. Self-Help "elevated [Smiles] to celebrity status: almost overnight, he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru".

When an English visitor to the Khedive's palace in Egypt asked where the mottoes on the palace's walls originated, he was given the reply: "They are principally from Smeelis, you ought to know Smeelis! They are from his Self-Help; they are much better than the texts from the Koran!

The socialist Robert Tressell, in his novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, said Self-Help was a book "suitable for perusal by persons suffering from almost complete obliteration of the mental faculties".

Robert Blatchford, a socialist activist, said it was "one of the most delightful and invigorating books it has been my happy fortune to meet with" and argued it should be taught in schools. However he also noted that socialists would not feel comfortable with Smiles' individualism but also noted that Smiles denounced "the worship of power, wealth, success, and keeping up appearances". A labour leader advised Blatchford to stay away from it: "It's a brutal book; it ought to be burnt by the common hangman. Smiles was the arch-Philistine, and his book the apotheosis of respectability, gigmanity, and selfish grab". However Jonathan Rose has argued that most pre-1914 labour leaders who commented on Self-Help praised it and it was not until after the Great War that criticisms of Smiles in worker's memoirs appeared. The Labour Party MPs William Johnson and Thomas Summerbell admired Smiles' work and the Communist miners leader, A. J. Cook, "started out with Self-Help".


Further reading

  • Samuel Smiles, Original Text "Self Help" at Project Gutenberg
  • Asa Briggs, 'Samuel Smiles and the Gospel of Work', Victorian People (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1955).
  • Asa Briggs, 'A Centenary Introduction' to Self-Help by Samuel Smiles (London: John Murray, 1958).
  • Tom Butler-Bowdon, 'Self-Help' by Samuel Smiles, in 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2003).
  • Christopher Clausen, 'How to Join the Middle Classes with the Help of Dr. Smiles and Mrs. Beeton', American Scholar, 62 (1993), pp. 403-18.
  • Kenneth Fielden, 'Samuel Smiles and Self-Help', Victorian Studies, 12(1968), pp. 155-76.
  • Lord Harris of High Cross, 'Foreword', Self-Help (Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 1996).
  • Sir Keith Joseph, 'Foreword', Self-Help (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986).
  • R. J. Morris, 'Samuel Smiles and the Genesis of Self-Help ', Historical Journal, 24 (1981), pp. 89-109.
  • Jeffrey Richards, 'Spreading the Gospel of Self-Help: G. A. Henty and Samuel Smiles', Journal of Popular Culture, 16 (1982), pp. 52-65.
  • Tim Travers, 'Samuel Smiles and the Origins of "Self-Help": Reform and the New Enlightenment', Albion, 9 (1977), pp. 161-87.
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