Samual Smiles - Victorian 'Self-Help' Author - Still Relevant Today?

by KathleenDuffy

Samuel Smiles' book, 'Self Help', was a Victorian publishing phenomenon. It was the first popular self improvement book. It still has a lot of relevance today.

Samuel Smiles, a Victorian, wrote a book called 'Self Help'. Although we can criticise this work from the standpoint of our 21st century viewpoint and knowledge, nevertheless like many self-help books it holds kernels of truth that are still relevant today.

The main point of a 'self-help' book is to give hope to the individual reading it. Perhaps the suggestions therein are a little impractical for our particular situation, maybe the cultural background of the book doesn't match our own, and possibly there are historical mind-sets that we can't really penetrate.

Nevertheless, a good self-help book will have a universal underlying theme - i.e. that we can all reach beyond our present seemingly hopeless situation. Samuel Smiles book 'Self Help' deserves to be read even today because, despite the prejudices of its period, it does have a belief in the ability of the human spirit to rise above its situation.

That isn't to say that we can't recognise that it has its limitations.

Self Help and Victorian Society

Sauel Smiles
Sauel Smiles

Samuel Smiles, (23 December 1812 – 16 April 1904) born in Scotland to parents of modest means, was third of eleven children.

Mechanics Institute, Leeds

After studying medicine at Edinburgh University he moved to Leeds, becoming editor of the radical Leeds Times.

He later taught apprentices at the Mechanics’ Institute (left), becoming part of the popular working class movement for self-improvement, knowledge and education.  His inspiring and supportive lecture notes became the foundation for Self Help.


Amongst the lecturers who also spoke here in 1884 was the writer, Oscar Wilde. (Thank you to Geoff Dibb, author of  'A Vagabond with a Mission',  for that information : see http://www.oscarwildesociet...)


Victorian society's industrial, inventive powers had lain the foundations of rugged, masculine  individualism. Although Samuel Smiles had been a supporter of the radical Chartist movement and parliamentary reform, he had become disillusioned.

He began to believe that society was only as good as its individuals - individual self improvement was essential for a responsible state. 

Victorian entrepreneurs exploited their workforces, but there was a growing movement to improve conditions - for welfare provision and education. This would obviously benefit industrialists. A fit, literate workforce meant profitability. It would hopefully prevent the revolutionary upheavals witnessed in France.

But there was also a sincere attempt to improve the lives of the 'deserving' poor, i.e. those in poverty who were anxious to help themselves. (In the United Kingdom this Victorian attitude has arisen again given the present shaky economic climate).

So, Samuel Smiles' Self Help was a product of its time.

Samuel Smiles and Victorian Individualism

Smiles illustrated his book with biographies not of great heroes or the rich, but achievers who through relentless hard work had never given up on their ambitions. He meant to encourage ordinary working men to better themselves.

It is easy to imagine that the hard-working men who attended the classes at the Mechanics' Institute were eager recipients of these examples. After all, as Smiles had illustrated, working men who seemed to be  like themselves had made something of their lives. 

Amongst his examples were:

Sir William Herschel (1738-1822).


Whilst working  as an oboist in a travelling orchestra he became interested in astronomy.   

After building a reflecting telescope, he discovered Uranus and was  appointed astronomer to the English King George.

Herschel educated his sister, Caroline, who was absolutely crucial in discovering new stars and nebulae. She was the first woman scientist to receive a salary - she was paid by the King.

Sir William Herschel
Sir William Herschel
Palissy rustic ware featuring casts of sea life French 1550.
Palissy rustic ware featuring casts o...

Bernard Palissy (c.1510-1589)

He was an impoverished potter.

In order to create his famous enamel ware, he burnt his own furniture.

Eventually he was rewarded by the position as potter to the French throne.




Granville Sharp
Granville Sharp

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)

Granville Sharp was a clerk.  In  his spare time he began the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

Eventually he got the law changed to ensure slaves setting foot in Britain would be automatically freed.

Surprisingly, Smiles did not include a contemporary who had risen from apprentice gardener to architect of the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton, surely a perfect example of Victorian 'self-help'.

However, the message was that anyone, with hard work, frugality and thrift could better themselves in life.  To ensure success Smiles' fundamental criteria was:

  • Never live beyond your means and never rely on credit.
  • Temperance (i.e. abstinence from alcohol) is essential for success.

For Smiles, a Victorian,  these were the basic, elementary foundations for personal advancement.


Criticism of Samuel Smiles

Samuel Smiles has been criticised for the following reasons:

  • The book, Self Help,  keeps the working man subservient. It creates a belief that the individual, despite being a wage slave under industrial capitalism, can break free.
  • It ignores the part chance  plays in social/economic advancement.
  • Smiles judges success by a  narrow definition. Some great figures would not be seen as successful in his eyes.
  • The old and the sick have no  place in Self Help.
  • Few women are represented.
  • What about natural genius?
  • Smiles is a typical  workaholic. The book never mentions pleasure, family or friends.

Defence of Samuel Smiles

Others have argued that his book has merit.

  • Book’s optimism and energy are compelling. Everyone can do something to better themselves, in a small way,  albeit in the most dreadful and hopeless circumstaces.
  • Smiles felt that introducing women as equals at that period in history may have deterred men, his main focus. Yes, this is a  criticism, but we have to see things from the times in which Smiles was writing and his belief that men, as main breadwinners, had to be encouraged.
  • Smiles was not against the welfare state. He felt all should have a fair start in life. He talks of      community responsibility and citizenship.
  • Smiles’ values of thrift and  independence ultimately provide for elderly and sick.
  • Natural genius is irrelevant without hard work.
  • National Library of Scotland holds many letters from ordinary people touched by Smiles’ book and attesting to their changed lives.

Whatever we feel about Smiles' approach to self-help and writing as he did from the limitations of a Victorian perspective, we can take from it many nuggets of wisdom to help us in our daily lives today. Sometimes it only takes an optimistic and hopeful attitude to encourage us, whatever the origins.

Smiles died in 1903 aged 92. His funeral procession was second only to Queen Victoria’s.

On the shelves of most homes, next to the Bible, was Self Help.

It is still in print.



  • BBC Radio 4, Thursday, 2nd   July 2009 The Grandfather of Self-Help
  • 50 Self-Help Classics Butler-Bowden on line site

Some Contemporary Self- Help Items

Available from ebay
Updated: 03/02/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 07/12/2013

Hello Lilysnape - Thanks for your post - I'm glad you found the article interesting! :)

lilysnape on 07/12/2013

Very interesting article, I had never heard of him before

KathleenDuffy on 07/12/2013

Mira - Hi, yes, I find Dale Carnegie a very interesting read. I guess despite their limitations they've all got something to offer! Thanks a lot for your comments.

Mira on 07/12/2013

"Smiles is a typical workaholic. The book never mentions pleasure, family or friends." Ha! Sounds very Victorian, doesn't it?
Great page, Kathleen! And yes (looking at your comment below) I'll have to read Dale Carnegie's book in its entirety. That, too, is a great read.

KathleenDuffy on 07/12/2013

2uesday, thank you for your comments. I agree - he was a great influence. People like Dale Carnegie who wrote 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' which is still a top seller today are the successors of Smiles. :)

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