Samuel Smiles (1812–1904), a doctor, and the son of an East Lothian shopkeeper, is best known for his works of simple moral exhortation — Self-Help is only one of a series which includes Character (1871), Thrift (1875), and Duty (1880). Self-Help, the first and most successful of this series, owes its origin to a request to Smiles by a group of young artisans in Leeds for a course of lectures on ‘mutual improvement’. The chapters in Self-Help indicate the form that these lectures probably took. Each takes a simple human virtue — perseverance, energy, courage, or ‘self-culture’ — which is likely to prove the key to success in an industrial world, and illustrates it from Smiles’s profuse knowledge of the lives of scientists, engineers, and industrialists. It was this latter interest — the biographies of engineers — that led Smiles on to his more valuable historical work. His Lives of the Engineers (1861–2), his Industrial Biography (1863), and the separate volumes on Boulton and Watt (1866), Nasmyth (1883), and Josiah Wedgwood (1894), constitute an invaluable corpus of biographical information which may still be consulted with profit. Nevertheless, Smiles is remembered today primarily as the author of Self-Help. Two typical passages from this book are reproduced below. The work nowadays owes its historical importance not so much to its supposed distillation of the spirit of mid-Victorian prosperity, as to its contribution to the misunderstanding of the real nature of life in Victorian Britain.


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Copyright information

© M. W. Flinn 1964

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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