Gold out of Straw

Peter Mandler

  • Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct and Perseverance by Samuel Smiles, edited by Peter Sinnema
    Oxford, 387 pp, £7.99, October 2002, ISBN 0 19 280176 7

The problem the 20th century had with Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help was that the conjunction of ‘self’ and ‘help’ sounded too much like the opposite of the welfare state. Smiles’s creed, it was assumed, was Thatcherism of the crudest ‘on yer bike’ sort, all the more regrettable for being so far avant la lettre. Smiles was, in fact, a radical, sympathetic to Chartism, and a lifelong promoter of the rights of the working class. Yet because, until now, no one has come up with anything coherent to say about the positive inspiration provided by Self-Help, the Thatcherite mud still sticks.

In pre-modern Europe all but a tiny cultivated minority were thought too sunken in sin and ignorance to have something as noble as a ‘self’. They might have souls, but these were hardly self-acting; rather, they required external treatment, or ‘curing’. Well into the 19th century, the forces of religious and political conservatism worked to confine a consciousness of selfhood to carefully selected elites. Lionel Trilling, in his essay on Mansfield Park, suggested that Jane Austen was the pioneer of what he called ‘the Terror’ – the regime of modern individuality, under which we have to make our way without the comforts of religious rules or predestination, forming and projecting our own personality, judging others by our lights and, worse, being judged by the mysterious lights of others. But the view of the self offered by literature was still fairly oblique. It was that moral desperado Thomas Carlyle who first put the question squarely, in Sartor Resartus: ‘Who am I; the thing that can say "I” . . . Whence? How? Whereto?’ Taken up by countless young clerks and artisans, Carlyle nevertheless had little faith in their ability to answer such questions and turned to recommending heroes for them to follow.

A more wholehearted prophet of the ‘I’ for all was Emerson, who, in essays of the 1830s and on a fabulously successful lecture tour around Britain in the late 1840s, delivered a dose of individuality from the New World. Carlyle had been one of Emerson’s principal inspirations, but Emerson thought of ‘great men’ not as towering above the masses but rather as ‘representative’ of the human potential lying in all, and his message of transcendent individuality was lapped up by the thousands of young working men who flocked to hear him at mechanics’ institutes across the North and Midlands. ‘Trust thyself,’ he urged. ‘Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.’ ‘Insist on yourself; never imitate.’

Emerson, in turn, was a great influence on Smiles, who borrowed the term ‘self-help’ from Emerson’s lecture ‘Man the Reformer’ (1841), in which self-reliance, or ‘self-help’, is counterposed not to mutual aid but rather to dependence on servants (the ‘help’ about which spoiled ladies complained). Emerson was a product of genteel Boston society and many of his essays were written primarily to discompose its complacency, not to galvanise the energies of the masses (though that was clearly what attracted his artisan audiences in Liverpool and Derby). Smiles adapted Emersonian messages for a more plebeian audience, first in lectures to Yorkshire mechanics’ institutes in the 1840s, then in Self-Help, published in 1859, and its later, lesser successors, Character (1871), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1880). Self-Help always stood out. It sold more than a quarter of a million copies in Smiles’s lifetime.

Why was there such an appetite for it? The 1850s were the right time in which to make the case for the do-it-yourself self. After decades of turbulent social change – urbanisation, migration, class conflict, demographic growth, massive shifts in the structure of employment – Britain had finally attained sufficient stability and prosperity to allow increasing numbers of its population to carve out a little space for self-reflection. The old order had been disarrayed; a new mould, the conformism of mass urban culture, had not yet set. The demographic explosion gave Britain a surplus of young workers, and the long mid-Victorian economic surge seemed to have put an end to the boom-and-bust cycles of the earlier 19th century, which had crushed so many careers and aspirations. Social mobility, at least into the upper, skilled sections of the working class (if not across the great divide into the middle classes), appeared a more plausible goal for all. What held workers back seemed simply to be the class bigotry of the rich, the historic legacy of low expectations and pinched horizons which had been imposed on the poor. What Smiles sought to offer was that degree of self-consciousness and self-assertiveness which he held, following Emerson, to be everyman’s potential.

‘The humblest may say: "To respect myself, to develop myself – this is my true duty in life.”’ It is difficult now to grasp how revolutionary this message was in 1859, when for generations ‘duty’ had been defined almost solely in relation to others, principally others in a superior state, whether landlords, employers, governors or God. For Smiles, Carlyle’s cult of heroes was too much like that older kind of duty. ‘We are to wait for Caesars, and when they are found, "happy the people who recognise and follow them.” This doctrine shortly means, everything for the people, nothing by them.’ (This sentence was added to Self-Help in 1866 with Napoleon III as well as Carlyle in mind.) In contrast, Smiles dwelled on the ability of ‘the humblest’ to define themselves and make their own mark on the world. His heroes are tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, weavers, servants and common day-labourers – trades grouped together as the producers of ‘great men of science, literature and art’.

Capsule biographies of these great men form the bulk of Smiles’s central chapters (though not as much of the whole book as people may imagine). They are repetitive, formulaic, almost scriptural, certainly Bunyanesque in their predictable rhythms and mnemonic structure: humble origins, hard work, adversity, perseverance, success. ‘Necessity, oftener than facility, has been the mother of invention; and the most prolific school of all has been the school of difficulty.’ The effects of necessity and difficulty are often almost miraculous; fairytales as well as scripture seem to be an inspiration. Johann Friedrich Böttgher, an apothecary’s apprentice, is locked up by the Elector of Saxony and ordered to spin gold out of straw (well, copper); but, out of sheer desperation and by endless assiduity, he stumbles on the secret of turning clay into porcelain, which is almost as good. Another heroic potter, Bernard Palissy, throws all his worldly goods on the fire – the garden palings, the household furniture – so that it reaches the temperature at which his earthenware finally turns into majolica. The ‘plodding, patient, self-denying and taciturn’ apprentice John Heathcoat conjures the lace-making machine out of years of application, and lives to profit from it though besieged on right and left by patent-infringers and Luddites.

The main point of these stories is to show how widely distributed talent is – or how, with enough effort, anyone can find talent in themselves – and that the ‘great men’ do not hail principally from the ‘great families’ who owned and ruled Victorian Britain. As the stories of Böttgher and Palissy make clear, Smiles’s heroes are not all Englishmen (though they are, as Peter Sinnema says, almost all male and European). Napoleon I does not always come out poorly from the frequent comparisons with the Duke of Wellington, and Smiles pointedly praises la carrière ouverte aux talents characteristic of the French but not of the English army, using the scandals of the Crimea to moderate establishment Francophobia.

Smiles’s favourite word is ‘perseverance’, and his harping on the specific virtues of self-denial, thrift, patience and toil gives his text its pharisaical air, with the faint suggestion that failures from the labouring class have only themselves to blame. Self-Help must often have been read, after all, in the light of Dickens’s Hard Times, in which the bogus ‘self-made man’ Bounderby delivers just that message. But Smiles is almost completely uninterested in failure. He briefly attacks improvidence and intemperance, but blames these things mostly on the prejudices of the powerful, who preach that the poor can do no better. Like Carlyle and Emerson, Smiles was interested in asserting the dignity or even the wonder of labour. Unlike Emerson, he had a pretty shrewd understanding of the practical obstacles facing the poor, from his father’s chequered career as a papermaker and shopkeeper in lowland Scotland, his own hard times as a medical apprentice, and what he witnessed as a doctor during the Hungry Thirties.

Furthermore, Smiles was not recommending a lifetime of self-denial, or the accumulation of capital for its own sake. He did not admire the Bounderbys, whatever their origin:

The chief disadvantage attached to the calling of the laborious classes is, not that they are employed in physical work, but that they are too exclusively so employed, often to the neglect of their moral and intellectual faculties. While the youths of the leisure classes, having been taught to associate labour with servility, have shunned it, and been allowed to grow up practically ignorant, the poorer classes, confining themselves within the circle of their laborious callings, have been allowed to grow up in a large proportion of cases absolutely illiterate.

Smiles was an advocate of limits on the working day, of general education and of the public provision of libraries and museums, and a critic of inherited wealth and the indolence of the propertied classes. Thrift did not pave the road to wealth, but to something much better: freedom. ‘It does not make money an idol but regards it as a useful agent.’

More often than ‘self-help’, Smiles talks of ‘self-culture’, another Emersonism (in fact, Carlyle got in first with both, but it was Emerson who popularised them). The purpose of hard work was not to achieve material success, but to develop the self – its powers, range, creativity and diversity. The longest chapter in Self-Help is devoted to ‘workers in art’, an odd choice for a man later condemned as the arch-philistine of the mid-Victorian generation. Granted, Smiles’s artist paints with elbow grease as much as with oils: here again, however, Self-Help is dwelling on perseverance not to bring art down to earth but to elevate his audience, to argue that great art comes not from capriciously distributed genius and patronage but from general human capabilities. In his emphasis on the need to ‘elevate the character and expand the spiritual nature’ by means of reading and the study of art and the natural world, he was much closer to Matthew Arnold and Ruskin than legions of Arnoldians and Ruskinians have dared to allow. Smiles was not the killjoy evangelical that Arnold and Ruskin had in mind as their ideal-typical adversary: it’s possible to trace in his writings many signs of rebellion against that ‘narrow, sectarian, rigid, and (as I now think) unchristian’ Calvinism in which he was raised but in adulthood threw off in favour of Emerson’s Unitarianism.

Among the occupations recommended by Smiles to fill leisure hours is the pursuit of mutual aid, which reminds us, as Jonathan Rose points out in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, how many late Victorian labour leaders listed Smiles alongside Ruskin as a source of inspiration. Smiles worried in the preface to the 1866 edition that he might have given the wrong impression by calling his book Self-Help, but said that if properly understood in the Emersonian sense, ‘self-help’ was not an antonym but rather a prerequisite for mutual aid. One could not love humanity without first recognising the best human qualities in oneself, and one could not work effectively on behalf of humanity without first acquiring the tools of effective work – the skills of curiosity, observation and integrity. There has been a debate about whether Methodism impeded working-class mobilisation by inculcating submission or accelerated it by teaching practical lessons in organisation; there ought now to be one about Smilesian values, too.