Page last updated at 11:02 GMT, Thursday, 2 July 2009 12:02 UK

Self help Victorian style

Love, stress and so on

By Kate Williams

It's 150 years since the first self help book - a subject so novel Samuel Smiles's guide was called, simply, Self Help. But could Smiles's Victorian ethos be applied to modern-day dilemmas?

Samuel Smiles was a Victorian sensation. Exactly 150 years ago, his book Self Help took Victorian Britain by storm - and spawned a £10bn industry.

Kate Williams
The Grandfather of Self Help, presented by Kate Williams (right) is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 2 July, at 1130 BST
Or listen to it later on the iPlayer

Self-Help sold over a quarter of a million copies, an astonishing sum at the time, and was translated into many languages. Smiles's funeral in 1904 was said to be second only to Queen Victoria's, for the era.

Self-Help was published on the same day as Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Rather than unveiling a scientific theory, Smiles was promising his readers the key to power and success.

"Heaven helps those who help themselves," he wrote. With hard work, he declared, a man could accomplish anything.

Samuel Smiles
A lot to smile about - the first self-help guru

Men should focus on work to the exclusion of all else - sleep, spending time with their families, prayer and even attending to their food. Smiles declared that he had not meant to encourage self-obsession, but it was too late. The self-help industry had been born.

Today, there are more than 45,000 titles on Amazon that claim they can help us realise our ambitions and desires: riches, career status, an adoring husband, sexual success, and a slim body. Like Self Help they can be punishing in their judgements: if we fail to achieve, it is our fault.

But what would Smiles make of such books that promote such frivolous aims? I've devised four modern-day problems that many of today's slew of self-help books seek to address, proposed how they might do so and then suggested how the grandfather of self help, Smiles himself, would have tackled them.


Dan: I am 38 and I have only ever been out with six women. But everyone else I know seems to have dozens of conquests. I am OK looking, but girls just don't seem to be interested. Where am I going wrong?

Neil Strauss' 2005 bestseller, The Game: Penetrating the Society of Pickup Artists, has no truck with the timid tone of Dan's predicament. This is exactly the sort of dilemma for which Strauss would tell Dan he is simply too nice. He would tell Dan to be unkind to the women he desires - ignore them and barb them with comments such as "is that a wig?"

Smiles, on the other hand, would be utterly shocked by the idea of men spending their every free moment in bars, mocking pretty women. Such behaviour is a distraction from honest toil. He would tell Dave (and Strauss) to quickly marry a woman who seems a good cook, housekeeper and general helpmate- and then settle back to work. Or give up women altogether. As he remarks, "he who cannot restrain, must abstain".


Nikki: I met Dave five months ago and everything seemed to be going really well. We went out on four or five dates a week, he called a lot, and bought me flowers. But over the last two months things have changed. He is too busy to see me, cancels dates at the last minute and hardly ever calls.

Heart drawn in sand
Marry him and accept your place

It's the sort of romantic quandary that would be given short shrift by Greg Berehndt and Liz Tucillo, authors of one of the most popular self improvement books of recent years, He's Just Not That Into You. The title actually comes from an off-hand comment made by a character in the hit TV series Sex in the City, and Berehndt and Tucillo would urge Nikki to heed look no further. They would tell her that Dave "was just not that into her" and so she should move on.

Smiles would be very stern with Nikki. Men, he would say, have better things to do than be "into" women. Dave, he would tell her, was quite properly focused on what is important in life - work. Real men don't have time to call or send flowers. Just marry him and accept your place as his obedient helpmate. Smiles's example for all ladies is the wife of John Flaxman, who sacrificed all for her husband's career. She devoted five years of her life to saving to fund his trip to Rome, declaring: "I will never have it said that Ann Denman ruined John Flaxman for an artist."


Clare: Our new boss arrived last year and he is really difficult. He's always undermining and criticising our work, he is dismissive in meetings and he even cancelled the monthly staff lunch. What can we do?

Twenty years ago Stephen Covey published The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and 15 million sales later he has a legion of followers. Covey would encourage Clare to think of his principles of Mutual Benefit - Win/Win and Creative Collaboration. She must try to please her boss, and indeed flatter and charm him. The more she creates an "emotional bank account", or emotionally blackmails him with niceness, the more he will favour her.

But Smiles would be confused by Covey's theories. The only way to be effective in life is to work hard. If Clare concentrates on creating as many spreadsheets as she can, she will achieve success. She should not waste her time on trivialities such as flattery. As he declares, 'sedulous attention and painstaking industry always mark the true worker'.


Priya: I am constantly stressed. I am always thinking about work and I cannot switch off.

Embrace the worry that comes with pursuing true toil

Paul Wilson became the guru of stress management when his pocket-sized book the Little Book of Calm became a publishing phenomenon in the late 90s. Wilson, who was inspired by Zen philosophy, would recommend that Priya pretends that every day is a Saturday. She should try to put herself in a holiday mood by lying back, relaxing and then trying to laugh. A long, leisurely warm bath every morning will help soak her stresses away.

Smiles would congratulate Priya. The man or woman who thinks about work all the time has attained true happiness. A languid bath? What frivolity. One must embrace the worry that comes with pursuing true toil. As he concludes: "The battle of life is, in most cases, fought up-hill and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour."

Dr Kate Williams is an author and historian.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Nice to have Self Help commemorated! Note that Smiles does not say that the battle of life can only be won by hard work; 'to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour', there's the catch! Being mid-Victorian, Smiles wanted to help people help themselves; his advice - in a modified form to match the social realities of today - is still pertinent. Those whose goals do not include economic prosperity can blithely ignore the whole thing, of course. Does Smiles' comment about 'without honour' somehow apply to the authors of self-help books, I wonder?
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

I'm with Smiles. Somewhat feminine concerns about who likes whom and appearances have probably contributed more than Brown to the downfall of Britain. A society in which hard study and hard work pay will be successful.
Algol60, Milford, CT, USA

I picked up that book randomly in a book shop, amused by the directness of it's title. All these questions defy the things he was interested in! Now that may mean that he isn't very good, that we are interested in different things nowadays, or that the questions asked are two restricted for his answers to seem to apply, even if they might. For example, "industrious working" can allow you to switch off, because you have satisfaction that the problems of the day either have been dealt with or will be dealt with soon. This kind of containment of problems means that you don't worry about them through your tea, because you left them in your notebook at work, along with workable steps to begin to resolve them. You've taken apart the problem in terms of things you can actually do, so worry turns into a task list that you can only do during work time anyway! Mind you Smiles would probably suggest overtime to match the job, so you would get to switch off, just at 8:00 at night! That kind of industriousness isn't about making work for yourself, and pointlessly multiplying spreadsheets, but applying yourself as directly as possible at the problems at hand. In the boss example, this would be getting to know the problem and it's causes and jumping on his criticisms to resolve them. If he keeps criticising you and cancelling stuff, well the Smiles approach cannot help you, but I'd say that you will have given yourself a good foundation to fight back, particularly as he will either have to make pointless criticisms or massively increase your workload, revealing his bad leadership substantially enough to give you grounds to complain either to higher ups or directly to him.
Josh W, Swansea, UK

I like Smiles ethic. "To win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour." I think I may take a leaf from his book.
Chris, Sunderland

How refreshing. Its a worry knowing that you are worrying too much or stressing. That in itself is an added stressor. The words of smiles ring true to me.
Laura Jacobs, sheffield

Seems self help advice is tied with the fashion and trends of the time. Personally I find his chin up and get on with it attitude quite refreshing when played against the scenarios in today's needy society.
Reef, Liverpool

Samuel Smiles' "Self Help": an answer to every one of life's questions - "Work Hard, and work harder". What if the self help question was "I cannot find gainful employment during this recession and constant rejections are battering my self esteem"? I'd be interested to know what Mr. Smiles would say to that. Probably "know your place and go to the workhouse".
Martin, Bristol, UK

Life in Victorian times was extremely harsh especially for the working classes, for Smiles to use the "Help thyself" style of counselling is a joke he was no doubt born into a middle/upper class background without any real awareness of the struggles and lack of social mobility of those beneath him
Mia, Reading, Berkshire

You've completely missed the point of Samuel Smiles. He was addressing the subject of poverty and how it could be avoided. He encapsulated in his writings the ancient Greek adage that there was no shame in being poor; the only shame was not doing something about it. In his day there were two competing views of the problem of poverty: his and early socialism. The latter argued that poverty was caused by a corrupt society, rather than any failing on the part of the poor. It's pretty obvious which argument would become more popular with the working classes! Followers of Samuel Smiles in the middle and upper classes didn't use his arguments to ignore the poor, instead they concentrated on providing them with the means to improve themselves. Hence the growth of libraries and evening classes in the latter part of Victoria's reign. In my small town a library was constructed for exactly this purpose, funded by local landowners, in 1870.
Dr Andy Edmonds, Woburn Sands

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