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Victorian Britain's Statement on the Virtues of Hard Work
on September 15, 2004
The following review is based on the Oxford World's Classics edition, edited bby Peter W. Sinnema.
'Self-Help' was published in 1859 in England, and became the instant bestseller, with 20,000 copied sold within the year after publication, making Samuel Smiles a household name. It is hard to categorize this book into any genre, but basically 'Self-Help' is a statement on the virtues of hard working, or in Smiles's favorite word, 'perseverance,' amply illustrated by many examples of biographical records collected by Smiles.
The chapter names would show the contents -- 'Self-Help: National and Individual'; 'Leaders of Industry: Inventors and Producers'; 'Three Great Potters'; 'Application and Perseverance'; 'Helps and Opportunities'; 'Workers in Art'; 'Industry and the Peerage'; 'Energy and Courage'; 'Men on Business'; 'Money: It's Use and Abuse'; 'Self-Culture: Facilities and Difficulties'; 'Example: Models'; 'Character: The True Gentleman.'
Each chapter tells you the examples of hard work and its eventual triumph, and with many biographical episodes, Smiles argues the importance of being earnest, no matter where the supposed readers belong to the social ladder of England. For example, in the Chapter 'Three Great Potters' you can see the life of three potters -- Palissy, Bottgher, and Wedgwood -- and how they. in spite of the numerous obstacles rushing to them, succeeded in their art, with which their names were recorded in the history.
Like this, Smiles' book has a pattern -- it states its point first, championing the virtue of hard work, then he supports his statement with mini-biographies about many people, which include that of mechanics, philanthropists, scientist, musicians, soldiers, politicians, merchants, and many others. But as this is written in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, many pages are devoted to the inventors of new machines, or their privation, suffering, and final victory.
Often his styles are preachy, and Smiles didn't include many remarkable women who should have been included (if he does, those women's roles are often as men's 'help-mates'), and it has been pointed out since the publication that the cases Smiles cites as examples are all successful ones. But as it was written long time ago, we should take the book as it is now.
Oxford editon included concise introduction by Peter W. Sinnema, and helpful notes and glossary of the names the book deals with.
This is not a so-called 'how-to' book (if you want to read that way, of course you can), but a good proof as to how Victorian working class and lower-middle class thought about being 'viruous' and 'respectable.' If you want to see the glimpse of Victorian ideas among ordinary people, and how such ideas greatly influenced the writers like Dickens who created Mr. Bounderby in 'Hard Times,' you should read this book.