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Ambition, monomania and the seeds of self-help

Rebecca Richardson on how Victorian self-help books tried to shape their readers.

14 September 2022

Today's wide and varied publishing genre of 'self-help' can be traced back to 19th-century titles like The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties (1830-31), Success in Life; A Book for Young Men (1851), and Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct and Perseverance (1859). Such books aimed to inspire readers with a combination of advice, maxims, and exemplary biographies. Their authors seemed to especially delight in repeating stories – usually about young men – scraping together spare moments and scant resources to pursue an education. Can we trace a line through to modern concerns?

Meet David Rittenhouse, the future astronomer, using a plough handle to calculate eclipses. Or Benjamin West, the painter, fashioning brushes out of fur from his cat's tail. The blacksmith and painter James Sharples balances work and art, waking up at four o'clock in the morning to read a primer on painting, 'after which he went to the foundry at six, worked until six and sometimes eight in the evening; and returned home to enter with fresh zest' upon his studies. Victorian self-help books such as Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, first published in 1859, collected hundreds of these examples of people who worked hard to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

Self-Help was an immediate and lasting success, outselling many of the period's titles we're more familiar with today, including George Eliot's great hit, Adam Bede. Smiles went on to publish similar works, such as Character (1871), Thrift (1875), Duty (1880), and Life and Labour (1887). Even as the market included many similar titles, Smiles had an outsized effect. The American writer Orison Marden remembered being 'thrilled and inspired' by Smiles's 'stories of poor boys climbing to the top', which led him to seek the title of 'the Samuel Smiles of America' (Huber, 1971, p.147, 149). His own self-help book, Pushing to the Front (1894), went through 250 editions.

The Victorian self-help genre was also specifically adapted for women and children. The publisher James Hogg and Sons published many similar titles, including Small Beginnings; Or, the Way to Get On (1859), Men Who Have Risen: A Book for Boys (1861), and Brave Men's Footsteps: A Book of Example and Anecdote in Practical Life, for Young People (1872). Even as the majority of these books address themselves to a male reader – with advice about cultivating a specifically 'manly' character suiting a 'gentleman' – women writers still managed to translate the message across gendered lines. For example, Jessie Boucherett's Hints on Self-help; A Book for Young Women (1863) quotes at length from Smiles's work, even while offering more specific advice for what jobs young women ought to pursue. (Boucherett is particularly adamant that dressmaking is an overcrowded field, and that women ought to look instead to other emerging occupations, like the 'tinting' of photographs.)

Other authors explicitly addressed 'money-making', with titles like Millionaires and How They Became So (1884), Fortunes Made in Business (1884-87), Money-Making Men, or How to Grow Rich (1886), Great Fortunes and How They Were Made (1871), and P.T. Barnum's The Art of Money-Getting (1882). But even among these titles, authors stressed the importance of hard work and character. For example, the third volume of Fortunes Made in Business is prefaced with a reminder that each story 'carries with it the lessons of small beginnings and noble aspirations – of resolute perseverance and commanding integrity – and reveals achievements of far greater importance than the acquisitions of individual riches' (p. iii).

As much as all this may seem distinctly and quaintly Victorian, the overall takeaways from these early versions of the genre have much in common with what we think of as 'self-help' today.

A gospel of work

Then and now, the genre emphasises taking control of one's life and persevering despite obstacles. Of course, today's market for self-help books contains multitudes, with advice on everything from how to get rich quickly, to how to be happy regardless of income; from how to 'lean in' at work, to how to limit the workweek to four hours. But many titles essentially boil down to advice about seizing control or 'power', including bestsellers like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret and Tony Robbins's Awaken the Giant Within: How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical, and Financial Destiny and Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement.

Although self-help overlaps with many such longstanding genres and traditions, it is still important to consider it as a unique invention of the 19th century.

Even in the 19th century, the genre's authors were noting that these were perennial concerns. Smiles himself was quick to disavow any claim to originality: 'There was nothing in the slightest degree new or original in [his] counsel, which was as old as the Proverbs of Solomon, and possibly quite as familiar' (Self-Help, 2002, p.7). Indeed, the genre drew on the conventions of wisdom literature as well as hagiography and other such collections of exemplary biography, dating back to works like Plutarch's Lives and Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies. Popular didactic fictional and allegorical tales also offered up examples to follow – from Christian in Pilgrim's Progress (1678) to Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick (1868).

Although self-help overlaps with many such longstanding genres and traditions, it is still important to consider it as a unique invention of the 19th century – an era that saw both the first use of the term and the coalescing of the genre. As popularised by Smiles, the term 'self-help' meant 'industry, perseverance, and self-culture'. Smiles valorised hard work, both for its own sake, and for the good it would do for the individual and the wider nation. As the historian Asa Briggs argued, Smiles became 'one of the most important propagandists' in mid-Victorian England, preaching a wildly popular and adaptable 'gospel of work' (Briggs, 1975, p.116). Smiles praised an array of workers, including scientists, inventors, artists, and 'captains of industry'; he was as quick to praise missionaries and abolitionists as military leaders. His message helped amplify the idea of the self-made man as well as reimagine what it meant to be a 'gentleman'. In fact, in his chapter 'Character – The True Gentleman', Smiles insists that 'The poor man may be a true gentleman … He may be honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping… that is, be a true gentleman'.       

Such ideologies were exported to a wide audience, across the British empire and beyond. In his Autobiography (1905) Smiles recounted the many translations of his work – including editions in Buenos Aires, Portugal, India, and Russia. Smiles especially delighted in the popular Japanese translation, which could itself have been included as an example of inspiring hard work. Nakamura Masanao visited England in 1868 and bought a copy of Self-Help. On his journey back to Japan, he translated it. By the end of the 19th century, The Saturday Review could claim that 'Smiles' books have had a wider circulation through translations into foreign languages than any other English author, barring Shakespeare' (1905, p.551).

Smiles's message proved to be lasting as well as adaptable, emphasising widely valued behaviours and traits such as hard work, honesty, and perseverance. Part of the appeal of Smiles's work surely had to do with his message that anyone can instill these traits into their character. The key, according to Smiles, is to read biographies: such examples demonstrate 'what it is in the power of each to accomplish for himself' while also providing inspiration (or 'helps, guides, and incentives') (p.21). As Smiles writes, 'Some of the best [biographies] are almost equivalent to gospels – teaching high living, high thinking, and energetic action for their own and the world's good'. 

Victorian self-help books, even without the benefit of today's psychology research – however much that research gets watered down in self-help texts claiming to spread 'the new science of personal achievement' – often hit on similar ideas about managing time, cultivating one's passions, and instilling good habits. Biographies were meant to help readers in two ways. First, these biographies suggest a cause-effect logic: these people did X and succeeded; if you do X, you too will be successful. Second, these biographies offer inspiration, as readers come to empathise with and admire such hard work and perseverance. According to Smiles's logic, 'What some men are, all without difficulty might be. Employ the same means, and the same results will follow'. 

A bundle of habits

When Smiles addresses more specifically what readers should do to improve their characters and situations, he concentrates especially on the concept of habits. 'Man, it has been said, is a bundle of habits'. Smiles insists that '[s]elf-respect, self-help, application, industry, integrity¬' are all 'of the nature of habits, not beliefs'. And, Smiles adds, 'Even happiness itself may become habitual': 'we possess the power, to a great extent, of so exercising the will as to direct the thoughts upon objects calculated to yield happiness and improvement'. Such passages may seem like antecedents to today's cognitive behavioural therapy and the popular touting of positive thinking, visualisation, meditation, and gratitude.

Victorian self-help books, even without the benefit of today's psychology research, often hit on similar ideas about managing time, cultivating one's passions and instilling good habits.

Self-Help and similar texts offered many examples of everyday habits or practices that the reader might be inspired to emulate. Henry-Francois D'Aguesseau, Chancellor of France, 'wrote a bulky and able volume in the successive intervals of waiting for dinner'. The Comtesse de Genlis – one of the few women to make it into Self-Help – managed to compose 'several of her charming volumes while waiting for the princess to whom she gave her daily lessons' (Smiles, 2002, p.319). Or there is the Comte de Buffon, who bribed a servant, Joseph, to help rouse him from bed earlier than 6am. As the story goes, Joseph finally resorted to throwing a basin of cold water on his master to earn the extra crown in wages.

Artists and inventors are particularly single-minded about their work, with Claude Lorraine 'watching [the sky] for whole days from morning till night, and noting the various changes occasioned by the passing clouds and the increasing and waning light'. When William Smith makes his geological discoveries he gets the nickname 'Strata Smith' because he was 'always running over with the subject that possessed him'. Smiles seems to especially relish the dramatic acts of keeping a furnace or kiln burning, devoting entire pages to describing Cellini sacrificing utensils to the furnace and Palissy breaking up household furniture for fuel.

Other self-help texts similarly hold up examples of men who are so devoted to their various pursuits that they forego food and sleep. R.A. Davenport in Lives of Individuals Who Raised Themselves from Poverty to Eminence or Fortune (1841) describes how James Lackington and his friends became so dedicated to studying that they 'allowed themselves only three hours' sleep out of the twenty-four' (p.223). Thomas Platter, to stay awake, took 'cold water, raw turnips, or sand into his mouth, that the grating of his teeth might awake him' (p.174). In the second volume of The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties, Craik describes Herschel's single-minded focus. When working on a telescope mirror for twelve or fourteen hours, he couldn't be bothered to take a break for meals – and 'the little that he ate on such occasions was put into his mouth by his sister' (1831, p.288).


Such examples of people who are so passionate about their work that they neglect their basic needs might well have risked being diagnosed with monomania – which was emerging as a category of illness across the 19th century. Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol identified and named this condition around 1810 in France, and it quickly gained traction as a term, even among laypeople (Goldstein, 2001, p.153). In his history of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Lennard J. Davis summarises the infectious spread of the diagnosis: 'After Esquirol invented the term, it became the single most frequently made diagnosis for patients entering the asylum at Charenton between 1826 and 1829 (when statistical records were kept), making up 45 percent of the inmate population. For the other famous asylums – Salpêtrière and Bicêtre – monomania diagnoses were the most common or second most commonly made' (Davis, 2008, p.68). Soon, Thomas Hood's New Monthly Magazine would poke fun at the widespread use of the term: 'Monomania has become every man's business, since it has been discovered to be more epidemic than the influenza' (Morgan, 1843, p.44).

A popular example of monomania that appeared in British periodicals involved a hospitalised French watchmaker who was obsessed with perpetual motion. He set to work 'with indefatigable ardour', writing in chalk 'on all the doors or windows as he passed the various designs by which his wondrous piece of mechanism was to be constructed […] his whole attention was riveted upon his favourite pursuit; he forgot his meals…' He apparently went so far as to build various models. One even seemed to work – at first. As the anecdote goes, the watchmaker took a victory lap through the hospital, 'crying out, like another Archimedes' that he had solved the puzzle. But then the wheel stopped and the '"perpetual motion" ceased' (Parker, 1836, p.55-56). It can seem like a fine line separating success stories from case histories.

Work and health

Smiles was forced, in his own life, to reckon with another fine line – that between work and overwork. In his Autobiography (1905), Smiles recalls falling into the habit of working at night or, as he put it, 'burning the candle at both ends'. One night, while looking over a manuscript, he suffered a 'sharp attack of paralysis'. In fact, many Victorian writers were concerned about overwork and its effect on the mind and body. The deaths of some of the most famous authors of the 19th century were attributed, at least in part, to overwork, including Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Other authors took warning and paced their writing labour. Harriet Martineau – best known today for her work in early sociology, popular political economy, and literature, including Deerbrook — was especially haunted by Scott's death. After her own experience with writing too quickly against hard deadlines, Martineau vowed never again to strain herself or 'mortgage [her] brains' (2007, p. 97).

Such concerns about work and health were part of a wider cultural debate about labour in the 19th century, with legislation like the series of Factory Acts coming to regulate who could work under what conditions and for how many hours a day and week. Today, we can see these debates continuing in other forms as we learn more about the toll overwork, stress, and burnout have on the body and mind, particularly as the protections workers fought so hard for are now rolled back in the name of the 'gig economy'. Self-help texts play an interesting role in this cultural history, helping us to see how stories about ambitious work have been held up as exemplary as well as cautionary tales – revealing the fine line between work and overwork, genius and monomania.

Reframing ambition

In my book, Material Ambitions: Self-Help and Victorian Literature, I offer an explanation for why Smiles and the self-help genre lauded these extreme examples of hard work. These texts aspired to reframe the reader's ambitions. Readers shouldn't work just for selfish reasons – like success, fame, or money – but because hard work is good for the character and for the nation. Ambition needed to be reframed because of its complicated history in Anglo-American culture. As the historian William Casey King has examined, earlier periods associated ambition with sin and criminality. Ambition leads to Adam's fall and to tragic endings in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, and Doctor Faustus. It takes some time, King suggests, before a 'noble ambition' can be imagined (2013, p.117). Albert O. Hirschman (2013) traced how 'avarice' came to be reframed as 'interest' in the 18th century. Now, self-interest could motivate people to keep their more violent passions in check (p.100). 

However, ambition and avarice never fully cut ties to those older connotations. In fact, Glen Pettigrove (2007) echoes these long-standing tensions when he discusses the ethics and philosophy of ambition today. The drive still 'has the potential to be a crucial virtue as well as a devastating vice'. While it might provide 'direction and meaning' and encourage 'creativity, industry, discipline and perseverance', it might also go awry, consuming the individual and 'supplant[ing] the moral point of view' (p.67).

We can still see these conflicting debates about ambition, I suggest, in our own era's self-help texts, with their advice about building or changing character, about working harder or working less, and about harnessing our ambition or trying to detach from our ambition. No wonder so many of the people who have been held up as successful examples in our own time have also served as cautionary tales about greed, grift, or unintended consequences – from Elizabeth Holmes to Mark Zuckerberg.

About the author

Rebecca Richardson is a Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric, Stanford University. She is author of Material Ambitions: Self-Help and Victorian Literature published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2021.


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