When Dominic Sandbrook quoted Samuel Smiles extensively in his TV series on nineteenth-century work and leisure; when Ian Hislop flourished a copy of Smiles’s Self-Help (“the book that launched the genre”) in his programme on ‘Workers or Shirkers?’; when Andy Burnham reflected publicly on “lack of aspiration” as a main cause of Britain’s north-south divide – all were testifying to the intense topicality of the work and ideas of Samuel Smiles.
This is the first full biography of the man who, in the industrial on-rush of the 19th century, gave the world the idea of self-help as a go-to strategy in an age of frenzied change. Using Smiles’s unpublished correspondence with family, friends and publishers, and drawing extensively on his writing, The Spirit of Self-Help tells the very human story of how Samuel Smiles came from a small-town, small-time family in Scotland to become, by turn and sometimes together, medical doctor, campaigning journalist, railway executive, best-selling author, and global celebrity. This is both a biography and a reflection on themes of success and failure, the individual and society, moral and material worth, and the relationships between these sets of ideas. Driven by its subject, The Spirit of Self-Help revolves around the oldest idea of all – the possibility of happiness, for everyone, in all possible circumstances. In that sense, though set in the 19th century, this is an intensely topical book.
John Hunter was born in Northern Ireland, schooled in Belfast, and awarded a degree in history and political science at Trinity College, Dublin. After a successful career in the communications industry and in manufacturing, he studied at Birkbeck College, University of London, taking an MA in Victorian Studies. The Spirit of Self-Help is his first book.