Samuel Smiles: late bloomer with a side hustle. Part I
My salon about The Tortoise and the Hare — one of the great post-war English novels — is on February 1st TONIGHT. We’ll be discussing the novel and the real life story behind it. I’d love to see you there.
Samuel Smiles was one of the most well-known and successful writers of the nineteenth century. Self Help is as representative of Victorian individualism and self-improvement as the works of Charles Dickens are of sentimentalism and progressivism. And Self Help was incredibly popular. It was published in 1859 and sold a quarter of a million copies in England by 1905. It was translated into a dozen languages, selling seventy-five-thousand copies in Japan alone. The basic message is simple and enduring: “Character is the true antiseptic of society.” You can get ahead, change your life, by working, learning, and improving yourself.
Alongside Self Help, Smiles published a series of books aimed at reinforcing and expanding this basic message, works such as Character. We still have his mode of popular, knowledge, useful writing aimed at self-improvement in writers like Ryan Holiday. Like Holiday, Smiles was a biographical writer. He used lives as illustrative and inspiring moral examples. In Character he said, “Every person may learn something from the recorded life of another.”
Sometimes his book titles read like a list of Victorian Values — Thrift, Duty, Life and Labour. And he is a reliable source of vigorous aphorisms. “Work is one of the best educators of practical character.” He was little respected for what was seen as blunt materialism when modernism replaced Victorianism. And his style often overtakes his substance. It takes very little thought to see the plain wrongheadedness of a sentence like, “Power belongs only to the workers; the idlers are always powerless.”
But if you can get through the poor patches (skipping and skimming is advised) he can be a powerful writer. At his best, he is highly memorable: “Though the body may shirk labour, the brain is not idle. If it does not grow corn, it will grow thistles.” This opening paragraph from his sketch of James Watts could be an epigraph for the strong Victorian belief in graft.
Watt was one of the most industrious of men; and the story of his life proves, what all experience confirms, that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigour and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labour, application, and experience.
This man who came to represent a whole strain of thought, a whole generation of respectable, aspirational middle-class ideology, was not very successful very early. Appropriately, for someone who used biography as a way of illustrating the moral values and forms of character he wanted to inspire in his readers, his own life is a story of perseverance, failure, and triumph. He was a late bloomer with a side hustle.
The most important thing to understand about Smiles is that he worked for his whole life. When he wasn’t in the office, he was pursuing his education or writing articles. This doesn’t mean he was succeeding. Often he was simply reading and learning for the sake of it. The successful books he published were the eventual result of decades of accreted labour. He studied because he wanted to. For a long time, the returns were zero.
He is an exemplary opsimath: a late bloomer and a life-long learner. He embodies his own philosophy. That is why we still read about him today. As he said, “A noble life put fairly on record acts as an inspiration to others.”
Smiles was born to a Scottish Calvinist family, in 1812. His father was an Anti-Burgher. According to the Patronage Act, lay patrons could present ministers to parishes. This was a form of patronage that some people objected to on the basis that a congregation ought to be able to choose its own minister, rather than have a minister picked for them, often by a rich landowner. People who objected to this patronage seceded from the Church of Scotland, so Smiles was also born into a radical family. These sorts of independent beliefs were the foundation of his later work.
Samuel was always grateful that his parents have him a good education. He said in his Autobiography “A good education is the equivalent of a good fortune.” However, he called himself “an average boy, distinguished for nothing but my love of play.” When he was fourteen, a career had to be decided on. He lacked encouragement from school masters, one of who told him: “Smiles! you will never be fit for anything but sweeping the streets of your native borough.”
He told his mother he wanted to be a painter. She was disappointed he didn’t want to be a minister. This is a timeless dichotomy. They compromised on medicine and young Sam was apprenticed to a surgeon. His interest was ignited after he fell down a hatching and tore his femeral artery, requiring stitches. During his apprenticeship to the surgeon, Smiles carried on “with my own education. There were plenty of libraries in the town and I used them freely.”
Late bloomers are often life-long learners, or infovores, and Smiles was certainly that. As we can see though, even from age fourteen, he was maintaining a side hustle. He saw education as investment in his future. He read about morals, religion, travel, agriculture, science, the mechanical arts. His father died while he was still an apprentice and he wanted to quit medicine but his mother said no. His description of his mother at this stage of his life shows the influence she had on his later work.
She had the most perfect faith in Providence, and believed that if she did her duty she would be supported to the end. She had wonderful pluck and abundant common sense. I could not fail to be influenced by so good a mother.
While it is obvious to us that genetics accounts for many of the shared traits Smiles felt with his mother, the independent, thrifty, hard working, Calvinistic culture he was raised in was clearly a significant factor in his work.
He became a qualified surgeon before he was twenty, passing his entirely oral exam in Edinburgh. He was given the chance by a college friend to give a series of lectures on Chemistry at the School of Arts in London. So his lifelong side-hustle began. “I wrote out twelve lectures — the longest spell of writing I had undertaken at that point.”
He needed a job, so he settled in Hoddington as a surgeon. It was boring work. And he was always at the beck and call of the public. However, the work came in fits and starts. To fill the spare time, Smiles studied French, music, drawing and painting. To give himself something to do he wrote a book about Physical Education. “Philosophy has been wrong,” he said, “in not descending more deeply into physical man.” He was always pragmatic.
Seven hundred and fifty copies of the book were printed. It broke even. Eventually he disposed the last hundred. “A more eminent doctor shortly came out with a better book on the same topic.” However, he knew the editor of the Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle and became a leader writer there on the side.
To relieve his boredom as a surgeon he looked into moving to a colony. There was a project underway to colonise South Australia and he went to see one of the commissioners, Rowland Hill, the man who would later modernise the postal system with pre-paid stamps. Hill told him it was not a good opportunity for professional men, and that they were looking for capitalists and labourers. Hill had read Smiles’ book and told him, “with an active mind like yours, there is plenty of room for you here.”
Smiles was slightly at a loss about what to do with himself. His book was a failure. His job was dull. He had no prospects. Then an opportunity came to him. So often it is his network that delivers him his next move. The Leeds Times had turned him down as editor some time previously, but now they wanted him. He hesitated about it and then accepted the offer. This was in 1838, the age of Chartism. As editor, Smiles was involved in radical politics. This marks a significant stage of Smiles’ development towards the man who would write Self Help. Says H. G. C. Matthew:
He was first secretary of the Leeds Household Suffrage Association for the redistribution and extension of the franchise. At public meetings in the city and its neighbourhood he advocated the anti-cornlaw movement and was markedly anti-aristocratic. He corresponded with Cobden and enthusiastically supported Joseph Hume’s abortive candidature for Leeds at the general election of 1841. But his caution about Chartism softened his radicalism, and he came to look to individual improvement rather than structural change as the chief means of social advance.
To be an editor required “readiness and quickness.” As well as editing, Smiles was turning out editorials. We might imagine him like Mr. Aubry in The Fountain Overflows, a passionate, busy and beleaguered, radical editor of a regional paper. An editor, Smiles said, must be “ready at noon, ready at night… I was willing to work and was always working.”
By the end of 1842, however, he had had enough. “It seemed to lead to nothing… the threshing of straw that had been a thousand times threshed.” Like so many other autodidacts, he was deeply interested in events and causes but also more fundamentally dissatisfied by the nature of news. Smiles called this, “the constant wonder whether I was doing good or harm by my efforts.” He wanted more time to get back to his self-education. And he was engaged.
So, he set up as a surgeon in Leeds, started writing guides to colonies on the side, and published a history of Ireland in instalments, which was then brought out as a book. Like Physical Education this was not a great success. With his second book a failure, a career in newspapers behind him, and children being born, Smiles was back in medicine. “I still continued my literary pursuits, but I had given up the idea of living by literature.”
It was 1843, Smiles was thirty-one and his literary ambitions seemed destined to be nothing more than a side hustle. His dream was over; he was back in deadly dull medicine. In fact, he would be successful, but not for anther sixteen years, when he was forty-seven, had been through an entirely new career in a new industry, and had seen his famous book rejected.
That is the story we’ll discover next time.
Don’t forget to book your ticket to the salon about The Tortoise and the Hare — one of the great post-war English novels — on February 1st TONIGHT. We’ll be discussing the novel and the real life story behind it. I’d love to see you there.
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