Of saints and fallen angels

Samuel Smiles and the Reconstruction of Victorian Values

April 18, 1997

This new and lively study of Samuel Smiles, not quite the long overdue biography, is far more pugnacious than any biography Smiles wrote himself. Adrian Jarvis, extraordinarily well read in almost everything Smiles wrote - he earlier produced a critical bibliography - cannot resist the temptation to take at least one swipe, sometimes many, at members of the small band of writers who for mixed reasons have turned back to Smiles since 1945, even pushing him into headlines. It is a small group, rather enthusiastic about Smiles, who in no sense can be described as a "communion of the saints", originally a half-joking term borrowed by Jarvis in one of his key chapters where he describes the subject of Smiles's biographies of engineers. This is an interesting chapter that traces parallels (influences?) between medieval lives of Christian saints and Smiles's lives of 19th-century secular saints of self-help. "There were certain conventions of structure as well as of content in the writing of saints' lives." Smiles followed them. He found little place for fallen angels, engineers who had worked against the forces of progress, the key word in his highly optimistic thinking. He had no place for Richard Trevithick either (at least in his English editions). He was too restless, too erratic. He did not persevere.

Smiles is best-known for his Lives of the Engineers (1862) and for his Self-Help (1859), books often referred to if not always read. Moreover, some readers of the first are not tempted to read the second, which belongs to what is a group of related books that includes (in chronological order) Character, Thrift, Duty and Life and Labour. To understand Smiles and his impact the various books should be read together. Scholars can turn too to his extremely wide range of articles that have only begun to be re-read in recent years, and soon there will happily be an accessible, complete edition of this work. Some of the articles belong to an intensive radical period in Smiles's life, much of it spent in industrial Leeds where he edited the radical Leeds Times from 1839 to 1842 and participated in, as well as observed, Chartist and Anti-Corn Law League popular politics. The foundations of his experience - and thought - were Scottish, however, not English, for he was born in Haddington, a small, lively town where Jane Carlyle was also born. He learned much there. She described it as "the dimmest, deadest spot in the Creator's universe".

Jarvis is less of a guide through the Haddington and Leeds phases in Smiles's life - this does not claim to be a true biography - than an interpreter of what he thought and wrote. He notes the neglected influence of William Cobbett, and he clearly dislikes Thomas Carlyle, in whose work he finds more contrasts with Smiles than common features. There is more to say on both subjects. He has two other important points to make, both well documented and stimulating. First, Smiles, brought up in and repelled by the Cameronian version of Calvinism, mentions God very infrequently in this prolific writings and Jesus scarcely at all. He makes no mention in his Autobiography of ever having gone to a church except for the odd wedding, funeral or special occasion, and when he recovered from a deeply disturbing illness in 1873 he gave no thanks to his Maker. Second, there is continuity not contrast between Smiles's writings while in Leeds and his later writings. He did not abandon his belief that it was necessary to attack corrupt and incompetent government and turn to a purely individualistic philosophy. There was no climbdown.

The first of these points seems convincing, the second not entirely so. Gladstone does not figure in this book. Perhaps he should have done, not because he mentioned his Maker all the time, but because the views he came to hold, particularly on Ireland, were apparently anathema to Smiles. The story has its complexities, like most of the stories Smiles did not tell. Gladstone was one of the mid-Victorians who openly praised Smiles, but before and after he fought for Irish home rule there was a conservatism in his make-up that Smiles would always have repudiated. The story is bound up with industrialisation and reactions to it, although it is worth noting that Smiles apparently never used the term "industrial revolution". Nor did he use the term "Enlightenment", although this adds to the importance of considering in the history of Scotland what happened to the Enlightenment in the 19th century.

Why in the 20th century Sir Keith Joseph and others like him turned back to Smiles is passed over even in the final chapter of the book on Victorian values and Margaret Thatcher's espousal of them - a chapter that seems curiously incomplete. It pays no attention to divergences and convergences between historical scholarship and the course of political history. Few serious historians of Victorian England were convinced by what politicians said about Victorian values in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither did the most knowledgeable of them from W. L. Burn onwards ever claim, as Jarvis seems to, that there was one set of Victorian types to go along with the values. The diversity of Victorian England was as obvious as the diversity of the different periods that divide its history just at the time when the label "Victorian" was being used most happily by politicians.

More could be said of how Smiles went out of fashion in the 19th century and came back into fashion in the 20th. Born seven years before Queen Victoria and outlasting her by three years, he extended his readership after his death when his books began to be published in cheap editions. One missing chapter in Jarvis's book is Smiles's reception abroad. He won more admiration from the queen of Italy than he did from the empress of India.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

Samuel Smiles and the Reconstruction of Victorian Values

Author - Adrian Jarvis
ISBN - 0 7509 1128 X
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 176

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