Self-Help was the first book by reformist Scottish journalist Samuel Smiles. In it, he proposes knowledge as one of the highest human enjoyments and education as the somewhat erratic road along which knowledge is acquired. Where education was not provided, a man had a duty to educate himself.
Self-Help is, among other things, a primer for the poor in self-education and upward mobility: even those at the bottom of the social ladder should be able to improve themselves through hard graft and perseverance. Published privately at Smiles’s own expense, Self-Help was an unexpected sensation, and Smiles became something of a guru in education and business. His thoughts about social mobility struck a chord with the business class, effectively introducing the notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. The deserving poor were the grafters, and what they deserved was a fair hearing. The undeserving poor were those who didn’t seem to want to work, and what they needed was a withdrawal of all state or charity support until they were forced to fend for themselves. More than a century later, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to give Self-Help as a gift to every schoolchild in Britain.
One of Smiles’s most striking claims at the time was that even the poor could be gentlemen: ‘Riches and rank have no necessary connexion with genuine gentlemanly qualities’, which he describes as being ‘diligent self-culture, self-discipline and self control – and above all … that honest and upright performance of individual duty which is the glory of manly character’. This accurately describes the education (and self-education) of Pip Pirrip, the hero of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860).