Chosen for Spring 2017 PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE COLLECTION for Non-Fiction

  • the first biography of the man who launched the self-help phenomenon
  • based on contemporary sources, many previously unexamined
  • a new perspective on Victorian life and thought
  • addresses timeless questions – of progress and freedom, success and failure, work and happiness, the individual and the state
  • a story rich in present-day relevance – topical and controversial

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 Using Smiles’s unpublished correspondence with family, friends and publishers, and drawing extensively on his writing, The Spirit of Self-Help tells the very human story of how Samuel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.


Author Details
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.

You can read more about John Hunter on his author page.

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“John Hunter patiently teases out the complexity of Smiles’s context and character: the chippy provincial, the literary lion, the prosperous, pompous man who still looks over his shoulder and fears failure. It is a densely rich and rewarding picture … As it happens, the most appealing passages of the biography involve Smiles not sounding like “Smiles the author of Self-Help” at all. Well-chosen snippets from what is no doubt a bulky correspondence offer a more nuanced picture than the published works, however carefully parsed, can afford.”
Trev Broughton, The TLS

“John Hunter has done an excellent job in restoring Samuel Smiles’s complexities”
Lucy Lethbridge in The Oldie

“This is a rounded-portrait of the man that has been carefully compiled by mining not only Smiles’ publications but also a wide range of contemporary published and archival material … It is the most comprehensive and fair-minded study yet of its subject and a book that everyone interested in early Victorian Leeds will want to read.”
Malcolm Chase, Yorkshire Archaelological Journal

“This new biography of Samuel Smiles (1813–1904) is a widely researched, well-written account of a notable British writer and critic, which has been attractively priced by the publishers … Hunter certainly manages to convey the sheer dedication and hard work of a writer who did much to legitimise the efforts of the modernising Victorians.”
Terry Gourvish, LSE, The Journal of Transport History

“People needed reassurances that there was a way up from poverty, and that diligence and virtue, if proffered, would be rewarded. Smiles’ books provided these reassurances by the carriage load… He was disgusted by anyone who would amass wealth without helping their neighbour, and extolled wealth only as a means of societal betterment, not as a personal accomplishment.”
Bob Janis-Dillon, Faith and Freedom

“There are few books in history which have reflected the spirit of their age more faithfully and successfully than Self-Help”.
Asa Briggs