What the Victorian history of self-help reveals about the myth of individualism.
Stories of hardworking characters who lift themselves from rags to riches abound in the Victorian era. From the popularity of such stories, it is clear that the Victorians valorized personal ambition in ways that previous generations had not. In Material Ambitions, Rebecca Richardson explores this phenomenon in light of the under-studied reception history of Samuel Smiles's 1859 publication, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. A compilation of vignettes about captains of industry, artists, and inventors who persevered through failure and worked tirelessly to achieve success in their respective fields, Self-Help links individual ambition to the growth of the nation.
Contextualizing Smiles's work in a tradition of Renaissance self-fashioning, eighteenth-century advice books, and inspirational biography, Richardson argues that the burgeoning self-help genre of the Victorian era offered a narrative structure that linked individual success with collective success in a one-to-one relationship. Advocating for a broader cultural account of the ambitious hero narrative, Richardson argues that reading these biographies and self-help texts alongside fictional accounts of driven people complicates the morality tale that writers like Smiles took pains to invoke. In chapters featuring the works of Harriet Martineau, Dinah Craik, Thackeray, Trollope, and Miles Franklin, Richardson demonstrates that Victorian fiction dramatized ambition by suggesting where it runs up against the limits of an individual's energy and ability, where it turns into competition, or where it risks upsetting a socio-ecological system of finite resources. The upward mobility plots of John Halifax, Gentleman or Vanity Fair suggest the dangers of zero-sum thinking, particularly evidenced by contemporary preoccupations with Malthusian and Darwinian discourses.
Intertwining the methodologies of disability studies and ecocriticism, Material Ambitions persuasively unmasks the longstanding myth that ambitious individualism can overcome disadvantageous systematic and structural conditions.